"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Friday, June 22, 2012

Resiliency Training and Providing Tools

Recently the Secretary of Defense spoke, saying that while high level leaders can develop programs and fund research like neuroscience studies, it falls on the junior leaders to prevent suicides.  I have always been taught that the role of higher leadership is to provide the tools necessary to execute the mission, and for lower leadership to execute the mission with the tools provided.  I'm assuming the Sec Def believes that preventing suicides is part of the military mission, and that junior leaders have the tools necessary to do so.  So far, all I have seen are reminders of support agencies, and CBT-ish resiliency training that may check a box, but doesn't actually serve a useful purpose.

I recently watched the movie Shrink with Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams.  It can be viewed streaming over Netflix.  I found it interesting that the movie centered on suicide and the struggle to understand why somebody would take their life, and leave hurt and questions behind for their loved ones.  There was no convenient answer in that movie, only continued questions.

In resiliency training we hear a bit about how selfish the decision to take one's life is, and the hurt it leaves behind for loved ones.  The movie certainly did a good job of showing that hurt.  But I have to wonder how many in the military who take their lives, actually leave behind loved ones?  How many are married with children?  I don't know the answer, but I am curious.  A spouse can provide a great support system.  How many who have killed themselves had one?  How many were single?

I'd love to know the answer to that question.

If the numbers bear out that most who commit suicide are single (and I would guess that to be the case), then I think that may be a valuable clue.  It would certainly deflate the "leaving loved ones behind" argument as some kind of deterrent (obviously not an effective one for those who take their lives).  Sure, everybody has parents, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect children to feel entitled to live for their parents' sake.  More importantly, it might lead us to ask why these warriors were single and didn't have a loved one to stand behind them.  Did they live in less than metropolitan places with limited dating options?  Did they have limited time to develop the human relationships that so many require to get through tough times?  Was the fact they worked shift work, with little to no time off, somehow an impediment to getting to know another person enough to forge a lifelong bond?

I don't know the answers to these questions, though I have suspicions.  My gut and limited experience tells me that working conditions in the military are not conducive to developing intimate relationships with others, and that the inability to develop a meaningful loving-support relationship exacerbates stress for people, and some people feel the only way to escape the pain is to take their own lives.  I'll go further and guess that those people don't feel they are leaving behind loved ones of value  Why not?

My gut also tells me that the high level decision makers who put the responsibility of preventing suicide on junior leaders, are more than likely married with children from a time and circumstance that was far more conducive to a happy life than what many in the military live today.

If I am correct, then I believe the responsibility lies not with junior leaders, but with leadership charged with providing resources to those junior leaders.

I could be wrong.  It's a complicated issue.


  1. The folks who commit suicide are likely to be married and have children. The ones who aren't very likely have parents and siblings.