Suicides Are A Much Bigger Problem For The Military Than 'Green On Blue' Killings

soldier afghanistan coffin

Photo: Flickr/The National Guard

Unless you’ve been totally tuned out to the war in Afghanistan, the surge in “Green on Blue” or “insider” attacks over the last few weeks has probably drawn your attention.  These attacks are certainly on the rise and have become an unwelcome and troubling new trend in this decade long war. The Washington Post reports that there have been 28 of these attacks this year resulting in 39 coalition deaths, 23 of which were US fatalities.

As troubling as these attacks are, the US military is facing a larger and perhaps more menacing problem—one that in July was even more deadly than combat—and it’s one that does not appear to be going away.  

Furthermore, it’s a problem that bothers me even more than when Afghan soldiers, policemen and civilians turn their guns on American servicemen. 

In the month of July alone, 38 American soldiers, 8 Marines, 6 airmen and 4 sailors were killed by American forces.  

In 31 days we lost 56 service members to what I’ll call “Blue on Blue” attacks. Suicide.

By comparison, in the same month coalition forces experienced four Green on Blue or insider attacks that resulted in six coalition fatalities (TD). In 31 days we lost six coalition forces to Green on Blue attacks while more than nine times as many American servicemen took their own lives.  

The US military suffered no less than 56 suicides—almost two a day—in the month of July.   

In the same 31 days with nearly 90,000 troops deployed into a combat zone we lost 41 Americans to the conflict in Afghanistan. When you peel the numbers back a bit more they become even more divergent, showing that the US lost 37 Americans to events that were described as “hostile fire” and the other four were categorized as “non hostile.”

Perspective is what matters. The US lost 37 servicemen to hostile fire and 56 to suicide last month. For every two servicemen killed by the insurgents, insiders, traitors, ANSF members with an axe to grind or whatever you want to call Afghans who kill Americans, three of our own killed themselves. These are not encouraging numbers. It looks like surviving the war and going home can be just as deadly as squaring off with the Taliban.

We could end the Green on Blue attacks by leaving Afghanistan completely. For the record I am not advocating this position, merely stating that we could do it if we wanted to. I’m positive that there is no simple solution to the problem of military suicides. The military is an organisation designed to inflict violence on others and is, as a consequence, familiar with receiving it as well.  

A serviceman killed in combat is an explainable event, one that the military understands and processes. When the loss is self-inflicted it takes on attributes that are difficult for the military as an institution to deal with.

Suicides are devastating to units. They leave members reeling, questioning, doubting and pouring over the events for months. The memories last a lifetime and there are never any satisfactory explanations. They leave commanders and first sergeants trying to answer questions that only the dead know for sure. They bring scrutiny, inquiry, accusations and all of the difficulties associated with them pouring down on the unit.

Suicide has a traumatic impact on unit readiness and effectiveness. A unit coping with a suicide is not preparing for war; it’s at war with itself.

This is to say nothing of what suicides do to families. I have seen the guilt and grief and sorrow and it is indescribable. I fielded this phone call twice as a commander for troops that had left my unit only weeks before. That’s two more times than I care to remember. Yet there is no clear path ahead for stemming the tide of suicide that is washing over our military. The experts at home can’t even agree on what the problem is, let alone how to address it. Some suggest that the stigma associated with mental illness and the act of seeking help must be addressed.

Reducing the stigma associated with mental illness in the military is no small task and faces competing approaches. Some want to change the term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” to “Post-Traumatic Stress Injury” while others argue that that perhaps awarding Purple Hearts to those diagnosed would help alleviate the stigma and encourage servicemen to seek help.

I don’t have the answers. Like many, I just have more and more questions. There are things we can do to mitigate the threat and improve the conditions under which our servicemen are serving in Afghanistan.  I’m not sure that we can heal the wounds of this war here at home. 

Unlike Vietnam where soldiers were welcomed home by a country angered over the war they had fought, today’s warriors are coming home to a nation that has largely forgotten there is even a war going on. Then they’re going back again and again and again. I’m not sure which is worse; being publicly ridiculed for serving your country or simply being ignored.

I believe that suicide in the US military a bigger problem than Green on Blue attacks. In the month of July it was also more deadly than combat. I also believe suicide is a problem that will haunt the US military long after the last American trooper leaves Afghanistan.  

It remains to be seen how it will affect the growing gap between America and its warriors.

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