As troop commanders coming up through the Army ranks, we learned that taking care of our soldiers was a primary responsibility of military leadership. We knew that the troops were our credentials, and we tried to create an environment where they could be the best they could possibly be. This meant getting to know them and their families — whether they lived on or off post. This was part of our responsibility for those under our command. It was — and still is — Leadership 101.
When we lost a servicemember, for whatever reason, it was a heart-wrenching experience. But it was worse in the case of those who took their own lives. Suicides have been a challenge for the U.S. military for a long time — and the problem is getting more severe. Suicides began rising in the middle of the 2000s, leveled off briefly in 2010 and 2011 and resumed climbing again this year, reaching a record high.
In fact, suicides have become an epidemic. This year, more soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines died by their own hand than died in battle. Suicide was the No. 1 cause of death for U.S. troops. More than two-thirds of suicides involved firearms, and nearly three-quarters of those cases involved personal weapons, not military weapons.
Reversing this epidemic is among the military’s highest priorities. In that regard, one of the things we learned during our careers is that stress, guns and alcohol are a dangerous mixture. In the wrong proportions, they tend to blow out the lamp of the mind and cause irrational acts. Commanders and noncommissioned officers need the tools to prevent this mixture from turning lethal.
One of the most effective measures of suicide prevention is to ask those perceived to be under duress: “Do you have a gun in your home?” If the answer is yes, we might then suggest that the individual put locks on the weapon or store it in a safe place during periods of high stress — things that any responsible gun owner should do.
Unfortunately, that potentially lifesaving action is no longer available to the military. A little-noticed provision in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has had the unintended consequence of tying the hands of commanders and noncommissioned officers by preventing them from being able to talk to servicemembers about their private weapons, even in cases where a leader believes that a servicemember may be suicidal.
We both strongly believe that this prohibition interferes with every military leader’s obligation to ensure the health, welfare, morale and well-being of the troops under his or her command and care.
There is a movement now to remove the restriction. The House included an amendment in the 2013 NDAA that would allow these important conversations to occur. But the Senate just passed its version of the NDAA without addressing the issue. We, along with other retired flag and general officers, senior noncommissioned officers and suicide-prevention advocates, are urging the House and Senate conferees to include language in the final bill that removes this impediment to suicide prevention.
We agree with those members of Congress who have identified military suicides as a national tragedy that Congress, all branches of the Defense Department and numerous outside organizations must work together to solve.
We thank them and hope that others will show the same support. We don’t doubt the good will of any member of Congress, but in the speed and complexity of congressional action, we fear that this provision in the current NDAA could be forgotten — and the safety of our troops should never be forgotten.
Americans go to great effort and expense to save the lives of our troops in combat situations — furnishing body armor, armored vehicles, night-vision goggles and the best technology and training. It makes no sense to spend billions to save lives in one area but leave lives vulnerable in others — especially when those threats could be reduced with little effort.
Whether the threat comes from enemy fire, friendly fire or by their own hands, we have a moral duty to protect those who serve. When these men and women put themselves under our command and care, they trust us with their lives. We must not let them down.
Dennis J. Reimer and Peter W. Chiarelli are both retired Army generals. Reimer was Army chief of staff from 1995 to 1999, and Chiarelli was Army vice chief of staff from 2008 to 2012. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.