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N.C. Opinions: Fayetteville

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Look closer, try harder to prevent suicides in military

From an editorial in the Fayetteville Observer Jan. 17:

Suicides in the American military reached a record 349 last year. That’s the only statistic you’ll be needing for the moment. There were increases across the armed services, which all but rules out chance and leaves us in need of answers.

These were our people, in some cases our community’s people. Did something happen to make military life or life in general more stressful or bleak for them?

Is there something that’s being consistently overlooked by those who work night and day to contain this problem?

You might not know it to watch a unit march in formation, but troops don’t come off an assembly line. Their circumstances, needs and tolerances are as varied as our own. Might it be possible, given all those differences and potential outcomes, that 349 is not such an unreasonable number? Not “acceptable.” Never that. But could this be a decent showing for those whose job is prevention against steep odds?

There are likely answers to all three questions.

As the end of the war in Afghanistan approaches, people accustomed to thinking of themselves as career soldiers or career Marines now face the possibility of being squeezed out of a contracting military. That’s something new. And for those who’ve found themselves in that altered state in which home is a scarier environment than the battlefield, it’s two new things. There surely are others.

It’s likely that many things are being overlooked – not due to negligence, but because troop suicide is a complex problem with as many facets as there are warriors. “Look closer, try harder” may not be much, but it’s what those nearest the problem know can make a difference: Observe, report, treat; and challenge, at every opportunity, the stigma that follows those who seek help.

You’ll never hear anyone in health care call 349 a “good” number of deaths. But prospective suicides aren’t queued up outside, waiting to be inoculated against self-destruction. Prevention is difficult, challenging work whose best results sometimes resemble failure.

A huge problem lingers: Many of those who ended their lives had never deployed. Perhaps this is the problem’s foundation, shared by civilian and military, and the effects of combat account for the fact that the military’s suicide rate is higher. But that’s unsupported theory that offers neither comrades nor families a night’s sleep after tragedy strikes.

The answers lie inside, often locked up tight. They can involve misperceptions, false expectations, drugs or none of those. Whatever the causes, 349 is a call to redouble all efforts. This loss is unbearable.

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