Suicide can be a very touchy subject because most of us have an intimate relationship with it in one form or another. Whether it is because the thought of doing ourselves in has crossed our mind, we have talked a friend down from doing it, or have lost someone to it; the pain suicide causes has touched every one of us in one way or another. There is help available to those in need, but unfortunately that assistance often becomes difficult to find or even ask for due to the negative stigma that goes with a strong warrior seeking the cure for this deadly sadness. Unfortunately, there is no solid, succinct answer to the question “why?”
Many people believe that veteran suicides have much to do with deployments and combat action. This is not true.* Depression seems to be a noticeably prominent factor in many reported suicides. That factor would undoubtedly have been reported in much higher numbers if seeking help was not looked upon as an act of weakness, cowardice, and malingering in the military community. Marines are often afraid to ask to speak with a mental health specialist because they will be openly mocked for “going to see the Wizard.” Mental illnesses are treated as a sign of weakness and those whom decide to gather the strength to admit they are having problems are all too often accused of malingering (pretending to be sick in order to get out of work/contract.) Many young men and women also fear getting administratively separated due to their mental illness, believing that they would lose their honor by admitting they are no longer fit for duty. These fears, among other factors, can lead to severe depression, increasing their likelihood of attempting suicide.
Depression among active and reserve military and veterans is a problem that has always been ignored, and it is time to address and resolve the issue. Signs of depression can be found in a very high number of service members. Young people are away from their friends and family, often for the first time, and are immersed in a culture that glorifies alcohol abuse and violence. This in itself can be traumatic. When someone is depressed, they are often told to “man up” or “suck it up because there are men dying right now that haven’t seen their families in months and never will again.” Statements like that only make a young man feel worse because he will be depressed about being lonely in addition to feeling guilty for being selfish enough to think about his own problems. The much-overused “someone else is at war right now so you have no right to complain” type of thinking needs to end, as it is detrimental to good order and discipline by reinforcing the image of an unsympathetic and oppressive chain of command.
The culture in the Marine Corps is one of violence and intolerance. The “weak” are cast aside and treated as if they are garbage. Legitimate injuries from training, including PT, go undiagnosed until they are nearly catastrophic and keep Marines from performing basic tasks due to them being afraid of their NCO’s and SNCO’s publicly humiliating them and punishing their “weakness” with extra duties. When one of these injuries becomes acute enough for the Navy Corpsmen to treat, it has often caused permanent damage. When a Marine breaks his ankle in training, he will be put on Light Duty and will usually perform basic, non-physical activities until he has healed enough to resume his normal duties, excluding PT and other physical tests. Limited Duty follows until the ankle has healed, and they are restored to full duty. The problem with this is that just because the bones have healed does not mean he is ready to run a PFT that will undoubtedly have a negative effect on his career. Muscles and tendons need to recover and acclimate as well, and that recovery can take a long time. Light and Limited Duty do not permit the intense physical activity that the Marine is accustomed to, and exposing them to that intense training can cause their condition to quickly deteriorate and cause further injuries such as foot, knee, and hip problems. Being on Light or Limited Duty can be depressing because he can feel as if he is no longer a “good” Marine due to his physical limitations. A command that is harassing, intimidating, and humiliating him only exacerbates his already fragile mental state, and worsens his feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, sending him further down the spiral.
There is the belief that ending one’s career in the military will magically turn them into a “nasty, useless civilian puke.” It could be safely assumed that the vast majority of Marines have experienced this within six months of their EAS. This begins at boot camp, where a platoon full of teenagers are told that they are no longer “disgusting, worthless” civilians, they are Marine Recruits. Drill Instructors promise to purge every atom of filthy civilian scum from their bodies, injection-molding them into a higher form of being. After boot camp, they are no longer normal citizens, they are Marines. One of those gals goes to MOS school and becomes Admin. She knows that she is a POG (Person Other than Grunts) but remains proud and motivated. For the next few years, she works hard and becomes a Corporal. The Career Planner asks her if she wants to put in a reenlistment package and she declines, saying that she wants to go to school and start a business because she didn’t think the Corps was the place for her. In the time it takes the Career Jammer to get to the Company Office and report back, she has become a shit bag. Officers, SNCO’s, and NCO’s will talk down to her and attempt to bully her into reenlisting. If she continues to resist, they will tell her that she never belonged in “their Corps” in the first place and that she is disgracing the title by not staying in. Her EAS is in January and they tell her that she will be “out in January, homeless in February, and wanting back in my Corps in March.” Marines in leadership positions explain to her that if she doesn’t sign another four years of her life away, she will become a filthy, diseased civilian piece of garbage, worth less than the excrement she is made of. Once she is finally out, she begins to feel as if they were right as she is no longer part of something important, making her transition much more difficult and depressing.
