RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Pilkington reports: "Across all branches of the US military and the reserves, a similar disturbing trend was recorded. In all, 349 service members took their own lives in 2012, while a lesser number, 295, died in combat."

Suicides in the United States military reached 349 last year, exceeding the 295 combat deaths. (illustration: Time)
Suicides in the United States military reached 349 last year, exceeding the 295 combat deaths. (illustration: Time)

US Military Struggling to Stop Suicide Epidemic Among War Veterans

By Ed Pilkington, Guardian UK

02 February 13


Last year, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. And after a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse

ibby Busbee is pretty sure that her son William never sat through or read Shakespeare's Macbeth, even though he behaved as though he had. Soon after he got back from his final tour of Afghanistan, he began rubbing his hands over and over and constantly rinsing them under the tap.

"Mom, it won't wash off," he said.

"What are you talking about?" she replied.

"The blood. It won't come off."

On 20 March last year, the soldier's striving for self-cleanliness came to a sudden end. That night he locked himself in his car and, with his mother and two sisters screaming just a few feet away and with Swat officers encircling the vehicle, he shot himself in the head.

At the age of 23, William Busbee had joined a gruesome statistic. In 2012, for the first time in at least a generation, the number of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves, 177, exceeded the 176 who were killed while in the war zone. To put that another way, more of America's serving soldiers died at their own hands than in pursuit of the enemy.

Guardian graphics

Across all branches of the US military and the reserves, a similar disturbing trend was recorded. In all, 349 service members took their own lives in 2012, while a lesser number, 295, died in combat.

Shocking though those figures are, they are as nothing compared with the statistic to which Busbee technically belongs. He had retired himself from the army just two months before he died, and so is officially recorded at death as a veteran - one of an astonishing 6,500 former military personnel who killed themselves in 2012, roughly equivalent to one every 80 minutes.

Busbee's story, as told to the Guardian by his mother, illuminates crucial aspects of an epidemic that appears to be taking hold in the US military, spreading alarm as it grows. He personifies the despair that is being felt by increasing numbers of active and retired service members, as well as the inability of the military hierarchy to deal with their anguish.

That's not, though, how William Busbee's story began. He was in many ways the archetype of the American soldier. From the age of six he had only one ambition: to sign up for the military, which he did when he was 17.

"He wasn't the normal teenager who went out and partied," Libby Busbee said. "He wanted to be somebody. He had his mind set on what he wanted to do, and he loved the army. I couldn't be more proud of him."

Once enlisted, he was sent on three separate year-long tours to Afghanistan. It was the fulfillment of his dreams, but it came at a high price. He came under attack several times, and in one particularly serious incident incurred a blow to the head that caused traumatic brain injury. His body was so peppered with shrapnel that whenever he walked through an airport security screen he would set off the alarm.

The mental costs were high too. Each time he came back from Afghanistan. between tours or on R&R, he struck his mother as a little more on edge, a little more withdrawn. He would rarely go out of the house and seemed ill at ease among civilians. "I reckon he felt he no longer belonged here," she said.

Once, Busbee was driving Libby in his car when a nearby train sounded its horn. He was so startled by the noise that he leapt out of the vehicle, leaving it to crash into the curb. After that, he never drove farther than a couple of blocks.

Nights were the worst. He had bad dreams and confessed to being scared of the dark, making Libby swear not to tell anybody. Then he took to sleeping in a closet, using a military sleeping bag tucked inside the tiny space to recreate the conditions of deployment. "I think it made him feel more comfortable," his mother said.

After one especially fraught night, Libby awoke to find that he had slashed his face with a knife. Occasionally, he would allude to the distressing events that led to such extreme behaviour: there was the time that another soldier, aged 18, had been killed right beside him; and the times that he himself had killed.

William told his mother: "You would hate me if you knew what I've done out there."

"I will never hate you. You are the same person you always were," she said.

"No, Mom," he countered. "The son you loved died over there."

For William Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist who directed the marine corps' combat stress control programme, William Busbee's expressions of torment are all too familiar. He has worked with hundreds of service members who have been grappling with suicidal thoughts, not least when he was posted to Fallujah in Iraq during the height of the fighting in 2004.

