Kyle, you left so fast
Did you feel you had no future
Or that you had no past
Is it simply in our culture
Or some castle in the sand
Did you know we loved you
As you took things in your hands
We miss you so much now
And we shall never know
What troubled your sweet brow
Or why you had to go
As a personal disclosure, our family lost a nineteen-year-old last December. He was a young Marine who had completed training and appeared to be ready to find new beginnings with a family that loved him and a girlfriend who seemed devoted to him. This tragedy is unique, of course, and the pain is specific to the family and friends who knew Kyle. Perhaps Kyle saw himself as an island, beyond the reach of any of us, but we will never know because he left too soon for us to find the root cause or even the final and proximate cause. Could it have been accidental? Perhaps, but then why would somebody trained in weapons have such an accident? Death is so final that anybody trained in weapons might seem to avoid the circumstances that would even present the possibility of an accident. I say that knowing that I have witnessed soldiers doing some things that challenge common sense. I have personally scolded a sergeant for running with a stick of TNT (with a firing cap inserted) in a pocket directly over his heart. I have cleared a C-130 of airborne soldiers that had a large tin can full of firing caps loosely packed in straw right next to a relief can where soldiers were likely to smoke while urinating into the relief can. Dangerous as these acts were, they reflected perhaps a momentary lapse of common sense and failure to see danger. Kyle’s circumstances seem different than sheer carelessness. It does not fit. Still, the number of suicides must make us look for changes in our approach.
I have been reading and studying and personally researching what I can about military suicides since we went to war in Iraq. Having served in the active Army and reserves for more than 30 years in one capacity or another, I now watch the suicide trend go upward. It was bad after the Vietnam as suicides thrived on alienation. That was “my war.” Now suicides are at an all-time high. At first, I felt that it must be the unusual circumstances of that Iraq war. Perhaps pre-emptive war itself, repeated deployments, unrealistic goals or the stress of combat was too much for a significant portion of our military. I proposed a study supported by the Lieutenant Governor of California, except that there was simply no money to fund the study to find root causes. Now, we are out of Iraq and the suicides increase, not decrease. Now we learn that even Specialist Ivan Lopez who never actually saw combat in Iraq, despite spending a few months driving a truck there. Worse, he took several lives at Fort Hood, TX before taking his own. He was taking resilience training even as he claimed PTSD.
As I read the Sunday LA Times today, I came upon a new twist in military logic. Soldiers are being trained to be “psychologically resilient.” I cannot posit that as a cause of the high suicide rate, but it led me to question again our whole concept of transition training into and out of the military. I have discussed a few of these issues in prior essays, but now find that perhaps the entire training regimen should be looked at. We now have 22 military connected suicides PER DAY (over 8,000 per year). That number is not sustainable even if we never see another shooting war. That toll, especially in terms of the grief and torment to families and friends of the victims is a health hazard to all of us. It may begin from untreated depression, but it is also the engine of depression that seems communicable to us all and beyond control of the resources we apply. Just what is psychological resilience? It seems harmless enough as a training course title, but what the hell does that mean to soldiers enduring the training? If it means to “suck it up,” as it has in the past, then we have not helped solve the problem.
Allow me to offer some ideas in my basic analysis looking for what is the same and what is different in our recent wars. In WW II and Korea, we had a draft and trained a wide swath of Americans in terms of social/economic status, education and careers/trades/work history. This continued during Vietnam although most Americans were truly unable to sense a personal threat from the war as they did during WW II and they sometimes blamed the soldiers themselves for the war. We had conscription, although the connected were easily able to get deferments as the quote attributed to Dick Cheney attests: “I had better things to do.” That explained his five deferments, to him, at least, and perhaps to some 18 million others who got deferments. Five deferments were rare, however, and Cheney took six years to get through college when was 26 and no longer of draft age when he finished. Nixon, in 1973, ended the draft and we began an era of an all volunteer military. This was heralded as a new way to avoid the national anguish as well as a new way to avoid the draft without seeming unpatriotic. That one aspect of military life changed dramatically, but other things remained relatively constant. As we called the enemy “Japs” and “Krauts” to reduce their humanity during WW II, we developed parallel language in Korea, Vietnam and later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where “rag heads” seemed to be the insult of choice. Yes, this makes it easier to kill people if we put demeaning labels on them. The transition into the military was different with volunteers. We had more homogenous social/economic and educational levels with volunteers and the force gathered up millions of minorities and disadvantaged men and women. The military became an opportunity for those who were patriotic and focused on military life and missions as well as a regular paycheck. The transition into the military varied according to the period needed to acquire the skills needed by our government although volunteers could often request training and assignments. None were guaranteed. The transition out was far different. In WW II, Korea, and Vietnam until 1973, most of the conscripted were eager to get out and return to civilian life and responsibilities. There were sometimes a few that found military life satisfying and they attempted to stay in service. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw the first repeated back-to-back tours. We heard: “Suck it up. You volunteered.” That was important in the mental /emotional distress that followed. We developed a new name for an old condition. It is now PTSD and can be applied universally. I contend, however, that this practice of repeated exposure (some call it abuse) although critical, may not be the deciding factor. A volunteer force ended the dilemma of an unfairly applied draft, yet that old draft minimized the problems of transition from the military to civilian life. People used to WANT to get out and back to civilian life. Now when men and women have chosen to be in the military, they are pushed out due to results of strain, other injury or career disappointments. They lack easily translatable military to civilian skills and are often assigned in narrow military occupational skills that have no civilian equivalent, such as machine gunner or sniper. They are fish out of water. They do not have any significant transition training to become civilians and the training to have a steel trap thinking process with well defined authority providing structure is absent once outside military gates. There does not appear to be a clear future for many of the military leaving the cocoon of volunteer service. Don’t be too quick to blame Dick Nixon, my least favorite president. There is no way that he could have known that the law of unintended consequences would apply to the end of an unpopular draft. He sometimes ignored civil laws and this “law” is more subtle than the law of gravity which reminds us immediately of its breach.
