Looking beyond a Government Solution to Military Suicide1/14/2013
by Barbara Van Dahlen
Americans gave a collective sigh of relief upon learning that our country would not tumble over the fiscal cliff to begin the new year. Many of us have only a vague understanding of the complex financial issues that were debated and discussed as the nation celebrated the holidays and prepared for New Year’s celebrations. But we all heard—repeatedly—that had we gone over the cliff, we would have all suffered an increase in taxes and a cut in services. We were also told that if we went over the cliff, our military would have been subjected to severe cuts—cuts that might jeopardize national security and compromise the care of those who serve and their families.
What most Americans don’t fully understand is that our military is facing substantial budgetary cuts regardless of recent or future decisions or deals associated with the fiscal cliff. The new Secretary of Defense will inherit the momentous task of managing the draw down in Afghanistan along with the restructuring of our military. The secretary’s goal for the Department of Defense must be to create a leaner military that relies on technology and special operations forces to manage the numerous global threats and hot spots that keep many military leaders awake at night. And whether we like it or not, programs that are designed to support our military families will be affected by these cuts.
I recently had the opportunity to assist a major news outlet in its coverage of an important story: the increase in military suicides over the last several years. I had extensive conversations with two excellent journalists who are exploring different aspects of this complex issue. The first journalist is focusing on one thread of the story that has received little attention: the impact of over a decade of war on the rise in suicides among military family members. We discussed the stress and strain of multiple deployments on families, the difficulty finding and accessing care for those who serve and their families, the stigma still associated with acknowledging mental health struggles and the Department of Defense’s efforts to support military families.
The second journalist I spoke with was interested in trying to grasp the many different issues associated with the decision that too many of our service members have made: to end their lives rather than continue to struggle with their pain or despair. We too discussed the strain of multiple deployments, the impact of repeated exposure to the brutality of combat, the effect of living in a culture that has easy access to and comfort with the use of firearms, the contribution of prescription drugs to the already compromised judgment of, primarily, men who are chronically plagued by sleep disturbance, depression, and/or severe anxiety. We also discussed one subset of those who are committing suicide: those who have never deployed and never seen combat. We discussed the belief—supported by a growing body of research—that some who join the military lack the psychological resources or the social support necessary to successfully navigate the demands of military life.
As these insightful and knowledgeable journalists came to the close of their conversations with me, they each asked, “so what does DoD need to do that it isn’t already doing? How do we stop the increase in suicide within our military community?” These are very reasonable and understandable questions. We all want someone to stop the tragic loss of life among those who serve and their families. But even if the Department of Defense had infinite resources to address the issue of suicide, it could not solve this crisis alone. We need a national effort that educates all individuals who have the opportunity to identify those in need and support those who are struggling.
On January 2, 2013, Dr. Peter Linnerooth took his own life. He was 42 years old. Dr. Linnerooth spent nearly five years wearing an Army uniform. He was deployed to Iraq during 12 of the bloodiest months of that war, at the height of the surge. As an Army psychologist he worked to keep troops from killing themselves, and by all accounts he did his job very well. After returning home to struggle with his own post-traumatic stress, he continued to work with veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs in California and Nevada. He was a dedicated mental health professional who gave an enormous amount to our country, and we failed him.
While the loss of any life to suicide is tragic, the loss of Dr. Linnerooth is especially distressing because this was a man who knew the issues personally—a man who wrote professionally about the risks associated with the work that he clearly loved. Indeed, he was the lead author of a 2011 piece on “professional burnout” that addressed the danger to those, like him, who had gone off to witness the worst of war, day after day, patient after patient. He was interviewed by TIME magazine and the New York Times—and still in his final hours, no one was able to prevent him from becoming a casualty of the invisible injuries he often spoke and wrote about.
As is generally the case in suicides, there was no single event or factor that lead Dr. Linnerooth to end his life. His story is, sadly, similar to many many others who have served in our military since our nation has been at war. He came home after experiencing the brutality and horror of combat, he suffered from post-traumatic stress, he struggled to find and maintain a job that had meaning for him, his relationships began falling apart, and at some point he gave up.
And like so many other stories that have been told since these wars began, it appears that there may have been opportunities to save this man’s life. Dr. Linnerooth was a decorated combat veteran, he had a world of experience and had proven his skill in treating those who suffer from the understandable consequences of war. And yet he was terminated from his position at the VA because he hadn’t completed the process to obtain his license.
Understandably, the VA must have standards of care. Understandably, administrators within government agencies must follow guidelines and policies created to maintain these standards of care. But it seems that certain structures could be erected that would allow for exceptions or create extensions, especially given the need for more mental health professionals to treat those coming home.
Of course, the specifics of Dr. Linnerooth’s case will eventually come to light, but unless he was a danger to others or incompetent, perhaps they don’t really matter. For if the individuals involved in the decision surrounding this man’s employment had truly understood what was at stake, if they had known the importance of having meaningful work to those who come home struggling with these issues, then perhaps someone would have found a way to keep this veteran engaged and employed so that he could continue the process of healing. That doesn’t seem too much to ask given all that he had done for so many, for so long.
As we face budget cuts and downsizing within the military, we cannot look to the federal government to solve these complex issues alone. We will certainly continue to lose lives if we don’t effectively harness the resources available in communities across the country to educate all who can offer those who serve the opportunities they deserve and the support they need.
Dr. Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour™, is also a contributing columnist for Veterans Advantage: www.veteransadvantage.com. We encourage you to visit that site for additional news of interest, updates on charitable activities (which include support of Give an Hour™), and its nationwide benefits program for those who served and their families.
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