A Blog on Military Trauma and Suicide
Dr. Antoon A. Leenaars
This blog has been long urged on me. Mike Blais, President/Founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, and Bruce Moncur, President, Afghanistan Veteran's Association are two. There are others, military and civilian. I am the First Past President of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP). I am not a veteran, nor military personnel; people, such as veterans and police, call me a suicide expert, a suicidologist. They call me, "Doc". We have joined forces to make suicide among the Canadian Forces and Veterans visible. Once it is visible enough ("We are here"), it is visible. Often we read in the media about one more of our heroes dying by suicide. There have been clusters, causing a contagion. From our experiences, we are deeply concerned.
War is violence. War stress is unforgiving. Suicide is an all too frequent cost of service. This is true today. It is the lead cause of death in the Canadian military. What are the facts? Why? What can we do? Like in the U.S., we knew too little was being done in Canada. One simply has to listen to the soldiers and veterans in both countries.
As one response, I was asked to do a blog; my first question was, "What is a blog?" I am new to computers; I only began using them in 1971. Fortunately, my daughter, Kristen, has a graduate degree in Marketing PR; she has a weekly blog. I write books; most recently (Dec., 2013), I authored Suicide among the Armed Forces: Understanding the cost of service. A blog is a message. (Marshall McLuhan, author of The Media is the Massage, would agree.) Books are too, but they are also different. A blog, Kristen told me, is short, clear and concise. I thank her for her guidance, but will probably disobey all the rules of blogging. Thus, here is my first attempt, beginning with the end of my blog.
To our soldiers and veterans, I state: You need your courage and hope. You are an intelligent, adept soldier. You have to accept the unacceptable—what you cannot change—and you have to have the courage to change what you can. Some of you know this as The Serenity Prayer or the teachings of the Buddha, Saint Francis, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Dalai Lama, X. You need to get beyond the traumatization, unbearable pain, suicide risk, vulnerability, and so on. You are a hero, and I believe in your ability to stop, pause, and reflect. You can be resilient. Healing is possible. The true warrior seeks help! Here I follow the wisdom of Jacob Bronowski (1973) in the famed book, The Ascent of Man (This dates me.) What makes a person a person—and a soldier a soldier—is the ability to wait, to think, to talk, to pause, to reflect, and so on, before the act. In the battlefield, the soldier does no different.
You, in the military, have worked hard as a soldier or pilot or Marine or sailor; now you can trust that strength to work hard on choosing life. You can have confidence that there is help available and that there are people—a Minister of Defence, a Major, a sergeant, a psychologist, a fellow armed services member/buddy and so on—in the military that care! You have green (military) courage. Courage is to change what you can. The anodynic experience, to somewhat quote Aldous Huxley, is not what happened to you; it is what you do with what happened to you. I offer some scripts: Don't buy into the stigma. (Any sane person would feel traumatized.) There is effective help. Choose life. Don't give up the fight!
The soldier needs to trust her or his courage; despite all that has happened to you in harm's way and since, you have adjusted to stress, beyond what you imagined the first day of boot camp. I strongly believe that your life, and mine, is like that of the mythical Greek Sisyphus. Sisyphus lived in the heavens with the gods and on Earth with mortals. He saw the painful and depressing life of humans and knew what would help. The gods had an anodyne. (An anodyne is a substance or agent or person or system that fights pain.) Despite Zeus's orders, Sisyphus stole the gods' secrets and helped humankind. Zeus raged and banished him from the heavens. Sisyphus was doomed to the human condition; each day he had to push a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it tumble back down, causing the task to be repeated the next day. Your and my life is no different. Each day we must ceaselessly roll our distinctive rock to the top of our mountain, and the next day we must persevere and do the same. (There is a children's story with the same meaning; the little train that has to get up the hill ["I think I can"].) This is not to be condemned; this is life. We have to accept the unacceptable. Military life makes it even more so; the mountain is even higher. It is Mount Everest! The military system/culture and war make it so. Yet, if you believe the Greek wisdom keeper, Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of humans. As with our ancient Greek hero, I do not want to inoculate you against trauma, the common military approach; I will attempt in this blog, from a suicidologist's perspective, to do something different. (I do not pretend to be in the military; I offer a suicide expert's perspective.) I will attempt to make suicide among the armed forces more visible. What I have learned what is most helpful is to persevere. ("I think You can".) I hope that this mantra will help you get in touch with your Sisyphean strength (what are called protective factors) that build natural surviving of the aftershock; what the Prussian War theorist, General Carl Gottfried Von Clausewitz, in the 1800's, called "friction", of everyday military service, deep within the mind, heart, body, and soul. This blog, I hope, will help you to heal your pain, to end your suicide risk. You can survive!
Don't give up the fight!
Reference: Leenaars, A. (2013). Suicide Among the Armed Forces: Understanding the Cost of Service. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Co., Inc.
Dr. Antoon A. Leenaars is a clinical and forensic psychologist. He is the first Past President of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention; a Past President of the American Association of Suicidology, the only non-American to date; and an elected Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association. He has published extensively on suicide, military suicide, police suicide and homicide-suicide, homicide, terrorism, etc., including 13 books, most recently Suicide among the Armed Forces: Understanding the cost of service. He was the first Editor-in-Chief of the international journal, Archives of Suicide Research and has consulted to the WHO, military groups, police services, and governments around the world.
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