Military Moves To Front Line Of Suicide Prevention

In September, four soldiers at Ft. Hood — veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — took their own lives in the course of one week. More than a hundred Army troops have killed themselves this year. Host Scott Simon talks with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, about the increased efforts to curb suicides by military servicemen and women.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In September, four soldiers at Fort Hood, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, took their own lives in a single week. More than 120 U.S. Army troops have killed themselves this year. Earlier this week, we went to the Pentagon to discuss the tragedy of the growing number of suicides in the U.S. armed forces with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and his wife Deborah.

The Mullens have struggled to find a link among these suicides.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): There's just a lot we don't know. And we have doubled our rate since 2004. We now exceed the rate in the population in the country. As I've looked into this and tried to understand it, it turns out there's not a lot of great literature on this. And we've put in place a very comprehensive study over the course of five years -we're about a year into it - to really try to pull this apart.

We've also taken steps immediately to have leaders intervene, to train our people, to review every single case to try to understand this. And yet there's still a great deal that we don't understand. A lot of it has to do with, I think, the pressure we're under, the deployments.

And yet fully a third of those who've committed suicide have not deployed. So it isn't just those that have deployed.

SIMON: Mrs. Mullen, we know, of course, this issue is of particular interest to you. Can you help us understand from the vantage that you have and speaking to families of military members what some of those additional pressures are?

Ms. DEBORAH MULLEN: It's interesting that when I speak with military families I'm generally in the room alone with them. And it's the one topic that does not come up unless you happen to be with surviving family members who have lost someone to suicide.

But I think there is such a concern about even talking about it out loud that they don't discuss it. What I do see when I talk to someone who has lost a family member to suicide is in many cases they realized something was wrong. They tried to get them to get help. But for whatever reason they were unable to be successful.

And I think that what we need to do is we need to provide a really good education for spouses and family members to understand what are some of the signs of suicide, but also to understand that if they have the least bit concern that they believe someone in their family is suicidal that they can simply pick up the phone and dial 1-800-273-TALK - and on a cell phone it's 1-800-273-8255 - and they can speak with an expert.

SIMON: Is there a whole psychology here that's added to by the fact that we're talking about men and women in the military? I mean, men and women in the military are proud of being tough and perhaps not good at admitting an emotional weakness.

Adm. MULLEN: Well, you hit on that which is so hard about getting help, which is the whole stigma issue. We've made some progress with respect to eliminating the stigma, but we're nowhere close to where we need to be.

And I think clearly leaders are responsible. Those who have experienced, for instance, post-traumatic stress and they need help, leaders have to ask for help. And when leaders do, those that they lead will also follow. So it's a huge hurdle to get over and we're not there.

SIMON: Admiral Mullen, you've quoted as saying that this is going to get worse before it gets better.

Adm. MULLEN: Yeah.

SIMON: That was a very bracing thing to hear.

Adm. MULLEN: Well, first of all, I believe it. And one of the ways I tell a story is in 2002, 2003, if you were a 10-year-old boy or girl and your mom or dad - mostly dads - were in one of these units that deployed frequently - we're in our fourth or fifth major deployment and most of them have been a year or longer. So that 10-year-old boy or girl just went off to college. And they don't know their dad. Their dad or mom hasn't been home.

So there are huge challenges, I think, that reside in our families. And I just use that as one example. Families have basically just sort of dealt with each deployment and figured a way to almost gut their way through it. And now they're going to be home. Now I think many of the things that we haven't had to deal with we're going to have to deal with, in relationships in the family, individual members whose lives have really changed forever because of what they've seen, the combat that they've been through, the stress they've been under. So I really think that we're at the beginning of dealing with some of those challenges, and I want leaders to be alert to this.

SIMON: Mrs. Mullen, do returning service people sometimes bring the war home with them?

Ms. MULLEN: I don't think they'll ever leave the war behind. They don't necessarily share stories with their families. It makes it more difficult to bring that person back into the family because they have had such different experiences. And finding a way to help that individual come back into the family, come back without all of the - that need for the adrenaline, what turns into risky behavior, all of those things, they need to be able to learn to live differently, and that's not happening.

SIMON: I think a lot of people listening might find themselves very touched and say to themselves, how can we help them now?

Adm. MULLEN: More than anything else, I'm looking for community leaders to connect with those who have served and to look for a way to really assist those veterans who are returning. They are great young people who will contribute to the community in the future. They just need a little help and transition, get them started, and I think they'll fly and make a big difference wherever they are.

SIMON: Mrs. Mullen?

Ms. MULLEN: I think one of the issues if we don't do this is that we're going to find that we're going to have another generation of homeless veterans. We're already beginning to see the numbers increase faster than they did from Vietnam, and it is - they become homeless sooner than they did after Vietnam. We're seeing more homeless female veterans. About a fourth of those are coming with children. So what we're trying to do is find a way to make the handoff to communities so that we don't lose these folks and have them end up with another generation of homelessness.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

Ms. MULLEN: Thank you for having us.

Adm. MULLEN: Thank you.

SIMON: Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Deborah Mullen, speaking with us at the Pentagon.

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