A Twenty Something on Soldiers and Suicides

Last week I wrote about soldier suicides, and other articles and blogs in America simultaneously were focusing on what we as a church can do to support and keep our young people in the church. So it seems a natural follow-up to focus on what the Church can do to provide ministry, belonging, and fellowship to those who serve in the military.

In view of a theme of "talking directly with young people ourselves," I am happy to present some excellent ideas from Ms. Janice Feng, who is a student in my Psychological Testing class at Marist College. Each week students in class write a paper and may choose sources from our textbook, class discussion, academic or popular sources, or blogs or articles in America (in which they have received complimentary online subscriptions for the semester). In class we recently studied the role of psychology as a profession in World War I and World War II, especially the development of the psychological profession in VA Hospitals in World War II to help treat psychologically traumatized soldiers.


 Janice's observations moved me with their directness, immediacy, and clarity;

Bombs dropping, guns shooting, objects exploding; these surroundings would make it hard for any individual to stay stable. I’m sure it would be difficult to find a person that did not agree that being in the military is certainly a trying experience. However, just how trying seems to only be understood by those who have personally experienced the training, pressure, warfare, etc. Having many close friends serving in the military, reading this past week’s blog posting on military suicides really hit home. I not only wonder what more our churches can do for these individuals who serve, but what our society can offer.        

The nearly dozen friends and acquaintances that I know in the military fall into three groups when considering their reason for joining: the “Original”, the “Follower”, and the “Why Not”. One Original is my friend “Bob” who loves this country, believes in what the military is about and has known his entire life that his purpose was to be a Marine. Many other soldiers admire him, join up because of him, and become Followers. The Why Not group consists of those who are lost in life, haven’t discovered what they are meant to do, realize the military’s purpose is a good one, and for reasons such as financial stability, prestige, or it just being an option, decide to become soldiers. All the people I speak of are not from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. Each could get into college if they applied. Sadly, out of the dozen or so people I know in the military, there are only two whom I believe are right now where they are meant to be.

The reason for such emphasis on an individual’s impetus in joining may help us to understand the existence of psychological and emotional problems that at times result in suicides. Although this choice of career can be a rewarding experience based on the knowledge of sacrificing oneself for a good cause, it can also be without saying a very negative and exhausting environment. More so than many other careers, one is more likely to experience burnout quicker than normal. For a person who is certain and passionate about serving, the stress and hardships that the job brings does not hit as hard because in the back of their mind they believe in what they are fighting for. For many of those who have joined for other reasons, they will more quickly become mentally and psychologically exhausted due to lack of purpose and passion. It is clear even to me how each of my friends have been affected as the more time they serve passes. Some, still in training already are thinking of what career move they are going to make after their term is up, while others like Bob are already training to reenlist before his term is over.

Specialist Armando G. Aguilar Jr. is an example of what happened to a soldier who joined the Army for reasons besides for the love of the Army (Van Ornum, 2011). I am trying to wrap my mind around how I would feel if my heart was in music, yet my day to day job was to search for bombs in a war torn country. How fast my heart would race at the thought of possible incoming death at every moment! Without the confidence of knowing it was God’s plan for me to be there, I would never put myself in that situation. I would much rather work a few extra years in mindless jobs for the money than to have my sanity and stability destroyed. I am sure that not all the military suicides result because lack of passion and inner conviction of being in the right place, but I strongly believe lack of these inner qualities can lead to self-destruction.

Rewinding back to thoughts expressed in the America Magazine posting, I do wonder how the church can service those either still serving in the military or who are back to civilian lives. This past Sunday in church, we had a speaker who is a Major in the United States Army. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being involved in a explosion caused by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan that left him completely bind with a large dent in his skull. His testimony of losing and regaining this rock-solid faith he once had due to the accident was inspiring to me and the crowd which included a friend who was on leave for the time being. I believe that if there could be programs for those with faith within the military run by speakers such as this major, the mental well-being of many soldiers would be much more stable. It could be a safe outlet for everything a soldier may be going through. Currently there are not many ways people of faith can fellowship with one another, and this sort of program would offer a community where trust and support exist.

