Missing chaplains in military suicides story

Because I go to church near the Pentagon, my congregation is blessed to have many chaplains as part of our membership while they serve there. One of my chaplain friends who is now based out West was visiting us recently while he was back in town. We got to chatting about some of the interesting issues he deals with. We mostly talked about religious freedom issues. I mean, "religious freedom" issues. He had an interesting issue arise with a woman who was part of a religious tradition that didn't do certain activities with the opposite sex even though being in the military itself with the opposite sex was no problem.

And then we talked a lot about suicide. He said it was a huge part of being a chaplain.

Suicides don't just mean that chaplains must arrange and perform funeral services but also that they must deal with units that are devastated. He said that one of the things they work on is doing respectful funerals without glorifying the suicide victim since studies (and his personal experience) indicate that it can lead to copycat suicides or other problems. He mentioned another recent situation of overseeing a funeral for an atheist who had left explicit instructions about what could and could not be said at his service. Since what he wanted said and not said wasn't exactly something that many -- or any, in this case -- chaplains could get on board with, the chaplains at the base came up with a creative workaround that honored the dead soldier's wishes without compromising anyone else's religious views.

It was just a fascinating and very sad conversation that made me respect the work of the military's chaplain corps. And I was reminded of this conversation when a reader sent in this fantastic Associated Press article headlined "Suicides among US troops top Afghanistan war dead."

The reader's note says it well:

File this under: "A great story EXCEPT... it's religion-free."

One would think that the US Armed forces would marshal their chaplain corps to counsel the despairing and depressed, but there is no mention of any such thing. More psychiatrists, yes; more chaplains... SILENCE.

A great story on a highly important topic, but with a HUGE hole in the middle of it.

And you can see what the reader means for yourself. Here's a snippet of an important and well-reported story which would have benefited from including the perspectives and insights of chaplains, too.

The head of a newly established Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Pentagon, says experts don't know exactly what causes suicide. Then we read:

Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and a practicing psychiatrist, said the suicides reflect the level of tension as the U.S. eases out of Afghanistan though violence continues.

"It's a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war," he said in an interview. "We've seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison."

But Xenakis said he worries that many senior military officers do not grasp the nature of the suicide problem.

A glaring example of that became public when a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to "act like an adult."

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division, last month retracted -- but did not apologize for -- a statement in his Army blog in January. He had written, "I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act." He also wrote, ""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." He did also counsel soldiers to seek help.

His remarks drew a public rebuke from the Army, which has the highest number of suicides and called his assertions "clearly wrong." Last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he disagrees with Pittard "in the strongest possible terms."

The military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, placed more mental health specialists on the battlefield, added training in stress management, invested more in research on mental health risk and taken other measures.

The Marines established a counseling service dubbed "DStress line," a toll-free number that troubled Marines can call anonymously. They also can use a Marine website to chat online anonymously with a counselor.

Digging down to this level is great and shows that the story could have handled the inclusions of religion. Perhaps some follow-ups will do a good job with that.

Military funeral photo via Shutterstock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy