Learning From Marines About Military Suicides

Veteran military writer Tom Ricks posted an important blog on his Best Defense column in Foreign Policy. Researchers Dr. Frank Tortorello and Dr. William Marcellino, sponsored by the Marine Corps' Training and Education Command and Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, did something novel. They listened to Marines, who described in great detail their experiences of stress and distress. What did the researchers learn? They found that crises of meaning were central. Some Marines were able to bounce back, say by forgiving themselves for perceived errors on the battlefield. Others judged themselves harshly for perceived failures. Yet others remain plagued by doubts. The researchers saw real people describing their struggles to make sense of things done, not done, or witnessed.

This follows on an earlier study that revealed a critical factor in military suicides: overwhelming emotional pain. Meaning and emotional pain; quintessentially human elements. Another "no duh" moment. When will we wake up and learn to see what's right in front of us?

The authors then ask, "On what scientific basis are quantifiable bio-phenomena substituted for what a Marine says in describing his or her stress?" Only if we assume that biology causes certain social meanings can we ignore whole people in favor solely of their biology or their psychology.

What are the implications of this "new" data for intervention and funding strategies? If service members are people living in sociocultural contexts, actively trying to make sense of their lives, then we are better off, say the authors, researching how to train, equip and prepare them for challenges to their values and worth. It also follows that it makes sense to support reintegration programming that effectively addresses these simple but deeper registers of human experience. Programs that mobilize peer and social supports as they creates safe communities of mutual respect, where connecting through deep listening and speaking from the heart can effect the work of healing.

We must stop the irresponsible whack-a-mole approach to suicide prevention and face the stark limits of a primarily biologic approach with their endless streams of data points that are analyzed and broken down into discrete variables and clusters of variables with the goal of finding the biological "marker," the holy grail, isolating the smoking gun of "PTSD" or military suicide. It is a futile and costly search. It misses the veteran-person right here, shopping alongside us, or pushing their child on the swing in the park. It misses the human being struggling to regain his or her wholeness. And so it will fail. As organizations, we must reflect, find meaning and make sense -- just as service members, veterans and families try to do.

Stop, just stop. And listen. Then act boldly.