After nine years of war, the Army is grappling with growing rates of suicide, crime and drug abuse in the ranks.
Army Spec. Joseph Saunders was serving a tour in Iraq when his wife told him she wanted a divorce. He was floored. Pulling guard duty six hours on, six hours off, he had a lot of time to brood about his future. His friends worried about him. Alone and overwhelmed with grief one day, Saunders grabbed his rifle, put it on semiautomatic, placed the barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger.
Stunned, he went into what he calls "soldier mode" and started disassembling his rifle to find the problem-a missing firing pin. He soon learned that another soldier, fearing Saunders might try to kill himself, had removed the pin.
Saunders is one of thousands of military men and women who have attempted suicide in recent years. In 2009 alone, Army data show at least 1,713 active-duty soldiers, probably more, tried to end their lives; 162 succeeded (include reservists, and the figure rises to 239). Thousands more engage in what the Army terms "high-risk" behavior-drinking excessively, abusing prescription narcotics and illegal drugs-that threatens to spin out of control, rendering soldiers a danger to themselves and those around them.
"I didn't care about anything," recalls Saunders. "I didn't care about friends. I didn't care about my family. The only thing I thought was my world was over. Everything I worked for and the life I had outside the Army was gone."
Saunders is lucky. With the encouragement of his buddies and unit leaders, he sought help to overcome his anguish and regain his emotional equilibrium. Now reconciled to a future he didn't anticipate, he tells his story in a new training video the Army hopes will reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health problems and educate soldiers on how to recognize and help others in need. The video is just one of many approaches the Army is taking to raise awareness and improve its outreach to troubled soldiers after nearly a decade of war.
"The stress of nine years of persistent conflict has had an impact on the force," says Col. Chris Philbrick, formerly director of the Army's Suicide Prevention Task Force and now deputy director of a newly created follow-on organization, the Health Promotion and Risk Reduction Task Force. The first task force's work culminated in July with the release of a 15-month study on suicide in the Army. The new task force is charged with implementing its 240 recommendations.
The study shed light on much more than the Army's rising suicide rate, though. Pulling together data from 32 databases, researchers cataloged a host of growing problems, from drug addiction to domestic violence and other criminal behavior. In 2009 alone, 74,646 criminal offenses were committed by soldiers, including 16,997 drug-related cases. More than 1,300 soldiers on active duty have failed two or more drug tests, and more than 1,000 have committed two or more felonies-numbers that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when some leaders worried the Army's zero tolerance for mistakes was driving out too many good soldiers.
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli has played a leading role in the service's attempt to cope with what he calls the "invisible wounds" of war, such as brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the spring of 2009, he and members of the suicide task force visited six installations to evaluate suicide prevention efforts and develop a better understanding of the trends. While reporting differences make it difficult to compare military and civilian suicide rates, in 2001, the Army's suicide rate was about 10 per 100,000 people, compared to the demographically adjusted civilian rate of 19 per 100,000 people. But in 2008, for the first time since the Army began keeping suicide statistics, the service's rate reached 20 per 100,000, surpassing the civilian rate, which has remained relatively constant over the decade. The Army's rate is now about 24 per 100,000, and continues to climb.
"As an operator going out to solve a problem, I was totally focused on driving down suicide but came to understand after about the third installation we went to that this is an issue that's much larger than that. It's about the health of the entire force, and it also includes families," Chiarelli told reporters when the study was released July 29. The study revealed a clear link between suicide and other behavioral problems, such as illicit drug use, alcohol abuse, disciplinary infractions, misdemeanors and felony crimes. In addition, tens of thousands of troops have been prescribed powerful narcotics for pain, depression and anxiety, and abuse of these drugs has spiked. Data since 2005 show about 29 percent of suicides included either drug or alcohol use; 25 percent of soldiers who committed suicide were subjects of misdemeanor or felony investigations.
