Franklin James Cook

Army Commanders’ Caregiving Plays Role in Suicide

In Prevention, Stigma on July 13, 2009 at 7:59 am


By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

A USA Today story by reporter Gregg Zoroya focuses on Army commanders “failing at the day-to-day task of monitoring troubled young soldiers in their barracks back home, which is helping push suicides to record numbers.”

The Army has built a fighting force second to none, says Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, [director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force], but “we have young leaders who have not been trained in the art of … just taking care of soldiers,” particularly after they return home from combat.

McGuire’s findings come after three months spent reviewing records of Army suicides, talking to soldiers and commanders, and visiting installations throughout the country, she said.

Here are the annual U.S. Army suicide numbers, which were reported in an article this January at, citing Army sources:
2004: 64
2005: 87
2006: 102
2007: 115
2008: 128 (with additional deaths still under investigation)
2008: 143 (according to today’s USA Today article)

Here is the latest report, from a U.S. Department of Defense news release just last week:

There have been 88 reported active-duty suicides in the Army during calendar year 2009. Of these, 54 have been confirmed, and 34 are pending determination of manner of death.

“Most suspected suicides are later confirmed as suicides, records show,” states today’s USA Today article.

Concerning the role of Army commanders, it states

Managing soldiers at home is different than in combat, McGuire says. Often, commanders can lead troops in battle but lack the skills to monitor troops closely at home.

The Army’s failure to police risky behaviors has made it harder to identify and seek help for the smaller numbers of soldiers who may be suicidal, she says. “(It’s) talking to soldiers. ‘Who’s the loner? Who’s isolated? What are you guys doing this weekend?’ ” McGuire says.

The Army’s review of records on suicides shows that

About two-thirds of suicides occurred in or around installations … Half are among combat veterans. The other half are soldiers who never deployed. About one-third of suicides occurred in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

David Rudd, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah, a leading authority on civilian and military suicides, points out that improved caregiving by military leaders is only part of the picture.

The longer the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, Rudd says, the more likely it is that soldiers who have seen combat will kill themselves. Also, young men, in the military and civilian life, are often reluctant to seek help, he says.

SPNAC has weighed in on the topic of suicide in the military several times (please type the word “military” into the search box below), and the post “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides,” hones in on the same concern Rudd emphasizes above, help-seeking, especially among young men in the military. The post asserts  that the most vital question at hand is this:

What is military (and civilian) leadership doing –- besides issuing orders, which is a necessary but not sufficient step — to decisively lessen the stigma against help-seeking that is killing so many of those whose sacrifices make our freedom possible?

Although I might rephrase the question to be less melodramatic if I were to compose it all over again today, I continue to adamantly believe that a bold, insightful, decisive, culture-changing look at stigma around help-seeking in the military could carry the battle against suicide.

[The abridged URL for this post is .]

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  1. Failed leadership also leads to suicidal tendencies. Out of my experiences of having served under poor leaders, I wrote, “Finding Myself (A Soldier’s Recovery From Betrayal, Embattlement, & Divorce). I got the help I needed and now use my experience to help others.

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