In January, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of Fort Bliss in Texas, wrote some extremely harsh words about soldiers who commit suicide.
In what has now become a famous blog post, Pittard stated, “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. ... 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.”
His comments were reportedly written shortly after he attended a memorial service for a soldier who committed suicide in front of his 6-year-old twin girls. At the end of last week — after reports of and reactions to his comments began to surface in the media — Pittard posted a new blog in which he wrote, “With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement.”
As many of us working to support those who serve and their families know, the military’s struggle against what some have called a suicide epidemic has become one of its top priorities, which is why Pittard’s comments were so surprising. Indeed, there is good reason for concern as the suicide rate within the military has been climbing for years.
Last year, the Army reported that a record 164 active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers took their own lives, compared with 159 in 2010. Concern about the rising numbers began in 2008, when the Army’s suicide rate exceeded that of civilians for the first time.
And yet some of the feelings reflected by Pittard’s statement are those that are felt — though rarely expressed — by family members who experience the suicide of a loved one. After the horror, the pain and the devastation of the loss begins to subside, those who are left behind struggle to make sense of a seemingly senseless act. Survivors desperately wish they had recognized the intensity of despair experienced by their loved one.
They are often shocked that their son, daughter, husband, wife chose to take his or her life rather than continue to fight the demons that haunted him or her. They are often wracked with guilt and feel that they must have somehow failed, failed to recognize the signs or to try hard enough. And yes, they sometimes feel anger — even rage — at what can appear to be a “selfish” act.
“If only” is a phrase that often torments the minds of survivors long after the memorial service ends and long after the supporters have gone home. Sadly, the anger and shame that accompanies that phrase places survivors at a much higher risk for depression and even suicide.
We can be angry and offended by Pittard’s comments or we can view him as a survivor, for he has apparently survived the loss of many to suicide at Fort Bliss. We can accept his retraction and use this opportunity to have more open and honest discussions about this tragic act of desperation.
As several have written in response to the commander’s comments, suicide is an exceptionally complex and difficult phenomenon to understand and address whether we are trying to prevent it among military personnel or civilians.
Ultimately, if someone wants to end his or her life, we will not be able to stop him or her. The goal must be to ensure that we continue to improve our ability to identify those at risk and that we continue to develop and improve methods to treat those who suffer such despair. And we must continue to assist and support survivors so that their understandable pain and anger doesn’t cause further damage or destruction to themselves or others.
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen is founder and president of Give an Hour, a national nonprofit organization providing free mental health services to members of the military and veterans. She was recently recognized by Time magazine as one of this year’s 100 most influential people.