General's blog post reignites Army suicide debate

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard Muhannad Fala'ah/AP file photo

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard commands Fort Bliss, one the nation’s largest Army bases, so his blunt comments about suicide has raised eyebrows throughout the military.

“I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act,” he wrote on his official blog recently. “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

The posting was subsequently scrubbed from the Fort Bliss website, but the comments are adding new fuel to a contentious debate about whether the record numbers of troops who are taking their own lives are acting out of weakness and selfishness or because of legitimate cases of depression and other psychological traumas.

Pittard is expected to formally retract his comments later this week, but suicide-prevention experts believe that Pittard’s blog posting has already conveyed precisely the wrong message to emotionally-fragile troops.

“Soldiers who are thinking about suicide can’t do what the general says: They can’t suck it up, they can’t let it go, they can’t just move on,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, the founder of Give an Hour, an organization that matches troops with civilian mental-health providers. “They’re not acting out of selfishness; they’re acting because they believe they’ve become a burden to their loved ones and can only relieve that burden by taking their own lives.”

Van Dahlen said that Pittard was expressing the raw feelings of anger and betrayal which many feel when a friend or loved one commits suicide. But she stressed that those of Pittard’s prominence and rank “usually don’t say those kinds of things out loud.”

“His statement -- whatever motivated it -- can do little good for those who are already on the edge,” Van Dahlen added.

Lt. Col. Dennis Swanson, a spokesman for Fort Bliss, declined to comment. Army spokespeople at the Pentagon likewise declined to say anything about the substance of Pittard’s remarks.

With the Afghan war winding down, the military’s struggle against the suicide epidemic ravaging its forces has become one of its top priorities. The Army’s suicide rate has been climbing for years, and last year a record 164 active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve soldiers took their own lives, compared with 159 in 2010. In 2008, the Army’s suicide rate exceeded that of the civilian world for the first time.

The Army has responded by hiring thousands of new mental-health professionals, setting up 24-hour confidential hotlines for troops feeling depressed or suicidal, and mandating that all troops undergo training on suicide prevention and broader mental-health issues.

But the efforts have registered only modest signs of progress, in large part because of the stigma that prevents many troops from seeking help. A host of studies have found that the vast majority of troops displaying some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological maladies never ask for assistance because of fears that doing so will harm their chances for promotion or leave them looking weak in the eyes of their fellow troops.

Senior military commanders stress that suicide is one of the most complicated issues facing the Army, with its exact causes defying easy explanation. The stresses of repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan doubtlessly play a part, but many troops take their own lives without ever deploying overseas.

In January, the Army released a massive report, "Generating Health and Discipline in the Force," which said that alcohol abuse and the moribund national economy also likely contributed to the spike in suicides.

Pittard, for his part, is far more devoted to suicide prevention than his comments might suggest. Fort Bliss -- which houses roughly 40,000 troops, 40,000 military family members, and 13,000 other civilians in Texas and New Mexico -- has an unusually large staff of 160 psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental-health professionals.

At Pittard’s direction, the base has also constructed a “Wellness Fusion Campus” designed to provide education on resilience, suicide prevention, and spotting signs of depression or other mood disorders in one’s self or fellow troops.

“I was stunned when I heard about the controversy [over Pittard’s comments],” said Lt. Col. Leonard Gruppo, who runs the new center. “General Pittard is the most aggressive, most visionary, and most innovative installation commander in the Army when it comes to mental health and suicide prevention.”

The remarks may reflect Pittard’s own frustration and emotional exhaustion after a grim few months at Fort Bliss. A total of 14 soldiers from the post were killed in traffic accidents and training mishaps between October and December of last year, along with several suicides. Pittard himself had just come from a memorial service for a soldier who killed himself in front of his twin 6-year-old daughters.

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