Soldier Suicides: Counting the Forgotten Casualties of War
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After more than six years of field exercises in some of the most grueling weather our country offers, I am rarely affected by even the most chilling winter rains. Months of accumulated time in the forests of North Carolina, the deserts of California, and the wetlands of Louisiana - training for war has built up in me a bit of immunity to succumbing to the shivers. However, there is one thing that pierces my calloused exterior with ease.
Tremors begin in my chest-tiny convulsions shortening my breath. They quickly spread to my upper back and neck before spreading throughout my body. Even now as I write, my fingers pause over many keys, timing the moment they may strike with relative certainty that I will not have to delete keystrokes. My breath becomes shallow and I feel warmth leave my hands and feet.
In a tab on my browser, a Washington Post article lies hidden behind my word processing program. It is a story that hits horrifically close to home. It speaks of Army Lieutenant Elizabeth Whiteside, facing court-martial-being prosecuted for attempted suicide-while rehabilitating in the Psychiatric Ward of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The same officer had served in the prison that sent Saddam to be hanged, in the Iraqi government's illusion of redemptive violence.
Days ago, another article, from AlterNet, described a recent CBS investigation that found an alarming trend in those who have served our country. I would never have believed the finding had it not been for the devastating news Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) received last Tuesday. One of our active members had taken their own life. Their spouse, another IVAW member who suffers from PTSD, had found the body the night prior.
In 2005, an average of 17 vets committed suicide every day. No, that is not a typo: 17 every day. More alarming is the response within the Armed Forces - which is disturbingly outlined in the case of 1st Lt. Whiteside, wherein a clinical diagnosis is being utterly ignored in the interest of saving face. At the same time, many of our vets' disability claims are being verifiably reduced or denied. This treatment sends one strikingly clear message to those who have served and sacrificed: you are not worth the effort. Is it any wonder why vets of all generations are more prone to homelessness and suicide than any other demographic?
The church has historically labeled suicide an unforgivable sin, as the opportunity for repentance destroys itself with the victim's final breath. However, before labeling suicide as "the coward's way out," I think we need to look at our own corporate complicity in these deaths. In our modern era, we have not learned from the ancient orthodoxy that taught warriors to remove themselves from the community for a period of reflection and healing before reentering.
Today, a soldier can move from Kirkuk to New York in a matter of hours. What does that do to their grasp of reality? When they cry out for our holistic (not superficial) support, we fumble about, feeding them gross misinterpretations of scripture such as the Just War Theory, hoping to ease their consciences with hollow justifications. When they find no solace in that, we walk away confused about why we could not "fix their problem," casting shame upon those who can find no affirmation.
I don't think a transcendently benevolent God is that insensitive. I think God feels their pain long before anyone on earth accepts the responsibility to share in Christ's saving work, which begins even before the seed of self-hatred is sown. Surely we are not so blinded by our own plank that we fail to see that if we will not share their pain, we shall share their guilt. A suicide is anything but a personal transgression; it reflects an outright failure of community. Our heart should ache for all those who have been suffocated of hope, beaten to the point of desperation by a world that offers no source of redemptive healing for the beaten and broken.
I wonder if we get so defensive because there is no room for restitution, no scapegoat upon which to place blame. We hastily label it a personal sin, as we are made impotent by the inability to cast judgment. We forget that indeed a murder has taken place, but that the stones lay in our own two hands. It is not one stone that kills a person, but many; not one sin that destroys a life, but an accumulation. The truth leaves us naked, and fig leaves held tenuously together by half-truths and moral manipulations are all that conceal us from reality.
My fingers still quiver and the quakes in my chest have not subsided. My joints ache with grief and my hands still have no warmth in them. I am sick with disgust and contempt for the systems we have in place and their utter failure in our national time of need. This frustration is sin crouching at my door, threatening to overcome me, but I can be its master. I am not incapable of overcoming anger with compassion, defeating hubris with humility. May God have mercy on me. May I rest in peace. May God enable me to be the change I wish to see, to reach those close to death's door and be Christ's heart and hands to the least among us.
May God direct us all in being the prophetic witness to our government, to help us create means of healing for those who sacrifice their mental and physical health. May the author and protector of life give us hearts of flesh and rebuke us every time we marginalize and dehumanize our brothers and sisters by casting the stones of disregard, indifference, and neglect.
Logan Laituri is a six-year Army veteran with combatant service in Iraq during OIF II and experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and the West Bank. He is an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and currently resides in Camden, New Jersey, in an intentional Christian community called Camden House, where he continues to seek ways to wage peace wherever he goes. He blogs at courageouscoward.blogspot.com.