Recently, various cable and national news outlets reported that U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend had “ordered” soldiers under his command at the base at Ft. Campbell, KY to not commit suicide. While this makes an attention-grabbing headline, it was more of an exhortation than a command. Nevertheless, the U.S. military has been criticized for years about the way it has been handling the skyrocketing military suicide rate, which, by some measures, has now surpassed the overall U.S. population suicide rate. The base has the highest suicide rate in the entire U.S. Army.
Over a century ago, Durkheim’s famous (though methodologically flawed) study of suicide concluded that members of those groups with stronger social integration are less likely to take their own lives. It is hard to imagine a more socially cohesive group than military units; yet it appears that numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, for longer periods of time, are eroding the more primary social ties, such as to the family and community. Gen. Townsend has tried to appeal to the soldiers’ sense of duty to the army and commitment to their units. However, some experts believe that this will be ineffective, as it does not address the wearing away of the very connections that may be the best way to avert the problem in the first place.