Although the U.S. military's presence in Afghanistan is winding down, with combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2014, suicides in the U.S. military have risen sharply this year. In the first 155 days of 2012, 154 service members have killed themselves, a rise of 18% over last year. These numbers mean 50% more troops committed suicide than were killed in Afghanistan. In a memo to Pentagon officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described military suicides as “one of the most complex and urgent problems” facing the Defense Department.

The official figures only cover active service members, not those who've returned home or non-mobilized National Guard or Reserve members.

Studies into the phenomenon point to several factors: post-traumatic stress disorder, exposure to combat conditions, multiple tours of duty, financial problems and worries about readjusting to civilian life. Elspeth Ritchie, a retired Army colonel and chief psychiatric adviser to the Army surgeon general, points to two major factors: “The high [operations tempo] of deployed units, which means that leaders do not really know their soldiers; and the easy availability of firearms, the ‘gun in the nightstand,’ which, unfortunately, leads to too many impulsive suicides, and occasionally homicides.”

All four services have brought in systems to help depressed or suicidal members. Troops are encouraged to seek help, but some see doing so as an admittance of weakness and a possible block to advancement. In May 2005, Marine Major John Ruocco hanged himself between tours of duty. His widow said he was unable to bring himself to go for help. “He thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn’t hack it,” she said.

Q: What can be done to lower the instances of military suicides?

The reasons for suicide may be complex and vary widely from case to case, but without doubt one of the greatest preventatives is the presence of hope in a struggling person’s life.

Our troops need the hope that comes from knowing they’re not the only ones who feel the way they do. Open, uncritical discussion about the problem is one way to connect soldiers with the help they need. The Bible tells us to “encourage one another, and build up one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and to “bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Our soldiers need to be made confident that seeking help won’t result in hindering their military career. Improved health, whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual, makes a stronger soldier.

The greatest source of hope is a bit controversial, but nevertheless remains the greatest: “Christ Jesus ... is our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1). Romans 10:11 assures us that “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” David the warrior-king sang: “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him.” (Psalm 62:5). Even Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” found hope in the Lord: “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23). Jesus Christ is the ultimate answer for hopeless people.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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How about stopping all wars now? Such an approach may sound naive, but 10 or 12 years of war haven't seemed to improve anything, if you think about it. And let's go back to our last conflict, Vietnam. Are we better off now that we fought the Viet Cong or not? I'd say it's a draw.

Those of you who served or who are serving now, I have the utmost respect for your sacrifice; my argument isn't with you. However, I am furious with the policy makers who assume that war is inevitable and who always seem to be planning for the next war. How about if we think about not having the next war?

I'm glad we got Osama bin Laden, and we need to have good intelligence that pertains to protecting our shores. But this sending of our young men and women thousands of miles away — and deploying them more than once — for an elusive objective.... Why are we there, again?

Maybe the suicides are telling us something, too, like it's better to be dead than to keep on killing and killing and killing and killing. Stop the wars, President Obama. Enough blood has been spilled, both theirs and ours.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church

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