It is my hope that someone reading Janice's ideas today might be able to put the idea she expressed in her last paragraph into practice. Thank you, Janice, and never underestimate the role of your presence in the lives of the young people whom you know that are serving our country.

William Van Ornum


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
we vnornm
7 years 11 months ago
ps quote from Butcher et al., ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY, 14th ed (2010), p. 262
james belna
7 years 11 months ago
While I appreciate the sincere solicitude that Mr Van Ornum and Ms Feng bring to the issue, I am afraid that they have bought into and perpetuated a false stereotype of the mental health of American soldiers. The fact is that military personnel, both on active duty and as veterans, typically have a suicide rate that is lower than the comparable civilian population. The recent ''spike'' in military suicides, while a source of legitimate concern, brings the rate just to the civilian level. More signifiacntly, there is no correlation between the length/intensity of combat exposure and the incidence of suicide. To the contrary, most military suicides involve soldiers whose battlefield experience has been limited or non-existent.

That is not to say that combat soldiers do not face serious mental health issues, that health professionals cannot do more to lessen the incidence of suicide for all segments of the population, or that we shouldn't do all we can to support our troops and their families. But I think that Van Ornum and Feng have missed the big picture. The men and women who have selflessly volunteered to risk their lives in defense of our country and to promote the human dignity of people who live on the other side of the world have proven themselves to be, on the whole, the most morally, spiritually, and psychologically fit members of a jaded and cynical generation. We should be studying them, not as objects of pathology or pity, but rather as exemplars of how to lead a genuinely fulfilling life.
Kayna Pfeiffer
7 years 11 months ago
Janice makes many great points in her reflection on the military. At times, I felt like she was taking the words right out of my mouth! Like most, if not all, I also have friends that have entered the military for the aforementioned reasons (the “Original”, the “Follower”, and the “Why Not”). It is commendable to see them take a stand and serve our country. I could not be more proud of them. However, I am worried about those who belong to ''the Follower'' and ''Why Not'' groups because they are not entering the military for reasons of passion but rather for reasons lack there of. 

If a person lacks passion for something he or she has made a commitment to, this can have a detrimental effect on their morale and productivity. This can be dangerous, especially when it comes to the military since soldiers are faced with life or death situations. If they are not constantly aware of their surroundings because their mind is elsewhere, many lives could be lost. Due to this, I do not feel a person should enter the military profession unless they enjoy what they do. Signing a four year contract for the wrong reasons can feel like an eternity. Some may rather die than serve out their contract, putting others in harms way. By the time they have finished their duty, they may appear lifeless and lack any passion for life because of the events they have had to endure.

When soldiers return from their tours of duty, we as a nation should have a responsibility to ensure that they are successfully reintegrated into society. Part of the problem as to why those who return from overseas have a high depression rate is because it is hard for those of us who have not served to relate and tell them that ''everything is going to be ok'' when we have not experienced the psychological and physical trauma that they have endured. Thus, as Janice says, troops should be invited to community and church gatherings where former soldiers speak. This will provide inspiration for these soldiers to want to regain their passion for life after they have seen a real life example of someone who has ''been there and back.'' Through experiences like this, they will be able to see that war does not have to be the end, but only the beginning. They will be able to wage a war within themselves to find their passion again and get another chance at life to uncover whatever their heart desires. 
7 years 11 months ago
I agree with Janice and kaynapfeiffer totally.  The soldiers and their present lives should be part of our daily conversation, so that when we pray for them we can actually see and feel them as real breathing people and not some abstract beings fighting a war so far away.  I believe what the returning soldiers need from us back home is our acceptance and affirmation of them. They need loving, caring and compassionate ears to listen to them.  We should learn to listen to their silence which is most often very deafening.  Returning soldiers tend to be reticent about sharing their war experiences.  I sometimes wonder about that.
Bill Mazzella
7 years 11 months ago
Many people are willing to help former soldiers adjust to civilian life. The problem is, as i in much volunteer matters that there are not many avenues available to help. Many professionals who are in charge of the care of others do not welcome volunteers and help them be of assistance to others. I remember sadly when I wanted to help out in a certain prison, the Catholic Chaplain rebuffed my offer by saying he had it "covered." The same happened when I offered to visit the sick in the parish. The pastor called once saying he would get back to me and that was it. I am sure there are many professionals who have organized ways others can help the troubled. Can Bill or others list the ways one can be helpful other than just carrying the mail to bring to designated offices?
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
Human beings are not wired for killing other human beings, yet that is what we train and expect our young people in the military to do.  It is not surprising that so many come home deeply scarred.

