What the church can do about suicide in the U.S. military

The July 23 cover story in Time magazine reported on the crisis of suicides in the United States military, a crisis that should capture national attention, from Christians in particular.

That suicide has become a crisis was part of the testimony that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Veterans Affairs last month. Panetta calls it an epidemic. In 2011, there were 301 military suicides. In the first 155 days of this year there were 154. The U.S. military is losing more men and women to suicide than are lost on the battlefield. The estimate is that the military will experience one suicide per day this year. That is not counting the 18 suicides per day of our veterans.

I hope that these figures trouble you as much as they do me. The systems that help our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and members of the Coast Guard to transition back into civilian life are not adequate. The Veterans Administration is overwhelmed by a back log of petitions for help and medical care. The resources in the civilian community that could help the VA often experience many difficulties in receiving reimbursement for their services.

What’s more, the therapeutic community, which has been given the responsibility to help, is not the first choice of the men and women with the hidden wounds of war. Recent studies reveal that the clergy or a mature religious person is the first and preferred choice for military personnel looking for assistance. That may come as a surprise, especially in our secular society, but service members learned to trust the chaplain while in the military as a person to go to for confidentiality, for caring, non-judgmental warmth and positive regard as a valued person. Seeing the chaplain also avoids the stigma that is associated with mental-health problems.

The first thing that the Christian community should do is be welcoming to the returning service members who need assistance. Individual congregations might want to study the wounds experienced in these current conflicts. Congregations should educate themselves as helpers, which means knowing what can be done by members in the church and knowing when to find professional help for the people who need it. The church needs to understand how to communicate with these young men and women, who are distrustful of institutions. In helping these young men and women the church members need to stifle opinions on the morality or the immorality of these conflicts. These wounded need love and acceptance, not political conversations on the rightness or wrongness of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These wars are very morally ambiguous: the enemy hides among the non-warring population; they use themselves as weapons; they view Americans as evil and infidels; and they have a cause they will kill and die for. This moral ambiguity causes much moral injury to the people who are on the battlefields and struggle with their conscience about things done in combat or in carrying out the mission. Our military is trained to kill, but it is also trained to spare innocent life as much as possible. In these wars that is difficult.

To transition from the military to civilian life is much too quick a process. Training to conduct war takes a lot of time and money, but the training to once again be a civilian is done at little cost and with a “let’s get this over with” attitude. We know how to put the military into a person, but we don’t know how to get the military out of those trained for war.   

The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love. The Christian church could and should be the place where those returning from combat are loved and where they learn to love and forgive themselves. These returnees do not need our forgiveness, nor is that forgiveness ours to give. Healthy love of self is the baseline for love of neighbor.

My prayer is that the church may be Christ’s lover for our returning warriors and provide a “place of grace” for them.

What Do You Think?

  • How can Christians, individually and as a church, respond to the rising number of suicides of U.S. service members?

 

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