The issue of suicide is “emotional, painful, and complicated,” as President Obama put it this week in announcing that he would extend official condolences to the families of military personnel who kill themselves.
Army Capt. DJ Skelton is among the dissenting voices on the issue. Skelton lost his left eye and the use of his left arm after an RPG attack in Fallujah, Iraq. He later served as an adviser to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, working for the Joint Chief’s Wounded Warrior and Family Care Office, before rejoining the infantry as a company commander and deploying to Afghanistan this spring.
In a phone interview from Germany, headquarters for his unit, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, Skelton explained his concerns about the new policy.
Among them is a fear that service members contemplating suicide may now be less concerned about the consequences.
“All of a sudden they’re recognizing that instead of committing suicide and being another burden on my family and on my unit … now, we’re saying, if you do commit suicide, we’re going to give national and global recognition to your family and we’re going to move them into the spotlight,” Skelton said.
Excerpts of the interview are below. Skelton emphasized that the views he expressed were his own and do not reflect those of others in the chain of command.
Checkpoint: What was your reaction when you first learned of the administration’s shift in policy on the issue of condolence letters?
Skelton: I think the perception is that these suicides are related to combat. If it’s the combat environment that is causing stress – whether it’s PTSD-related or combat-stress-related or emotional stress-related … that’s something that would merit revisiting and saying, Okay, should the nation embrace that.
But I will tell you that of the suicides last year, only 26 of them or 27 of them, in the Army anyway, actually occurred in a combat zone.
How many of them were were soldiers whose spouses found out they were cheating on them and who, as the time grew closer to go back home to live that reality, decided they couldn’t take that stress and took their lives? I would venture to say that there there were more noncombat-related reasons that pushed soldiers over the edge, and [the suicides] just happened to occur in a combat scenario.
I’m not taking lightly that there were soldiers who were in fierce firefights, who saw horrific scenes. I’m sure there were onesies and twosies that fall into that category. But I think that those are the outliers.
Checkpoint: But it’s certainly true that there are scenarios in which combat stress contributes indirectly to a suicide, right?
Skelton: Absolutely. But [in most cases] when you peel back the layers, really it has nothing to do with the combat environment and it has to deal with personal issues a soldier doesn’t want to deal with.
Checkpoint: Gen. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, might say that those are still lasting and yet invisible wounds of war.
Skelton: There’s a gray area. But you could pretty much link everything then …. At what point does the commander-in-chief take personal responsibility for a military family? Should it be the Army’s responsibility or not?
I think we need to recognize soldiers who, because of their duty and sacrifice to the nation, are struggling with what we asked of them.
Checkpoint: So how would you have written the policy – so that there were investigations into suicides and so that condolence letters would only go to families whose loves ones clearly took their lives because of combat stress?
Skelton: Absolutely. When a United States citizen in an all volunteer force chooses to serve his nation and places himself at risk in front of any enemy – whether it’s directly or indirectly – and because of that is having a hard time with that.
PTSD does not happen overnight. Neither does suicide. I don’t say, look, I lost my eye, I’m going to kill myself. It takes time. I would venture to say that most cases happen post-deployment, not while in theater.
What about all the service members who are struggling in theater? Now, we’re saying, if you kill yourself, your parents are going to get a letter from the president. That’s a huge contributor psychologically for those who are already contemplating suicide and are waiting to get help.
All of a sudden they’re recognizing that instead of committing suicide and being another burden on my family and on my unit … now, we’re saying, if you do commit suicide, we’re going to give national and global recognition to your family and we’re going to move them into the spotlight.
During the thought process of changing this policy in the White House, how much effort was put into understanding the psychological background of suicide and how this policy change will psychologically affect those who already struggling?
Checkpoint: Why do you think you feel so passionately about this issue?
Skelton: I once was told, when I was laying in a hospital, thanks for playing, thanks for contributing to the Army, but you now have nothing to contribute because you’re disabled. I struggled with my rehab and my recovery … I experienced emotions that I had never experienced before, but they were all manageable. All of the rough times were manageable as long as I had a community that I could trust and turn to to get through it. But it happened at the local level.
The higher my issues were raised up the chain command, the more I struggled. I didn’t want the spotlight. I just wanted the teams that I was serving with, my family, my local community to help me continue growing.
As soon as senators start showing up to your hospital bed, as soon as reporters start putting your story on the front page … I notice that soldiers tend to shy away more and not get help because they don’t want that.
Checkpoint: Do you there are negative implications of this decision for the institution?
Skelton: I think we’re putting so much effort on prevention, prevention, prevention, suicide, suicide, suicide that we’re not doing is getting to the heart of the matter.
Why is that kid committing suicide? Oh, because he’s $10,000 in debt and he has a gambling problem and it’s getting worse and he can’t deal with it.
Where is the money going into financial education [for service members]? Where is the money in the programs for family advocacy, marital counseling?
If all I do is give you a brief that says here are the signs and here is how you can help your buddy not kill himself, then we’re still missing to the root cause and we’re still not doing anything to resolve the heart of the issue.
We can pump millions and millions of dollars into these battle-mind training programs … we can make commanders and chain of command do weekly briefings and, at the end of the day, the suicides are going to continue to go up.
I think a commander in chief, at the level that he’s at, there are other issues on which he can contribute and help the military to manage the mission.