TAMPA, Fla. — Commandos are taking their own lives at a record pace, said Adm. William McRaven, commander U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
Repeating a concern he first raised to Congress in February, McRaven told a symposium in Tampa on Thursday that helping commandos and their families is “my No. 1 priority.”
“The last two years have been the highest rate of suicides we have had in the special operations community, and this year I am afraid we are on the path to break that,” McRaven said during his keynote speech to the GEOINT 2013* Symposium at the Tampa Convention Center.
“And although suicides alone are not an indication of the health of the force, they are a component I have to look at. There is a lot of angst. There is a lot of pressure out there. My soldiers have been fighting for 12 to 13 years in hard combat. Hard combat. And anybody who has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It’s that simple.”
Just how much is yet to be known, McRaven said.
“I don’t think we know what effects are going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think that will begin to manifest itself for another year or so, maybe two, three years.
McRaven did not say how many commandos have committed suicide nor did he provide that information during his February testimony to Congress. His press office did not have those figures then or Thursday.
There are about 60,000 commandos, with a presence in more than 80 countries.
“I know a couple of my friends in the community who have committed suicide in the past year,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Compton, 30, assigned to Marine Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune. “It is a systematic plague going on.”
Under McRaven’s Preservation of the Force and Family program, SOCOM “is responding with a holistic approach that takes into account every factor that might contribute to this challenge” including “the psychological, social, spiritual, and physical factors that are known to contribute to suicide,” said spokesman Ken McGraw.
Among other initiatives, the command created a suicide prevention working group in 2012, said McGraw and followed that up with a Suicide Prevention Task Force in January.
The task force “is comprised of subject matter experts, clergy, behavioral health professionals, service members who have experienced suicidal ideations, spouses of service members who have committed suicide and other personnel that are closely linked to this challenge,” said McGraw. They are also looking at Pentagon, VA and civilian programs like peer-to-peer counseling and mentoring solutions, said McGraw.
For the close-knit commando community used to operating in small groups, “peer education and counseling is key in suicide prevention, coupled with access to confidential, efficient, short-term interventions by trusted clinical entities,” said Carrie Elk, the founder of the Elk Institute for Psychological Health & Performance in Tampa and a therapist who works frequently with operators in crisis around the country.
McRaven said the treatment of troops and veterans has changed for the positive since 1977 when he joined the Navy. But it’s still not enough.
“We didn’t do a very good job as a nation of taking care of veterans coming back from Vietnam,” he said. “We are not going to make that mistake this time around. We are going to put everything we can to making sure we are taking care of these kids and their families. So that becomes my No. 1 priority.”
More than a thousand intelligence and military professionals and defense contractors stood up and gave McRaven the symposium’s loudest applause.