Army rates for both suicide and accidental deaths have tripled since 2001. While suicide is not a direct result of misconduct, addressing behavioral problems will be essential to driving down the suicide rate, Army leaders believe. Among the conclusions Chiarelli and the task force reached: commanders' focus on battlefield requirements has led to an erosion of leadership in garrison. "Leaders are consciously and admittedly taking risk by not enforcing good order and discipline," the report said.
While alcohol and drug abuse are rising, so is domestic abuse. There were 1,625 reports of spousal and child abuse in 2009 compared with 913 in 2004-a growth rate of 177 percent. One extreme case cited in the study noted a 30-year-old specialist charged in multiple criminal investigations. The soldier was accused of shaking his infant daughter to the point of brain injury, hurting his 3-month-old son, beating his wife and then killing her before burning her car. While awaiting civilian trial on homicide and arson charges, he committed housing allowance fraud, remarried, and was accused of abusing his new wife before finally committing suicide.
The report didn't describe the soldier's deployment history, but nearly 80 percent of Army suicides involve soldiers with no deployments or only one. In a service where a large percentage of troops contend with multiple deployments, that finding is startling to many. "The consensus of thought was that the rise of all these inappropriate behaviors was because of repeated deployments," Philbrick says, but the data show a more complicated relationship between the current operating tempo and the suicide rate.
Another disturbing trend is a steady rise in sexual offenses. The rate more than tripled between 2003 and 2009, when offenses rose from 265 to 1,015 (an additional 293 cases from 2009 are restricted and not included in the data). Researchers speculated the increase could be due in part to improved reporting and intervention, but noted it is "cause for concern." The study estimated 25,283 soldiers in previous years would have been booted out of the service for problem behavior. In a letter to Army leaders accompanying the report, Chiarelli said commanders must do a better job weeding out soldiers with behavioral problems at Army installations far from the battlefield, where the majority of suicides occur. "On occasion, we need to do the right thing for both the soldier and the Army through firm enforcement of discipline, retention and separation policies. I've heard the argument that by separating soldiers from the service who cannot adapt we are passing on a problem to the civilian sector," Chiarelli wrote. "This is simply not true. We must ensure that soldiers who cannot adapt to the rigors and stress of this profession find sanctuary elsewhere for their own well-being and for that of the force. . . . These high-risk individuals pose an unacceptable risk to themselves and the Army."
A Leadership Issue
In the late 1990s, when the military was shrinking in the post-Cold War era, Army leaders sought ways to make the service more efficient. To improve management of garrisons and to give commanders more time to focus on their core competencies-training to fight the nation's wars-the Army created the Installation Management Agency. The entity, which eventually became a separate command in 2006, is credited with greatly improving management of military bases by standardizing business practices and separating functions such as running child care centers, gymnasiums, schools and other facilities from battlefield training.
The new arrangement freed leaders of combat units from many of their former garrison responsibilities, but it also severed some of the formal and informal ties between them and their troops when they weren't deployed. Freeing combat commanders from many of the administrative responsibilities of base operations mitigated the paternalism inherent in military culture, in which a soldier's commander typically knows far more about his business than the average civilian employer knows about his employees. In the past, a soldier with a drug problem or in financial trouble or whose marriage was falling apart was likely to receive "focused attention," says Philbrick, but now he could easily go unnoticed by his unit leaders, who are focused on training requirements for the next deployment.
The report noted, "For the most part, units and soldiers have become transient tenants of garrisons. . . . They are no longer linked to garrisons by a chain of command or senior commander, but are regulated only by Army policies, programs and processes." At the same time unit leaders' attention shifted away from garrison management, the Army, to meet recruiting requirements, began issuing more waivers for recruits with drug and alcohol offenses and criminal misconduct-troops who in the past would not have been deemed eligible. In 2007, the Army began cutting back such waivers, and Chiarelli said he doesn't believe it's a significant factor in the suicide rate.