He and colleagues in military psychiatry have developed the concept of "moral injury" to help understand the current wave of self-harm. He defines that as "damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you - but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty."

Contrary to widely held assumptions, it is not the fear and the terror that service members endure in the battlefield that inflicts most psychological damage, Nash has concluded, but feelings of shame and guilt related to the moral injuries they suffer. Top of the list of such injuries, by a long shot, is when one of their own people is killed.

"I have heard it over and over again from marines - the most common source of anguish for them was failing to protect their 'brothers'. The significance of that is unfathomable, it's comparable to the feelings I've heard from parents who have lost a child."

Incidents of "friendly fire" when US personnel are killed by mistake by their own side is another cause of terrible hurt, as is the guilt that follows the knowledge that a military action has led to the deaths of civilians, particularly women and children. Another important factor, Nash stressed, was the impact of being discharged from the military that can also instil a devastating sense of loss in those who have led a hermetically sealed life within the armed forces and suddenly find themselves excluded from it.

That was certainly the case with William Busbee. In 2011, following his return to Fort Carson in Colorado after his third and last tour of Afghanistan, he made an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself. He was taken off normal duties and prescribed large quantities of psychotropic drugs which his mother believes only made his condition worse.

Eventually he was presented with an ultimatum by the army: retire yourself out or we will discharge you on medical grounds. He felt he had no choice but to quit, as to be medically discharged would have severely dented his future job prospects.

When he came home on 18 January 2012, a civilian once again, he was inconsolable. He told his mother: "I'm nothing now. I've been thrown away by the army."

The suffering William Busbee went through, both inside the military and immediately after he left it, illustrates the most alarming single factor in the current suicide crisis: the growing link between multiple deployments and self-harm. Until 2012, the majority of individuals who killed themselves had seen no deployment at all. Their problems tended to relate to marital or relationship breakdown or financial or legal worries back at base.

The most recent department of defense suicide report, or DODSER, covers 2011 . It shows that less than half, 47%, of all suicides involved service members who had ever been in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just one in 10 of those who died did so while posted in the war zone. Only 15% had ever experienced direct combat.

The DODSER for 2012 has yet to be released, but when it is it is expected to record a sea change. For the first time, the majority of the those who killed themselves had been deployed. That's a watershed that is causing deep concern within the services.

"We are starting to see the creeping up of suicides among those who have had multiple deployments," said Phillip Carter, a military expert at the defence thinktank Center for a New American Security that in 2011 published one of the most authoritative studies into the crisis. He added that though the causes of the increase were still barely understood, one important cause might be the cumulative impact of deployments - the idea that the harmful consequences of stress might build up from one tour of Afghanistan to the next.

Over the past four years the Pentagon, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, have invested considerable resources at tackling the problem. The US Department of Defense has launched a suicide prevention programme that tries to help service members to overcome the stigma towards seeking help. It has also launched an education campaign encouraging personnel to be on the look out for signs of distress among their peers under the rubric "never let our buddy fight alone".

Despite such efforts, there is no apparent let up in the scale of the tragedy. Though President Obama has announced a draw-down of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, experts warn that the crisis could last for at least a decade beyond the end of war as a result of the delayed impact of psychological damage.

It's all come in any case too late for Libby Busbee. She feels that her son was let down by the army he loved so much. In her view he was pumped full of drugs but deprived of the attention and care he needed.

William himself was so disillusioned that shortly before he died he told her that he didn't want a military funeral; he would prefer to be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. "I don't want to be buried in my uniform - why would I want that when they threw me away when I was alive," he said.

In the end, two infantrymen did stand to attention over his coffin, the flag was folded over it, and there was a gun salute as it was lowered into the ground. William Busbee was finally at rest, though for Libby Busbee the torture goes on.

"I was there for his first breath, and his last," she said. "Now my daughters and me, we have to deal with what he was going through." your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+17 # WestWinds 2013-02-02 11:54
There is one certain way to curtail the epidemic of suicides; end all war.

He who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind.
+17 # reiverpacific 2013-02-02 12:39
Those cowards in the government who send others out to die for their corporate masters but avoided combat themselves should be made to meet these poor victims of their own sociopathy and rapaciousness.
Then sent out to face the front line music themselves.
0 # 2013-02-02 19:35
Yes RP those people you speak of should be many things they are not. Specifically you the people's true representatives for purer Governance, in the terms of the religious ideals they seek to proselytize against the rest of their own people and 200 other UN Member countries, but that will never happen in the USA Politics of the rich lackies they are.

