In 2010, the Secretary of Defense formed a task force “to examine issues relating to the prevention of suicide by members of the armed forces.” The task force, comprised of civilian and military experts, reached 49 conclusions and offered 76 specific recommendations, informed by a comprehensive review of the latest scientific advances, information gathered from visits to military installations, best practices in in clinical care and a broad contribution from several constituents.
The recommendations offered were specific, detailed and focused, exactly what was needed at the time to meet the challenge of suicide prevention in the armed forces. Here we are, 12 years later, and the Secretary of Defense has struck another committee to do the exact same thing. As noted in the secretary’s announcement, the committee will conduct a review to “address and prevent suicide in the military, pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022.”
The first thing this latest iteration needs to do is answer why the first task force had no impact, despite doing great work and offering detailed and specific recommendations for much-needed changes, in nearly every area of military life. . In the decade since the 2010 report, suicide rates in the U.S. Armed Forces have risen from 17.5 per 100,000 active duty soldiers to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020, a relative increase of 64%. Since the tabling of this first report, the data and the underlying scientific foundations have only become more convincing, clear and specific. Simply put, the most effective move for the Department of Defense would be to simply implement the recommendations that were proposed ten years ago.
So why have the 2010 recommendations not been implemented and why has the problem only gotten worse? As Peter Drucker, who was a critical voice on institutional and business culture, put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The central challenge targeting military suicide is cultural.
There are many reasons why the US military is the most efficient on the planet. A strong warrior culture and rigorous training, guided by a clear statement of values and expectations, are essential to military success in combat operations. At the heart of this culture is the Department of Defense value that everyone in uniform must live by “duty, integrity, ethics, honor, courage, and loyalty.”
As I previously mentioned to the Voice of San Diego, “As a warrior culture, it’s about selfless sacrifice and personal courage – the team being more important than the individual. But if you feel like you can’t keep up your end of the bargain or feel like you’re the weakest link in the chain, it amplifies feelings of failure and shame.
The landscape of military service is remarkably difficult. Two decades of the pace of war are expected to translate these challenges into emotional and psychological problems for a percentage of those in uniform, regardless of individual resilience, strength or courage. As the warrior culture has convincingly demonstrated over the past decade, it is not well equipped to help those experiencing emotional and psychological turmoil.
So what have we learned in the past decade since the initial report was tabled? First, that suicide in the military will continue to be a tragic and serious challenge unless a concerted effort is made to change the very elements of the culture that exacerbate the problem. Second, working group and committee reports do not change the culture. And finally, that the necessary cultural change will require a new perspective, informed by something other than the data we already know and understand.