To fix what the report called the "lost art of leadership in garrison," the Army intends to improve training and education to instill in leaders the importance of order and discipline away from the battlefield. The report noted the value of "un- announced health and welfare checks in the barracks accompanied by military police working dog sweeps, unannounced 100 percent urinalysis tests," and inspections of privately owned vehicles. It takes commanders to task for not filing the proper paperwork after a soldier has been in trouble with law enforcement, which makes it difficult to track problems. Compliance rates for filing what's known as a DD Form 4833, which documents misconduct, have fallen from 99 percent to 65 percent, masking the true level of misconduct across the force, which is likely much higher, researchers found.
Commanders either aren't aware of the importance of nipping problem behavior early, "or they are ignoring risk factors to retain soldiers to maintain deployment strength," the report said.
Even after the Army's complete withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, which could be many years away, the problems won't subside, Philbrick says. In fact, he says, new problems are likely to emerge as more soldiers adjust to life at home: "We have a generation of soldiers today who know nothing but persistent conflict, who joined the Army after 2001. We're talking junior leaders and in some cases mid- grade leaders-sergeants first class, captains, majors, senior noncommissioned officers, the backbone of the Army, if you will-who have only lived that cycle of train, deploy, conduct operations, redeploy, reset, train and deploy."
No End in Sight
While the Army has been widely praised for its unvarnished study, not everyone believes an erosion of leadership is the root issue. "This report literally whistles past the graveyard," says retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who served as commandant of the Army War College in 2000 and authored a number of books on military strategy and leadership. Suggesting that officers and NCOs or garrison staffs are responsible for a rising suicide rate because of lax leadership, as Scales reads the Army's report, is "irresponsible," he says. "This report basically allows people off the hook for the inability to resource these two wars with the people necessary to do it. It's got nothing to do with politics. It's got to do with the lack of perception of what land warfare does to a ground force," he says. "Rarely have I ever read anything that so badly misses the mark. It's trying to find little nooks and crannies in the Army's management of these two wars and it absolutely misses the point of what's been going on."
Scales says too few troops have been carrying too heavy a burden for too long. "I don't care if you've got an army of Robert E. Lees, the anecdotal evidence clearly shows the ground forces are going through an unprecedented realm of emotional stress," he says. "I think it's irresponsible to blame leadership."
The list of anecdotes indicating a troubled force is growing. A former soldier recently entered a military hospital at Fort Stewart, Ga., and took three workers hostage at gunpoint.
He claimed to be seeking help for mental problems. Another soldier, AWOL from Joint Base Lewis-McCord in western Washington, was killed in a gunfight he provoked with law enforcement officials in Salt Lake City. In actions reminiscent of the Vietnam War, the Army in September released documents charging five soldiers serving in southern Afghanistan with murdering and then mutilating Afghan civilians. Seven others face charges involving a cover-up, drugs and assault on a soldier in the unit who reported the behavior. The allegations are an aberration in the behavior of U.S. troops, says Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. "The sad part about this is, even if these individuals are vindicated, even if [the charges are] not true, the damage will have been done."
When you overtax an institution as is happening now with the Army, cracks and fissures will result, Scales says. "They may be exacerbated or aggravated or accelerated by isolated instances of poor leadership, but then you have to ask yourself why all of a sudden the leadership became poor. The leadership begins to fracture when the leaders themselves are exhausted. I'm talking to generals today who look me in the eye and say, 'Bob, I'm suffering from PTSD,' " he says.
Armies break anecdotally before they break statistically, Scales says. He worries the Army is heading for another breaking point: "The classic case, of course, is 1971, when everybody in my generation woke up and found the Army broken." Scales commanded two units in Vietnam, where he earned a Silver Star for actions around the Battle of Hamburger Hill during the summer of 1969. By 1971, there was a dramatic increase in fragging, suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and criminal behavior of all kinds he says. "It took a generation to rebuild the Army. I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I lived through" the process of rebuilding a broken Army, he says.
There is no historical precedent for the current situation-nearly 10 years of war with an all-volunteer force, and no end in sight. When one considers the number of deployments and the time in combat many soldiers have experienced, the Army has held together far better and far longer than could be expected, Scales says.
"Have we reached the breaking point? I don't know. We're in new territory," he says.