The Army Doesn’t Have a Suicide Problem
The Army set a somber record in July when 32 Soldiers took their own lives, the most since the Army started keeping stats in 2009. Despite millions of dollars spent to lower suicides, they remain regrettably high.
Army Vice Chief of Staff GEN Peter Chiarelli said recently, “While the high number of potential suicides in July is discouraging, we are confident our efforts aimed at increasing individuals’ resiliency, while reducing incidence of at-risk and high-risk behavior across the force, are having a positive impact.”
I’m sure GEN Chiarelli is trying to tow the company line, but damn. It’s evident that what the Army is doing is not working.
I’ve spent considerable time thinking about this problem, and I’ve come to the following conclusion:
There is no suicide problem.
Allow me to explain.
One reason people are generally poor problem solvers is problem misidentification. Many would-be problem solvers attack symptoms of a problem rather than the root cause. This often causes counter-intuitive results, making the problem worse rather than better. The harder someone tries to “solve” a symptom, the worse it gets.
Let’s consider the “problem” of suicide. Conventional wisdom says the stress of multiple deployments causes increased suicides. A closer look reveals this isn’t necessarily the case. According to a 2010 Army report, a mere 21 percent of suicides were committed by soldiers with multiple deployments. The report went on to say 43 percent had deployed only once. while 36 percent had never deployed.
I believe suicides are not a problem, rather, they are a symptom of a problem. The core problem is recruiting. That’s right – the Army has a recruiting problem.
Take a look at the graphs below. The first depicts the Army’s suicide rate from 2001 to 2011 (projected). The second shows the growth of the active duty Army. The trend lines are almost identical.
The Army has grown at a rapid rate since 2005, which caused two things to happen. First, the Army had to lower recruiting standards to meet increased quotas, resulting in an overall decrease in Soldier quality. Second, the Army had to rapidly promote Soldiers, in many cases before they were ready, to leadership positions in order to fill out new units.
The result is an Army with an exponential increase in the number of Soldier problems, led by leaders who’ve been promoted too quick and lack the leadership skills/experience to deal with these problems. In the name of keeping losses to a minimum, the Army made it close to impossible for commanders to get rid of problem Soldiers, making the problem even worse.
Soldiers who need engaged leadership simply aren’t getting it.
With good intentions, the Army’s efforts to date have made the problem worse rather than better. Instead of solving the core problem (recruiting), it has thrown money at the symptom (suicide) in the way of mandatory suicide training, resiliency training, comprehensive Soldier fitness training, etc. While these efforts are well-intentioned, suicide trends suggest they are not effective.
Increasing mandatory training requirements further burdens small unit leaders who have little time as it is to sit and get to know their Soldiers. Leaders are too busy filling our reports on who did and did not attend training. Furthermore, inexperienced leaders are lulled into a sense of false security, thinking that because 100% of their Soldiers sat in a crowded room for an hour and looked at PowerPoint slides, all must now be well.
In reality, good leaders who know their Soldiers personally is the best hedge against suicides. These leaders can spot problems before they start. Unfortunately, the Army’s well-intentioned efforts work to inhibit, rather than enable, this critical leadership.
The solution is to fix recruiting. Shrink the Army. Get higher quality recruits. Get rid of poor Soldiers and bad leaders. Slow promotions and emphasize professional development of leaders. Make it easy to get rid of poor Soldiers at the battalion level.
What we are doing is not working. The more the Army tries to “solve” the suicide problem, the worse it will become.
- Army Suicides Hit Record in July (onebluestocking.wordpress.com)
- Army concerned, vigilant over rise in troop suicides (chron.com)
- Isht Is Real On The Frontlines: At Least 151 US Soldiers Have Committed Suicide This Year (bossip.com)
- Army to reduce deployment time in war zone to 9 months (cnn.com)