Memorial Day 2013: Every 18 Hours, a Service Member Commits Suicide


Two weeks into June, the United States Army will have its 238th birthday. For the U.S. Navy, the same birthday will come in October and the Marine Corps in November. The U.S. Air Force still has a couple of centuries before it catches up (it will be 66 this September, by the way) but that does not matter. Memorial Day is for everyone who has been in uniform and, in particular, those veterans of foreign wars and it is on occasions like Memorial Day when civilians can help them most. Millennials, who are more likely to be civilians than any generation since before World War II, should take note.

Millennials are probably less familiar with, and less affected by, military culture than any previous generation. Their great grandparents, grandparents, and in some cases even their parents knew that when they filed for the selective service, there was a chance that they might actually be called up to go to Europe or Asia.

If the latest polls are to be trusted, less than 1% of people today have ever worn a uniform, as opposed to 9% during World War II. Millennials have fought as well as the Greatest Generation did in Europe and the Pacific and better than the Boomers did in Vietnam. But even this competency reflects the growing rift between military and civilian culture.

One of the reasons why the military is so capable is because it is so highly professionalized. While there is the occasional proposal for some kind of draft, these proposals are usually watered down to the point where they are incomparable to the sort of military draft that past generations knew, and these plans are usually ridiculed anyway.

We are right to do so. The military and civilians both are better off for not dealing with the administrative headache or the enormous cost that a draft would entail. And, from a strategic point of view, a draft is not necessary. While wars won't go away, the kind of wars that we fight is evolving.

A worldwide war, like the one with Germany and Japan, is hard to imagine in a globe that tends to be more focused on smaller, regional conflicts. Even if America were ever to go to war with China or Russia, it would probably be over access to one trade route or another, rather than the fate of the free world.

As a body, the military probably couldn't be better administered than it is through its all-volunteer force. Nonetheless, this Memorial Day is a good opportunity to consider the soldiers not as a member of a body, but rather as individuals and to consider the effects that this alienation from the civilian world might have.

The wars abroad are winding to a close. Nonetheless, there is a considerable war at home that both civilians and military personnel have so far not been able to confront. Every 18 hours, another servicemember commits suicide. The reasons for this are unclear. Most of the research has focused on the effect of traumatic brain injuries and other physical factors.

These injuries probably play a role. However, the desire to connect the suicide epidemic with one specific set of injuries or another ignores the fact that service members are not so different from the rest of us, and, as such, their suicide trends should not be segregrated from the trends that affect the rest of society.

As I wrote before, young men are more likely to commit suicide than any other demographic, and the military is disproportionately constituted by young men. But this does not explain everything. Suicide is not only made likelier by the demographic that constitutes the military, it is made more likely by the lifestyle that the institution requires servicemembers to live.

W. Bradford Wilcox recently pointed out that "suicide is highest, and climbing fastest, among precisely those men whose ties to the larger social fabric ... have become the most attenuated." While not all of the factors, such as unemloyment for example, are applicable to servicemembers today, if the all-volunteer military has done anything, it has made the bonds of the social fabric for servicemembers much less tenuous.

While those who were in World War II or Korea or even Vietnam were mostly civilians who had to put on a uniform, today's military is mostly composed of full-time soldiers who occasionally have to take the uniform off. During World War II, numerous people served in the military for the duration of the war, but grounding their lives in it or making a career of it was, for the vast majority of soldiers, unimaginable.

These servicemembers all had wives or jobs or hometowns to go back to, even though, in many cases, these were less desirable than the options that soldiers have to return to today. There was, in fact, continuity between these people and places and the military service itself. If nothing else, home and family were worth fighting for and returning to.

In the professionalized military, though, the service often ends up defining the member's private life rather than the other way around: Where you live, what church you go to, the person whom you marry, are often determined by something as simple as a unit assignment or a duty station.

This does not create an ideal environment for young men and women to grow the social bonds necessary to prevent suicide. It's hard to have a committed relationship when you might be deployed every 18 months; it's hard to be a member of your community when the only civilians you know work in the dining facility and post exchange; it's hard to become a committed member of a religious institution when you grew up in a Ukrainian Orthodox coal mining community and you find the only masses offered on the post service roster are "Catholic, Protestant and Mormon."

Whether this can be resolved is uncertain. Reintroducing a military draft would probably not make a difference. Rising suicide rates reflect a national trend toward rootlessness as much as they do the rootlessness of military life itself. It is not an issue that can be fixed from a symposium or a task force session in the Pentagon. It can only be resolved at the local level.

Around 6 or 7 in 10 millennials do not have an immediate family member who has been in the military, but that means that around 3 or 4 out of 10 do. And almost everyone has a high school friend who joined the Navy or an ex-high school sweetheart who became a marine; you might have a co-worker who is an Army reservist or a teacher in the Air Force National Guard. Whatever the case is, the best way any civilian can help service members is by helping them get their roots back or by helping them stay rooted if they are not already. Picking up the phone is a good place to start.