In October, Dr. Margaret Harrell and Nancy Berglass of the Center for a New American Security released a policy brief on military suicide. The numbers are stark: between 2005 and 2010, servicemembers took their lives “at the rate of approximately one every 36 hours.”
Jillian and I agree that too much information can overwhelm. At the same time, as two people who practice yoga, we’re acutely aware of the realities of the population we wish to serve. And while most in the yoga community probably don’t like to think about the suicide rate –we do. A community-based approach to helping our service members and their families cannot be relegated to being the exclusive domain of the military or Veterans Affairs. Everyone in a community where a soldier lives can contribute greatly to the weave of his or her net.
This weekend, a soldier at Ft. Bliss barricaded himself for his apartment. After what was reported by neighbors as an eleven hour standoff, he killed himself. His name was David Mertz. He was twenty-six years old, and had a wife and young family. He served honorably, and we hope you will read about him by clicking on his photo. God speed to SPC Mertz, and blessings to his family. Their tragedy is deeply felt. John Lesch, a state representative from Mertz’ homestate of Minnesota has penned an eloquent good bye to him: Once more, unto the breach, dear friend.
The issue of suicide has been one for many years. In 2010, the US Army released a 15-month report on suicide along with 250 recommendations to reduce suicide risk. Suicide has risen steadily for the past five years. Those highest at risk are newer soldiers General Peter Chiarelli noted “The most difficult year to be in the Army is the first year,” Chiarelli said. “Sixty percent of suicides occur in first-term soldiers.”
The Army’s top priority is defending the nation, but it needs to give individual soldier issues more attention, Chiarelli said, citing stressors outside of deployments, such as family and financial issues and drug abuse. Army officials now are focusing more efforts on building resilience in soldiers, Chiarelli said, and therefore, reducing suicide calls for a change in the Army’s culture.
“If young leaders are doing anything down there today, they ought to be focusing their sponsorship programs on young soldiers coming into the unit — that soldier that just comes out of basic [training] who’s trying to make friends, who is new to the unit,” the general said. “These are the kinds of things and lessons that you draw from this data that we believe are going to be absolutely essential for us getting a handle on this.”
Over the past year, the Army has launched the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program and the Master Resilience Trainer Course. Both initiatives are geared to teaching soldiers at the lowest levels to handle stress. The programs also give soldiers an outlet to seek help.
Also, Chiarelli noted, the Army has added 10 hours of resilience training in its basic training curriculum for new recruits.
Evidence-based training, the general said, shows that a high rate of resilience can be taught.
“Through this data,” he added, “we have focused our effort with our master resilience trainers at basic training. That’s the kind of thing that comes out of data like this, and it allows us to focus our efforts to make sure that we’re expending resources where we need to expend resources, and getting a very valuable resource to us, the master resilience trainer, to the place that he needs to be.
We have so much work to do. We don’t advocate doing it alone, but being part of the weave that makes a net stronger. It will take courage and resolve, and the decision to network with a group of others who are dedicated to the same cause –even though their background might be very different. Our gratitude to everyone who reads this today.