Deployments are thought to have an impact on veteran suicides. With around half these cases being members that never deployed, it can be safely assumed that this is incorrect. Deployments do have effects on the mental health of service members, but not always in ways that are obvious. Marine veterans that have not deployed to a combat zone may feel as if they have not lived up to the expectations of the nation they swore to protect. While their brothers are in harm’s way, they are working a 9 to 5 job while getting regular chow and liberty. When units are deployed, the personnel that are ordered to stay behind in garrison units usually have a highly increased workload and have less assets with which to complete. While the work they are performing has intensified, they may feel that they are not pulling their weight simply by not being deployed with everyone else. It is not that they are missing out on “all of the fun”, it is that they are missing out on doing something they feel is important and feel that it is due to their deficiencies, regardless of what they are told or how proficient they are at the work they perform.
The pursuit of perfection may be a factor for some Marines. No matter the effort, it could have been better. The obsession with perfect hindsight vision has become a burden to many Marines. If someone can do 20 pull-ups, they will be heckled for not doing 22. Their run time might be 16:45, but it would have been outstanding if they had really put out and beat it by thirty seconds. Accomplishments that should be respected and admired are dismissed as hogwash by hateful SNCO’s and NCO’s, jealous of another Marine’s success. The ridiculous one-upmanship and constant, pointless bickering among Marines is caused, in part, by the thick cloud of aggressive competitiveness that the Corps promotes with complete recklessness. This pursuit puts Marines into the mindset that nothing they do will ever be good enough to properly honor the Marine Corps. When that train of thought is followed, their self-worth can be diminished to nearly nothing, causing them to feel insignificant and unwanted. This “nothing is ever good enough” feeling is present in a majority of people suffering from depression, regardless of military service.
Guilt may be a factor among some combat veterans. Men and women who have been ordered to kill other humans often find themselves having trouble afterwords. Some experience intense feelings of guilt for taking someone’s life, even though they were an enemy combatant trying to do the same. Others may feel guilty for surviving unscathed when someone else died or was severely injured. The phrase “it should have been me” can be heard in survivor support groups of every kind. The grief associated with taking a life or witnessing such an event can be devastating to anyone, regardless of the amount of training they have received.
Members of the military are encouraged to look out for one another, especially when it comes to the mental health of their own. They are taught how to recognize some of the symptoms of depression and PTSD, but are not trained how to properly deal with someone that is having these troubles. Underage Marines who find themselves depressed and abusing alcohol have a very tough time getting assistance because they are afraid that their command will charge them with a crime, and their friends will cover up the problem to keep him out of trouble as well. Instead of rewarding the strength it took him to admit he had a problem and ask for help, he might be punished with an NJP for underage drinking and then be treated as a shitbag for the rest of his enlistment. Punishing Marines for admitting they are sick does no one any good, and keeps others from trying to fix their condition. Marines suffering from PTSD sometimes have emotional outbursts that can be detrimental to their career if taken as insult or disrespect. This is often explained away as “he’s having a bad day. His girl just left him. Won’t happen again, Sergeant.” For Marines, losing one’s bearing in front of superiors has a negative emotional effect. Ignoring, walking away from, or talking back to someone with a higher rank can have a more profound effect than screaming “FUCK YOU CUNT” to your grandmother at a family reunion. Not only will they be berated and humiliated, there will be an element of ostracizing them as well, keeping others from helping him with his problems.
To help fix some of the problems with this epidemic, some measures need to be taken. Mental health screenings at Military Entrance Processing Stations need to be more intensive, and include personality tests. Background investigations, both medical and legal, need to be more thorough. Too many members of our military have preexisting psychological and emotional issues that need to be addressed before sending them away to be trained as killers in a hostile environment. Active and Reserve troops need to be trained how to recognize the symptoms of mental illnesses, specifically depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, and how to properly address the issue with the member to encourage them to speak with someone. All members, regardless of rank, title, or status, should be required to pass at least one mental health examination each year. Their personnel and medical records should be reviewed by the interviewing professional to provide a proper perspective on their abilities. Substance abuse should be treated as an illness and not as the lack of discipline it is currently. Encouraging each other to seek help when it is needed is important, and needs to be thoroughly reinforced by all.