Few things consume a unit like a suicide.
My brigade had two in a span of months. One particular weekend, a young soldier full of heartache and alcohol hung himself in his barracks room. He and his girlfriend were having some significant relationship issues. Two months later, another young soldier hung himself with his belt. Hours before his death, he posted a picture on social media of him in his barracks room, alone…with a bottle of liquor.
Shockwaves roiled across the Brigade. Neither young man had previously displayed overt suicidal ideations.
Thankfully, they came from separate battalions, but in the immediate aftermath and for days and weeks following, the units were consumed. The chain-of-command was focused entirely, as it should’ve been, as it had to be, upon the care of the family and the unit. We sent teams to funerals, executed memorial ceremonies, and supported the families in any way we could.
More than that, we tore ourselves apart, seeking answers that never presented themselves. How could we have prevented this?
We were asking the wrong questions.
As suicide proliferates the active ranks, it likewise afflicts our nation’s veterans. A popular narrative claims that 22 veterans commit suicide every day which translates to roughly one every 65 minutes. 22 suicides a day—politicians regurgitate it, veterans groups made it a banner, and sympathetic citizens demand answers.
Even one suicide is too many. Yet I wondered, if this is accurate, then this is an astonishing number!
Peeling the onion reveals some problems.
The statistic, 22 a day, is based upon the Veterans Administration 2012 Suicide Data Report which surveyed statistics from 1999 to 2011 across 21 states and then extrapolated for the general population. The researchers themselves cede the lack of veracity of the conclusions. Further, the average age of the victim was 60 years old, effectively undermining the popular narrative concerning the afflicted Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. A more recent and comprehensive survey yields that roughly one veteran commits suicide each day, still too many but a far cry from 22.
As a young officer, I scarcely recall a suicide, not a single one. What has given rise to this phenomenon among active and veteran ranks? Do the current wars truly afflict our soldiers to the point of desperation whereby they view suicide as their only source of relief? Perhaps. Paradoxically, today most active duty suicide victims have not yet deployed. How do we reconcile this?
Value and Hope
We can trace the origins of suicide to a singular condition, trauma coupled with a distinct spiritual bankruptcy.
Numerous factors contribute—the nature of the trauma, demographics, upbringing, resiliency etc. Yet it is the absence of Christ that underscores it all. The proliferation of the unchurched in the ranks effectively sets the condition for numerous abominable practices, including suicide.
As the Gospel is suppressed, men lose value. Secular, agnostic, or even atheistic thought systems deny the inherent value of men as the Imago Dei. Regressing to evolutionary constructs, men become merely the latest and most adapted of all purposeless creatures. Men possess no intrinsic value. Life has no intrinsic worth other than to satisfy base lusts. Absent that satisfaction, life loses all value.
Only a proper understanding of the Image of God produces in a man’s heart a respect and value for all human life. All men’s lives hold sacred value, including his own and as such, it cannot be taken lightly.
Along with an understanding of the sacred value of life, with the Gospel comes hope. No matter the desperation, the believer lives with a hope not found in himself, rather a hope found in the risen Lord Jesus. I have the hope of things not yet seen, the glory of a future spent in eternity with the Lord our God.
A Tough Word
It is a hard thing to say and to those who have been affected by suicide, I apologize profusely for the following statement, but I feel it must be said.
Suicide is an intensely selfish act.
The victim becomes absorbed by the affliction of their existence, completely hopeless and ill-equipped to deal with the trauma, whatever it may be. The Christian life calls the believer to the opposite, to be consumed first by God and then with the life and welfare of others. It is hard to imagine a believer focusing on himself enough to commit suicide.
But it happens. I knew a chaplain once, a man of God, a man who loved the Lord and his family. He took his own life. He had been caught up in sin and the devil talked him into it. He left behind a beautiful family. The tragedy of suicide emanates from its irreversibility.
What do I know?
During a time of heavy rain, the darkest in my own life, I no longer desired to live. I truly desired that the Lord call me home and end the misery and pain of my present condition. Bleakness and despair ruled and I tried to flirt with it, briefly…very briefly. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even entertain the notion.
Thoughts of my God and my family immediately flooded my mind and my heart.
I serve a God who heals, a God who reconciles, a God who renews and revives and restores. It’s what He does. Knowing this, how could I not rest in His grace, His mercy, and His sovereignty? Further, how could I put those I love through such an ordeal?
To the Christian, certain thoughts become foreign, anathema to the regenerate mind. Taking one’s own life ought to bristle the believer’s conscience.
I acknowledge the generality of these themes, the moral and spiritual bankruptcy apart from Christ that generate the conditions whereby soldiers consider suicide as a reasonable course of action. I acknowledge the vast and infinite mitigating circumstances.
Yet, a direct correlation exists between the proliferation of the unchurched with the ensuing darkness and the increase in suicide and suicidal ideations both in our nation and the nation’s Army.
I sat and listened in increasing frustration, scarcely able to contain my anger. My soul broiled in a near rage.
It was the quarterly Community Health Promotion Council or CHPC (pronounced Chipik for the layman). Here we sat and listened to all of the functional area reps speak to their programs and how we are “getting after” the various afflictions of soldiers, from obesity to misconduct and everything in between.
The suicide prevention team lead informed us of the existence of the imminence of the Suicide Prevention Walk. Here we would walk to bring awareness to suicide. There would be booths with handouts and reps to discuss suicide. We would A.C.E….Ask, Care, and Escort our buddy if we thought he had an issue that needed to be addressed.
“We’re really gettin’ after it, Sir,” the rep confirmed.
“That was it!” I thought sarcastically to myself. If only SPC XXX, who walked out of my headquarters, direct to his vehicle, drove to a parking lot and shot himself in the chest with a .22 caliber rifle, killing himself…if only he had participated in the Suicide Awareness walk!
My anger stems from the obvious treatment of symptoms. Intrinsically, nothing wrong with a Suicide Awareness walk until it’s treated as an actual solution. My frustration stems from the moral cowardice of a willfully blinded Army, unwilling to understand the issue and seek real solutions. Our secular overlords forbid it.
And so we are left to treat symptoms as men die by the dozens. Tragic.
And pragmatically, the Army still calls upon commanders to account for and deal with this plague at the expense of preparations for war.
I had another soldier, on the brink of being separated from the Army, who informed us that he fully intended to kill himself the first chance he got. Nothing personal, nothing against us. He just did not want to live any longer and no amount of counseling could convince him otherwise. We put him on a cot at the CQ desk for nearly a week until we get him enrolled in the Warrior Transition Unit. His company commander slept on a cot right next to him, refusing to leave his side.
This is what a commander ought to do but how could he train his unit for warfare with such an obligation? Were this an isolated situation, it’d be no factor but across the Army, commanders and 1SG’s are overwhelmed dealing with administration and the sins of soldiers leaving scant time to actually prepare for battle.
I long for the soldiers of this great nation to know Christ, to know the hope found in Him, that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This hope is unshakeable, immoveable, unchanging, and never fading.
I pray that the Spirit would move within these darkened ranks and call these men out of the darkness and into His marvelous light…what a blessed hope that would be.
The Brave Rifles Series
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Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).
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