Reflections on Suicide

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forty-one Marines took their lives in 2008 and another 146 attempted to do so, according to Marine administrative message 0134/09. That translates to 19 suicides for every 100,000 Marines. It is "our highest rate ... since 1995 and reflects an unacceptable loss of life," the message states. -- Citizen Soldier, Summer 2009

The rate of death by suicide in the armed forces is increasing at alarming rates. In the Army alone, those rates have gone up by 60% over 2004; and, as the above quote indicates, it's soaring in the Marine Corps as well. Those men and women put themselves in harm's way in order to protect this country. It isn't fair, and surely no one expects it of them, that they should die by their own hands.

But they are dying by their own hands. Some, due to the stress of going back for more tours of duty than they were told would be their fair share; others because they had too many emotional problems to begin with; still others, because of the deaths of comrades-in-arms; and then, there's always PTSD, the problems that can descend on those who have seen too much sudden death or experienced other traumas.

PTSD. Numbness, alternating with terrors in the night. Sudden flash-backs. Depression. Alcohol or other substance abuse.

It's worth looking at a few numbers. In the general population, about 33,000 people kill themselves each year. If the percentage of suicide in the armed forces were applied to the civilian population, it would mean close to 60,000 civilian suicides!

And what about those left behind, the so-called "survivors of suicide" -- the six to ten family members and friends who have to live with the inexplicable, traumatic death of someone they know? For 30 years, I have been studying their fate.

Survivors of those who die by suicide suffer burdens that are different from "ordinary" deaths. Well, perhaps not different, but aggravated. Self-blame, fury, recriminations, physical disorders, and -- PTSD.

Death is terrible, no matter how it comes. But death by suicide leaves those left behind, asking Why? How? What could I have done? What didn't I do? Who is to blame?

As the number of suicides in the military increase, so do the numbers of survivors. With today's figures, we can count on another 1400 survivors added to the sorrowing military families; another 231,000 are added to the many millions of survivors of civilian suicides.

All this has an intense meaning for me, because I am a survivor of six suicides in my family. The first suicide in my family -- my mother's -- was in 1941, when she was 33. The last -- my brother's -- was twelve years ago. With each suicide, I cried. With each, I wondered what was the purpose of going on.

After my brother's death, I thought I'd never recover. Ten years later, my wife died, suddenly, while I was standing right by her side, waiting for the EMS to arrive.

I started having flash-backs. My psychotherapist figured I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I figured she was right. Since my first book on this subject was published in 1984, others have followed, and I thought all the talk and writing about suicide and survivors would lead to increased efforts to help prevent suicide; to understand what it's like to be left behind; to intervene, so that survivors would not feel that they, too, have to kill themselves. But the numbers don't seem to change, and now they're going up, especially in the military.

Many suicides cannot be prevented, but many can be delayed or suspended in time. Take the 21 year old marine who went for two tours of duty, in the middle of his second one heard that his wife was seeing another man back home, and then lost his best friend in battle. His mood visibly changed, but no one in his company thought it meant he would kill himself. His attention to detail deteriorated, but no superior attributed that to emotional problems. He spent more time by himself, but even his friends didn't understand the import of his behavior. Then he shot himself. To some it happens over "there." For others, it's when the return home allows the horror and disbelief and sorrow to strike the hardest. Then, after the real danger is over, over "there," they kill themselves.

There is some good news. I read that in October the army will start stress training for all of its men and women; training meant to reduce PTSD and suicide. Also, there are bills in the Senate and the House that include funding for National Guard and Reserve servicemen, servicewomen, and their families to receive training in suicide prevention.

Finally, there's Major General Mark Graham. General Graham has been put in charge of reducing suicide in the Army. He has a special reason for doing so: one of his sons died in battle in Iraq, another by suicide. So, as he seeks to reduce -- to prevent -- suicide among soldiers, he must also be thinking about the survivors. For every military suicide he prevents, he can keep 6-10 civilians, plus many army buddies, from being added to the enormous number of survivors, numbers which, in the aggregate, are in the millions.

With a man like that in charge, I have great hopes that the figures of completed suicides can be reduced. To which I can only say, Thank you, General Graham. And Amen.