The face of military suicide
At a meeting at the GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong in Washington state, veterans' families showed the human dimension of military suicides.reports.
FOR THE second year in a row, more U.S. military service members died from suicide than from combat.
One would think facts about things like suicide and combat deaths deserve more than just whispers in the mainstream press. Yet on March 27, 2010, Indiana's Marion Chronicle-Tribune printed a picture of a military funeral procession with a caption that said the soldier was "killed in action"--when the truth was the soldier had hung himself in a closet.
Mary Kirkland knew the caption was wrong because the soldier in the flag-draped coffin was her son, Sgt. Derrick Kirkland. More than a year after his suicide, she is still seeking justice.
"My son's death began with lies," Mary told a packed room of over 50 people on August 12 at Coffee Strong, a GI coffeehouse near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
The newspaper caption ended with the words: "The family declined to comment to the media." That, Mary explained, was yet another lie. "The family would have been more than willing to comment to the media," she said. "No one contacted us."
Mary was part of a panel at Coffee Strong that included former members of her son's unit. Kevin Baker, an Iraq War veteran, told the packed house, "I personally heard Sergeant Kirkland called a 'coward,' 'pussy,' and 'liar.' This was when he was seeking help. I was in the same room at the same time, and Sergeant Kirkland was simply asking for help."
Everyone who knew Derrick placed blame for his death on an incompetent military system and a callous chain of command. The incompetence of the military is striking given the fact that Derrick, who first attempted suicide on February 10, 2010, during his second tour in Iraq, tried once more by overdosing on prescription medication before being sent back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Yet the military kept him at a "low risk for suicide." Derrick attempted suicide for a third time by a combination of cutting his arms and an overdose before hanging himself on March 19, 2010.
Regarding the chain of command, numerous speakers singled out one commanding officer not only for his callous comments regarding the seriousness of the situation while Derrick was alive, but his audacity following the suicide. The staff sergeant was overheard joking in the pews before leaving halfway through the memorial service, saying, among other inappropriate comments, "It's a good thing there's nothing here for soldiers to hang themselves with."
The tragedy continues for Mary. For more than a year, the military has refused to release three letters that Derrick left near his body, insisting that they must first verify the handwriting.
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AFTER LEARNING about Mary's story, Ashley Joppa-Hagemann contacted Coffee Strong. Ashley was added to an August 12 panel of speakers five weeks after her husband, Jared August Hagemann, committed suicide.
"The man I married loved life," she told the crowd. "When he enlisted, he told me he was terrified of the children. 'I don't want to kill a child,' he said. 'But they're telling me that if a child has a gun, whether or not it's pointed at me and even whether or not it's loaded, I have to kill him dead.'"
Seven years in the Army Rangers took their toll. "My husband would drink himself senseless before and after his deployments," Ashley said. "He would drink before a deployment to numb himself from what he was about to do, and he would drink after a deployment to forget what he had just done."
He eventually reached out for help only to be judged and punished. Ashley explained:
I blame the military for his death. He wanted to live. He wanted to see his little boys grow up. He asked for help, and he was told to "man up." Getting help in the military just means getting pills. The strategy is to keep the soldiers medicated in order to keep them deployable.
When he started seeking help, he was refused promotions. They actually withheld rank, even though they gave him the duties of the next rank, just not the title or the pay. They knew he was trying harder and harder to get the pay. They kept promising him just one more deployment--and then one more after that. In his last month alive, he had a gun to his head three times.
On June 28, 2011, Jared was found in the bushes of a training area with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. As with Mary's story, the tragedy did not end there. It continued when the military refused to hold a memorial service because it was decided Staff Sgt. Hagemann--who deployed eight times--was not worthy of one.
A man deploys eight times, and a military system that prides itself on "duty" ignores its own duty to acknowledge, much less treat, the mental and emotional traumas of war. A man deploys eight times, and a military system that bases its existence on "honor" does an about-face in refusing to honor one of its own, saying that all the missions he completed and all the bullets he fired don't count because of the one bullet he fired at himself.