I suggest that when a man or woman leaves the service with its structure and focus and becomes one of many competing for good civilian jobs and education/training, that life itself become difficult. For any one person, this may become overwhelming as it does with 22 vets per day who commit suicide. Recently the VA admitted to $200 million being paid out for wrongful deaths related to military suicides. Add to that our “normal” training in the military to minimize the value of another’s life, especially a perceived foe and you have an explosive condition that results in a quick shift in focus from killing a foe to ending the uncertainty of his/her personal life. We in the military are given the motivation and training to kill. It is not a non-violent occupation. Perhaps we need that to win wars. Not everyone is suited to that occupation and its many roles, but given the training and the means, why are we surprised when former military kill themselves? “Give me no way out? I will find a way and I am trained to do it.” If you get in my way, perhaps you are my foe and not my friend. The reports of spousal abuse are legion. The reports of self-destructive behavior short of suicide are legendary. Another factor imbedded in our volunteer approach is that expectations for those joining the military simply may not be attainable. The TV and movie imagery is not supported by reality. I recall leading physical training for an airborne rifle company of 250 men. As I took them out daily for training followed by a run, these young men probably cherished the thought of this five foot eight inch lieutenant challenging them every day. That was until one day I went through the normal PT course, but instead of concluding the run by steering into the company area, I led them past the company area and kept running. Even though I had specifically warned them that day that “anybody falling out during training would have extra PT with me at 1600 (4 PM),” virtually all of them were unable to complete the run, except for a few who tried to physically support those soldiers literally falling down. Even I held up two soldiers by their belts. Their expectation of completing the goal was smashed as we ran past the company area. Even senior NCOs were crushed and my own platoon sergeant went to the company commander to complain. Expectations, whether we like it or not, are psychologically powerful and can drain us physically if not met. Have the individual expectations of the volunteer military been met or have they been thwarted? If they have been thwarted, then they may have contributed to disappointment and worse. We all have expectations and when they are not met, our reactions can be devastating. This is especially true for specific military jobs. We need only so many of each and there is a tangible failure if person A gets job B. Remember that in a volunteer force, people joined to stay and did not join to leave as in the days of the draft.
Tell me that training our military in substantial skills for transition to civilian life and responsibilities is expensive and I will respond like the teacher who says: “If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.” We have tried ignorance. We have sometimes even blamed the soldier for malingering when he/she tries to get help as recently happened at Fort Lewis, Washington because some military administrator felt that it was too expensive to treat the large number of military claiming disability. We purposely looked the other way from injury. Yes, disabilities are expensive, but they are a direct result of training for and fighting wars. We must learn to budget for them much as we budget for damaged trucks and tanks and aircraft or tents. They are the cost of doing the dirty business of war. Suck it up all you politicians who are so eager to go to war and so penurious as to not budget for all the costs of war. If we adopt a system of realistic and meaningful training that helps re-set the expectations of volunteers to some civilian activities and goals, then we will have taken a step to reduce the dissonance and depression of being unable to meet the original military expectations of volunteers. A large part of the cognitive dissonance is caused by the real purpose of “No Child Left Behind.” While many of you believe that the law was intended solely as a way to distribute educational monies on a national level, its primary purpose is less obvious. That purpose, hidden in the shade of promotional obfuscation, is to guarantee that military recruiters are given ample access to schools. They have full access to all student records and, of course, the students themselves, at their most impressionable and vulnerable time. NCLB was revised effective 1 July 2002 to ensure that the federal government had access to everything on every student including phone numbers. Parents must specifically request exemption and most parents have no clue that the law actually means that no child will be left behind military recruiters. Without that knowledge, your child will see great uniforms, great movies and promotional literature just as Kyle did. Once that happens, the influence of parents is eroded to the point of confrontation with a teenager who will act his/her age to the consternation and eventual frustration and likely surrender of the parents. Parents: Talk to your sons and daughters before the recruiters do so they understand how to interpret the gee-whiz promotion of the all-volunteer force and help them understand the risks and benefits.
Let us help the 22 Kyles per day by creating a meaningful transition for them and, by the way, not going to war unless we truly need to. This requires the means and the will. Given the will, we will create the priorities and the means. Make your voice heard for the next Kyle before he/she becomes a statistic to the VA and an immeasurable loss to a family.
10 April 2014