It was with a very heavy heart that I read the report that three young men serving aboard the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush committed suicide last week. The dramatic rise in suicides among our Navy and our military at large — as well as among the whole American population — is deeply troubling and so very sad. The terrible news out of Norfolk is a stark reminder that suicide is a widespread problem in our military. It is a monumental challenge which we must not fail to take on. We owe it to the people who put their lives on the line by volunteering to serve our country.
For me, this latest story brings back an awful memory from my time as commander of a Navy ship. One day, when we were docked at our home port, I said “Good morning” as I came aboard to the young enlisted radioman who handed me my radio messages from overnight. We chatted briefly and then I continued on about my day. A few hours later I received a call: that young radioman had committed suicide at home during lunchtime. Like so many of the people left behind by suicide, I was left reeling. I thought, “What had I missed?” The days and weeks that followed that young man’s death were dark for me and for my entire crew. I spent time thinking about what life is like overall for our servicemembers and especially the personal sacrifices we all make when we choose to serve. Navy life is not easy. To be away at sea for six months, then return home and still spend most time training at sea, only to be redeployed overseas again within a year — all to be well ready and prepared for any war or conflict.
The challenge is just as great — or greater — for our families. Having a partner or parent simply gone for so long is harsh. The length of such separations, and the uncertainty of not knowing at times when that loved one will return home, is profoundly unsettling. We used to say that the toughest job in the military is military spouse. Children of career servicemembers are impacted as well, more likely to struggle in school than their counterparts and to face behavioral health challenges, no doubt at least in part resulting from having a parent (or both parents) gone so often and being forced to uproot themselves as often as every two or three years. And of course when the family of a servicemember struggles, it’s hard for that servicemember not to blame themself. After all, we chose the military life. Our families, usually, did not. I have no doubt that these family dynamics often are contributing factors when a sailor or soldier takes their own life.
For those who stay for a whole career, the majority of the youth have been found to be fundamentally dissociated with life in high school, as one or more parent is gone so often and they must move every two or three years.
Military life means a life of sacrifice. It means handing personal control of your daily circumstances to a system of which you are but one small part, being willing to sacrifice your own life in service to something bigger than yourself. And it is that sacrifice that means we owe it to the people who sign up to create as supportive a working environment as possible.
Suicide is an issue for all Americans. We must all look out for our friends, family, and co-workers, especially those who are dealing with mental health challenges. We must remove the stigma around talking about suicide. And we must ensure access to the help and support needed for anyone who’s hurting — with special emphasis given to those who wear or have worn the cloth of this nation. That is the best way to honor the service and sacrifice of those we’ve lost.