What's more it is You thier people who choose them, and you the people they don't work for, and you the people they certainly are not a part ofin the :of the/by thre/for the, constitution your 11 justices' have proselytize beyond lew.

So being this World Leader in Judeo-Christian ethos you ram down our throats do end of suicides on hypocritical self awareness and pain.
+14 # Michael_K 2013-02-02 13:27
It's called a conscience. Apparently the military hasn't completely perfected their methods of eradicating it in basic training.
+9 # Vardoz 2013-02-02 13:28
The military thinks it can abuse soldiers as much as they want and in anyway they want for their horrible fabricated wars for profit, To them soldiers are just expendable things and now it's coming back to bite them. They know a draft would blow the lid off our yound adults and result in decent. They will do anything to avoid doing that. They learned from Vietnam. But war is so horrible, or destructive and damaging that people just can't take being exposed to such horrors over and over.
+2 # Kootenay Coyote 2013-02-02 16:31
“...the concept of "moral injury" to help understand the current wave of self-harm. He defines that as "damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you: but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty." Contrary to widely held assumptions, it is not the fear and the terror that service members endure in the battlefield that inflicts most psychological damage, Nash has concluded, but feelings of shame and guilt related to the moral injuries they suffer.”

The obvious easy solution for the US Military is, thus, to further destroy soldiers’ moral sense beyond what is already customary. & what will be the result?
+7 # propsguy 2013-02-02 19:06
really, the boy was sleeping in closets and crashing cars and they let him go back there?!

sorry, but the problem is that military service was his boyhood dream. what kind of dream is that? the sooner kids realize that they are being used as cannon fodder for a corrupt government that is waging wars for the profit of the multinational corporations that really call the shots, the sooner they can refuse to enlist.

except that there are no other jobs here for them. once the koch brothers and other right wing industrialists succeed in disenfranchisin g us all, they will be able to dispense with all the "considerable resources" they are now wasting on the problem of soldier mental health.

or we can just get out of there NOW, not in 2 years, and use the money we currently waste invading other countries who have done us no harm to provide jobs and services at home, so that young men like William Busbee can grow to be old men
+5 # GDC707 2013-02-02 23:36
Exactly, Props. With all due respect to the suffering parties in this story, I must wonder: Did no one take this young 6 yr old aside and explain to him what war was really all about? War is about killing and being killed. Maiming and being maimed. It is about bombs that cause your ears to bleed and limbs to be blown off. War is about a lifetime of guilt.
+5 # GDC707 2013-02-02 23:37
But, no. The child was apparently left to nurture a flag waving fantasy about war. This is what happens in a Spartan culture like ours that glorifies War.
+2 # margpark 2013-02-02 21:33
Our vets who had to join the military for financial security feel guilt over killing. Policemen who are forced to kill someone often do also.

Perhaps we should round up all the Sociopaths and send them to war.
+4 # Rick Levy 2013-02-03 00:25
"Perhaps we should round up all the Sociopaths and send them to war."

That would just about clean out the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.
+4 # DRPJJ 2013-02-03 08:35
True that at 17 he was still a child, albeit one that had no concept of what going off to war meant. Nor do the parents, and those that should have told the 6 year old the "truth," because they didn't know it either. Bad enough to be in combat with an "enemy," but civilians, and children and people that wonder what your purpose in their country might be, makes for poor understanding of why they're even there. We've had our vets from wars immemerable wondering about their efficasy. Even in the World Wars, with what were considered "enemies," it still created many who "couldn't get the blood off their hands." So those not able to be returned to civilian life often became the street people we see sleeping in parks and under bridges. Can we learn enough about the human psyche to forestall these suicides? Not if we continue these unwarranted wars I'm sure.
But then how will the military/ industrial complex sustain itself and make money for those war mongers.
0 # corals33 2013-02-06 23:56
my sympathy lies with the people these boys kill.I blame the parents who should know better than making children to become the killers for these so-called civilized and intelligent nations and politicians.My children know that enlisting in any army means incurring the wrath of their father.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.