The tragic fact is that Derrick and Jared are two examples of an epidemic. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 30 suicides are attempted by veterans every day. Eighteen of those attempts are "successful." That's at least 18 sons, daughters, partners and parents who are dying every day from preventable deaths. Surely an epidemic of this magnitude requires action.
President Barack Obama did act on this epidemic--sort of. While the most effective action would have been to bring home our troops and private contractors in order to prevent the atrocities from happening that lead to suicides, the White House announced that Obama had reversed a longstanding policy and would now begin mailing letters of condolence to families of service members who commit suicide.
There is, indeed, an enormous stigma attached to suicide, but the root of that crisis is not with the families. The root is with a military system that mocks and humiliates those seeking help. But this policy reversal actually reverses nothing for families like the Kirklands and Hagemanns.
What didn't fit into a presidential sound bite was the fact that this new policy only applies to service members who commit suicide in areas that are officially recognized as combat zones. Meaning Iraq and Afghanistan. Not Pakistan. Nor Libya. Nor a closet or a bush in the United States.
Since a vast majority of these suicides occur once the service members return home, this new policy isn't a reversal. It's a clarification of which suicides are worthy--and which are not--of receiving a presidential condolence.
A recent report by the Eisenhower Study Group has estimated these ongoing wars, including services for returning veterans, will end up costing approximately $4 trillion when taking into account the interest paid and the interest accruing on what has been funded almost entirely by borrowing. The recommendations of this report include transparency about the specifics of these wars, which could accomplish "a wide variety of goals--from enhanced democracy to enhanced human security."
The panelists at Coffee Strong called for something far more radical. "What is our response?" asked Michael Prysner, an Iraq War veteran and co-founder of March Forward, the organization that coordinated the August 12 panel. "It's what we're doing tonight. It's showing soldiers that they're not alone. It's organizing a movement of united actions of service members, their families and supporters. An organized movement is what will create change."
In fact, it was an organized movement within the military that initially sought justice for Sgt. Kirkland. Kevin Baker explained:
We knew that simply following orders to remain silent wouldn't work, so our unit began to organize internally. We took the Army values they taught us and used them for ourselves for the first time. It shouldn't be a battle when you're trying to get the care you deserve, when you're trying to enjoy the life you deserve. That's true for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well. We're also here tonight in solidarity with Iraqis and Afghanis. We're standing up so that these atrocities do not continue.
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THE DAY he died, Derrick described feeling invisible and transparent. An organized movement offers the most immediate and effective support to military service members who have internalized the incompetence of a system as though they alone as individuals are the incompetent ones.
What if there had been an organized movement of civilians and military service members coordinating efforts nationally and internationally, planning forums and strikes, and staging sit-ins at strategic locations?
What if there had been an organized movement linking the struggles of 45,000 striking Verizon workers demanding the benefits they deserve when a company is raking in billions in profit, with the struggles of military service members demanding the benefits they deserve when the Department of Defense is raking in trillions in funding?
Or an organized movement linking the struggles of public school teachers who know the answer to underfunding our schools is not to invest in for-profit charter schools with the struggles of military service members who know the answer to understaffing mental health professionals is not to invest in for-profit pharmaceutical drugs?
Had there been that kind of organized movement, would Derrick and Jared and the 18 veterans who will not live through this day have found a sense of solidarity early enough to choose sit-ins instead of suicide?
October will mark the 10-year anniversary of the war on Afghanistan. Veterans for Peace is calling for the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., to begin on October 6. Iraq Veterans Against the War, which launched Operation Recovery to demand an end to the deployment of traumatized troops, will host War Voices on October 7 in Washington, D.C., including a live Webcast, in an effort to bring together those impacted by U.S. militarism and the U.S. war economy with ally organizations to build bridges of mutual support and solidarity for the long haul.
The United National Antiwar Committee is calling for actions across the U.S. in October. Local actions can be listed on their website.
It's up to the people to carry this movement forward. The ideas, strategies and confidence that come from forums like the one at Coffee Strong will inspire more confidence for both military service members and civilians. An organized movement may face insane and inhumane challenges, but no challenge compares to what we face nationally and internationally in the future if we do nothing right now.