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Study examines unseen grief of service members, vets who lost friends in combat or by suicide

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By SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING | The Orange County Register | Published: November 11, 2019

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Until years after the Vietnam War, soldiers returning from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder went undiagnosed.

Now a new study by the University of California, Irvine indicates that active military personnel and veterans might grapple with something else likewise misinterpreted: grief.

“There has been little focus on the grief of losing a buddy to combat or suicide,” said the study’s lead author, Pauline Lubens, now a policy analyst at Swords to Plowshares, which serves veterans in San Francisco.

“We always see the photos of mothers, wives and children grieving over a casket,” Lubens added. “In the shadows are the comrades also grieving. It is not a topic of conversation.”

Past research on the psychological effects of war tend to look at PTSD, depression and substance abuse, she said.

Grief in veterans can be conflated with PTSD, Lubens said. But the latter encompasses stresses not necessarily associated with grief – such as fear and near-death experiences.

The study examined whether the mode of a friend’s death has an association with depth of grief.

After interviewing soldiers and veterans both in person and by survey, researchers concluded that losing a colleague to suicide can be the most traumatic.

“Death is intrinsic to war,” Lubens said. “But suicide is unexpected – it doesn’t make sense.”

And familiarity with suicide is sadly common.

In a 2017 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America survey, 58% of participants said they knew a veteran who had died by suicide, and 65% knew a veteran who had attempted to take his or her own life.

Denton Knapp, director of the Tierney Center for Veterans Services in Tustin, said that more members of the military who did not see combat die by suicide than those who did.

A study by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., indicated that soldiers are most vulnerable for attempting suicide within two months of joining the service, while still in basic training.

The Tierney Center is participating in Operation Deep Dive, a four-year study led by America’s Warrior Partnership on the potential causes of suicides among veterans.

“It creates a social and cultural autopsy of veterans’ lives before entering the military, during service, and afterward,” said Knapp, who served in the United States Army for 30 years. “Did they have friends, family, a house, a job? We are looking for anything that might help us find identifiers.”

Prevention has been Knapp’s passion since 2006, when his 20-year-old son died by suicide while away at college.

Although Knapp does not connect his son’s death to a childhood spent relocating from place to place, he does acknowledge the difficulties of a peripatetic lifestyle.

“Family members of active military are also serving their country,” Knapp said. “Kids are expected to move every three years, start a new school, make new friends, and just adjust.”

The UCI study found that grief for fellow soldiers who died in combat can be intensified by guilt.

“Although you fight for freedom and a way of life, in the end, you fight for the person to your left or right,” Knapp said. “The guilt felt when you get to come home and the other guy doesn’t weighs heavily on a lot of veterans.”

Knapp did two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. As a colonel in Iraq, he said, “I lost a soldier almost every other week. But I didn’t cry.”

Soldiers learn to tamp down grief, at least externally, Knapp said: “In the military, you join a culture of toughness, of facing adversity, of overcoming obstacles. You compartmentalize emotions. The question is, where do you put that grief so it doesn’t become a problem down the road?”

Lubens said she hopes her research leads to “a public conversation and to interventions.”

“Veterans told us that people rudely ask them, ‘Did you kill anybody?’” Lubens said. “What they should ask is, ‘Did you lose anybody?’”


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