I don't know how we can even begin to address the problem of veteran suicides without acknowledging (to them) that it was what we asked them to do for us that so damaged their psyches. 
we vnornm
7 years 11 months ago

This is why there is special cause for concern, both in the military and in the population. The numbers are devastating in each group:

"Suicide now ranks among the ten leading causes of death in most Western countries. In the United States, it is the eighth or ninth leading cause of death, with current estimates of about 31,000 suicides each year...

"Statisitcs, however accurate, cannot begin to convey the tragedy of suicide in human terms. Most people who commit suicide are ambivalent about taking their own lives and make this irreversible choice when they are alone and in a state of severe psychological distress and anguish, unable to see their problems objectively or to evaluate alternative courses of action."

tx, bill
Stephanie Waring
7 years 11 months ago
It is so sad to think about all of the suicide that may be occurring in the soldiers of today. With the occupation of a solider, and the tasks they take it, it is difficult to blame them for maybe being depressed, anxious, sad, etc.  I know many people as well, just as Janice said, who escape and chose the military because they are unhappy at home, or they can't decide their role in life. It is sad that some people feel this way, and any one that I know that has gone into the military has regretted their decision at some point because they become so lonely over there. I think the most that the church, and us as a community, can only help by continuing to send care packages, cards, letters, from home, children, family members, or just outstanding citizens who want to help and thank the soldiers for all their help in protecting our country and keeping strong.
Katrina Ferrer
7 years 10 months ago
There are many reasons soldiers, sailors,  airmen, and marines join the military. And while many do fall into these cookie cutter molds of "The Original" "The Follower" and "Why Not" there are many, if not most, that do not, and are just going to work like the rest of America. For the most part, their day does not begin or end with whether or not it is God's will that they do what they do. Their motivation is up to them, and not a single one is the same as another. When a soldier finds himself in that situation where his life hangs from a thread, the reason for him doing what he does has to be his or he will never make it. Insisting that these individuals all fall into a mold because they are in uniform, and that they could all benefit from a "program" is blatantly insulting to their intelligence. Yes, the church can be helpful and open to their needs and I believe it could do so much more. But just be there, be a friend, a listening ear, an outlet of emotion for every walk of life that fills their ranks. Stereotyping the reasons service members join or any other label will only push them further away from help, let alone faith.
Lauren Esposito
7 years 10 months ago
            As a firm believer, I feel it is important to offer the support of the Church to those soldiers who are experiencing such a hard time.  It is important, during such a hard time in their lives, to have some stability.  Through the ministry, and fellowship they have the ability to find the belongingness as well as a place to “escape” to. 
          Like Janice, I have several friends in the military who are preparing to be deported.  Through conversations with them, it makes me sadden to think that they do not know what to expect when they arrive to their newfound “homes.”  The instability of the world today lends to me think the unimaginable.  I find it extremely interesting the three categories in which Janice set up to determine her friend’s reasoning’s for joining the military.  I would also add another category, simply, military family.  I whole-heartily agree, that a person’s drive to be in the military can help one understand the existence of any psychological and emotional.
          I have also experienced, with my friends, there change of heart about the military while finishing up there last semester of schooling.  They all always tell me about their great passion when they began their journey to entering the military; but as they finish their last semester before they are deported most encompass negative thoughts. By entering into their deported sites with that mentality can also foster psychological and emotional issues that very well can lead to suicide.
          It is astonishing to even imagine life as a soldier during war.  The hardships, anxiety, deaths of fellow comrades etc. is overwhelming to comprehend.  I can’t even imagine how one has time to focus on oneself to make sure as is well.  I can understand how it is easy to “self- destruct.”  If I was in such a situation, I believe I would have to turn to God and the Church for guidance.   Therefore, I think it is important for the Church to lend any helping hand that they can. 
7 years 10 months ago
I enjoyed Janice's paper very much and it really makes you think about what is going on in the world and the tragic reality we often overlook.  I tend to forget the after-effect of soldiers and how devastated they may be.  I think it would be great if we as Americans could do more for our soldiers when they return and are in a mentally unstable state.  Unfortunately a selfish issue is money; I'm sure most people don't want to be taxed anymore for than they are even if it is to help the soldiers who are fighting for our lives.  I agree that a great place to start would be churches.  Many people even give offerings for a good cause, so I think it would be wonderful if more churches would collect money for soldiers who return and need mental help.  It would be so sad to lose a loved one who returned due to suicide.  I always think about how I would like to make a small difference in a soldiers life by either sending them a letter or a care package, but I always have trouble getting started and never follow through.  I would like to suggest to my church at home this idea of helping soldiers who return and need mental help.  We often think about helping people in other countries (which is wonderful), however, we sometimes overlook those in our own country and fighting our war, who may need the most help.   
Christine Castellana
7 years 10 months ago
First, I would like to compliment Janice on her beautiful and thoughtful writing!

