I hope you will read this, but suspect many will simply keep scanning. It is a sad topic, and probably will not evoke the spirited commentary of writings on women priests, celibacy, the rights of gays, or newly discovered evidence of priestly abuse or associated cover-up. For the past several years, news accounts have noted the large number of deaths in the United States Military--not to enemy action, not even to so-called friendly fire, but to suicide. Michael O'Loughlin, who as a 20-something himself keeps us posted on what is important to his generation—through their own eyes—wrote about this topic last week. But considering the blog tallies and number of comments I am not sure how many readers simply passed over his words to read about some of the other topics that always seem to pique our interest or stimulate or our (easily evoked) righteous anger. So please let me offer a few thoughts on why this might be so—and then I will note some efforts being made in the profession of psychology to help prevent soldiers from killing themselves. I suspect many of you may disagree with my conjectures.
Sometimes I wonder if many in the church have written off the young people—and those who, being 30 or 40, are older—who serve in the military. Of course, whenever someone speaks of her or his opposition to war, a frequently-too-perfunctory statement is added, "Of course, I support the soldiers." How many parishes offer outreach or keep in mind their men and women who are serving in the military? I recall visiting one little parish in a small town years ago—there were gold stars on the ceiling, the "boys" who died in World War I. Congregants at Fordham's Rose Hill Chapel cannot fail to note the names of the Fordham alums who died in World War II. These names give even greater sobriety to the nearby Stations of the Cross. Are young soldiers today held in similar honor?
Is there denial, is there bias, is there a glossing over and sweeping-under-the-rug going on among many of the faithful about the reality of what it means to be a soldier today? Without a draft, are disadvantaged young people signing up for the military, not out of love for their country or the sake of righteousness, but for job training, temporary financial security, or a way out of a tough family or impoverished culture? Does our own view of the morality of current warfare make us deny their human suffering? Of the soldier suicides, I wonder how many are minority persons, persons from poor backgrounds, or simply those who didn't want to go or couldn't get into college, let alone a Jesuit school. One portrait of a soldier suicide from the New York Times brings this into focus:
FORT HOOD, Tex. — At 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday in August, Specialist Armando G. Aguilar Jr. found himself at the end of his short life. He was standing, drunk and weepy, in the parking lot of a Valero station outside Waco, Tex. He had jumped out of his moving pickup. There was a police officer talking to him in frantic tones. Specialist Aguilar held a pistol pointed at his head.
Specialist Armando G. Aguilar Jr. joined the Army partly to pay for music school.
This moment had been a long time coming, his family said. He had twice tried to commit suicide with pills since returning from a tough tour in Iraq a year earlier, where his job was to drive an armored vehicle to search for bombs.
Army doctors had put him on medications for depression, insomnia, nightmares and panic attacks. Specialist Aguilar was seeing an Army therapist every week. But he had been getting worse in the days before his death, his parents said, seeing shadowy figures that were not there, hallucinating that he heard loud noises outside his trailer home.
Specialist Aguilar is but one of too many soldiers—overseas and back in the United States—who have committed suicide. This month's issue of The American Psychologist is devoted to efforts by psychologists to help build resiliency in soldiers:
The last 25 years have witnessed a shift in the fields of psychology and mental health from a focus on the treatment of pathology after it arises to the development of positive skills and resources that contribute to resilience before serious problems develop (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program in the U.S. Army represents one of the exciting applications of this approach to health and well-being. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is understood as multidimensional, involving physical, emotional, social, familial, and spiritual domains. In this article, we examine the relevance of spiritual fitness to a comprehensive resilience program and then provide an overview of this new and innovative approach to human development in the Army. Before we turn to this discussion, however, it is important to consider the meanings of three key terms.
The meanings of the terms spirit and spirituality have evolved over the past few decades and are continuing to change (Zinnbauer, Pargament, & Scott, 1999). Though a consensus of meaning has yet to emerge, it is important to be clear about the ways in which the terms spirit and spirituality are being used in particular projects. Here, we are speaking about spirit, spirituality, and spiritual fitness in the human rather than theological sense. The spiritual fitness component of the CSF program is not based on a particular stance or position on the ontological truth or validity of philosophical, nonreligious, or religious frameworks of belief and practice. Department of Defense leaders are not in a privileged position to answer ontological questions about God's existence or the truth of religious claims. However, they can facilitate the search for truth, self-knowledge, purpose, and direction in life as group members define it. In this project, we define spirit as the essential core of the individual, the deepest part of the self, and one's evolving human essence. As Sweeney, Hannah, and Snider (2007) noted, “Human spirit is thoroughly manifested in who we are” (p. 26). But the human spirit is not synonymous with personal identity. It has a deeper dimension to it. Scholars often ascribe a number of sacred qualities to “spirit,” including ultimacy (what is true and of deepest significance), boundlessness (what is of lasting value), and transcendence (what is set apart from the ordinary) (Otto, 1917/1928; Tillich, 1952). The term spirit is also tied intimately to other higher order qualities, including purpose and meaning, enlightenment, authenticity, interconnectedness, and self-actualization. It is important to add that the human spirit is more than a set of fixed traits and characteristics; it is an animating impulse—a vital, motivating force that is directed to realizing higher order goals, dreams, and aspirations that grow out of the essential self (Sweeney et al., 2007). In this sense, the human spirit organizes people's lives and propels people forward. One military leader put it this way: “Our individual sense of who we are—our true, spiritual self—defines us. It creates our mindset, defines our values, determines our actions, and predicts our behavior” (Fairholm, cited in Snider, 2008, p. 14).
My own sense is that the people of the Church could be doing more to help individual soldiers who are or who have just recently served our country. Am I off base, out in left field, or to mix metaphors, on a different planet? I hope to hear your perceptions on this, especially if you can let us know about positive and constructive outreach efforts to help fellow Christians whose military service may have brought them to a psychological place known in the Beatitudes as being "poor in spirit."
William Van Ornum