I think that one of the major problems that our country is having is ignoring the war, pretending that it does not exist.  In my experience at Marist College, I have only heard students speak about the war once in a computer class.  Other than that, everyone is concerned with their Facebook status and the latest episode of Jersey Shore.  If we were living in the 1960s, this story would be entirely different.  Even though I was not alive back then, I know from stories, documentaries, and family accounts of how passionate college students were about the war and they were willing to peacefully fight.  Also, to my understanding, the news reported more of what was going on in Vietnam than what the news reports on Iraq today.  I heard that they used to say the names each night of who died (someone clarify this for me, if needed, because I really wouldn't know...)

Right now, I never hear about Iraq on the news.  All I hear about is whatever Tom Cruise is doing in Scientology, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Snooki, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears.  These people, as well as other celebrities, are being used, either intentionally or unintentionally, to distract us from what is really happening in the world.

It is as if we have become blind to the fact that soldiers are bleeding and dying for us each day.  So, the first thing that needs to be done is somehow more media coverage must be provided on the war. Then somehow we could care...(possibly).

I agree with Janice that the military should provide programs to help to restore the faith and mental-well being of the soldiers.  It is the least we could do! They fight for us every day, whether we agree with the war or not.  We need to stop acting blind, deaf, and dumb. We are Americans, we have eyes to see, we can hear what is really going on if we choose to, and as history has proven to us, Americans can certainly speak! SO SAY SOMETHING!!!!

Thank you, Janice and Dr. Van Ornum :)
Lauren Esposito
7 years 9 months ago
          As I read about the unfortunate events occurring in Lybia, the United States involvement and the effects it has on us; it immediately triggered thoughts of this article as well as concern for the soldiers.  Now with all of the new occurrences, what can possibly be going through the heads of soldiers?  Will there soon be another war they will have to fight?    I have already commented on this article, but I wanted to add to my thoughts.  Providing an “outlet” to soldiers could probably be one of the greatest gifts they ask for during such tragic times.  By having an “escape” it offers healing and spirituality; as well as an opportunity to gather oneself. 
          As I stated, if I was in such a situation, I would turn to God and the Church.  As the semester is winding down, the stress and difficulty is piling on.  I have had to turn to God and the Church numerous times in the past few weeks.   By attending church and praying, I have been able to release my stress, negative thoughts and bitterness toward school.  Although my situation does not compare to that of a solider; I understand the strength and importance that God has on me to feel better. 


The latest from america

Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019