Private Stites Should Have Been Saved
Why are so many army soldiers committing suicide? Take a look at its basic training and the tragic death of Private Nolan Stites.
In his psychological autopsy of Gary Moore, Kirk described the "Catch 22" that Gary was in when he finally met with Patterson after three weeks on Unit Watch. "If he were honest with others about his suicidal thoughts and intentions, he would not be able to blend in. He faced the possibility of remaining on Unit Watch and facing to [sic] jokes of other privates. Even if he were separated from the Army, he would have to live with the knowledge that he failed out of Army basic training while his brother had made it through Marine Corps boot camp. He was concerned he would not be able to blend in as a civilian either because he was worried being separated from training would make it more difficult for him to find a job. On the other hand, if he did not report feeling suicidal, he would be stuck in the Army, a fate that he felt he could not tolerate. Pvt. Moore wanted to just go home.... He had asked for help twice, so far it had done nothing but put him in an even more uncomfortable situation."
Suicide is a growing problem for the Army. In 2000, the year that Nolan and Gary died, the Army had a total of 63 suicides, including the high-profile tragedy at Fort Bragg, N.C., where two Green Berets just back from a mission in Afghanistan murdered their wives and then themselves. In 2001, there were 50 Army suicides. The following year, there were 68. In 2003, when the War on Terror expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, there were 76.
In theory, Unit Watch might seem to be a reasonable first response to soldiers in crisis. Its basic procedures - removing the solider from training, separating the soldier from weapons, removing the soldier's shoelaces and belt, having the soldier sleep in a common area and under the constant watch of unit members - all seem like common sense safeguards for suicidal soldiers. Lt. Col. Jerry Swanner, the officer in charge of the Army's Suicide Prevention Program, describes the policy as a tool only to be used in specific circumstances, and only when applied in concert with assistance from mental-health professionals. "It is to only be used when a solider is determined to be at-risk and for whatever reason the solider is not able to be hospitalized. Maybe the local hospital doesn't have a mental health ward and it might involve transporting a solider to a hospital several hundred miles away. It is only to be used in rare circumstances." Unit Watch is intended to be used judiciously and briefly because, as the psychiatry consultant to Army Surgeon General Col. David Orman has written, "Unit Watch does not meet any clinical 'Standard of Care.' "
In reality, though, what well-intentioned policy-makers like Swanner say about Unit Watch is one thing; the truth is that Unit Watch is used routinely and too often, ignorantly. Swanner says he is unable to find any official document citing when Unit Watch began, but the policy has been employed at least since the mid-1980s, throughout the Army, from the five BCT installations to its units deployed in battlefields around the world, like Iraq. In the wake of Nolan and Gary's suicides, the Pentagon sent five of the Army's highest-ranking psychiatrists to Fort Leonard Wood to investigate. The report, says the Pentagon source who provided it to 5280, is the only study to examine Unit Watch. According to its findings, between July and October 2000 at Leonard Wood, 317 recruits were evaluated at the base's Mental Health Services for "depression and/or suicidal tendencies." Of those, 211 were identified as suicidal, and 146 of them - 69 percent - including Gary and Nolan, were put on Unit Watch. Once again, this was a study of one base during a single four-month period.
What's more, the team concluded there is little consistency in the application of Unit Watch. "Many patients who expressed only fleeting ideation [of suicide], with no plan, no intent and made a commitment to safety were put on it, and others with more severe behaviors were not put on it." The psychiatry team determined that, with the exception of "the two deaths, the vast majority of suicidal acts appeared to be non-life threatening, and many charts supported the clinical impression that trainees often were being overtly manipulative, in an effort to quickly get out of the military." In other words, soldiers who are gravely mentally ill are treated no differently than soldiers perceived to be faking instability in order to get out of the service.
Why? Numerous officials contacted for this article, including Col. Gerald Evans, a recent chief of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Fort Campbell, Ky., who gave a presentation on Unit Watch in 1999 at a U.S. Army Behavioral Science convention, refused to say. However, the statement that sticks in Richard's mind, from Leonard Wood's Col. Rollinson, may be all the explanation a layperson needs: "If we didn't have Unit Watch, we would have a mass exodus of troops using mental problems to get out."
The humiliation, isolation, and ridicule that Gary and Nolan endured were not unforeseen byproducts of Unit Watch; rather they were specifically intended, ostensibly to get them to stop "faking." The true intent of Unit Watch, as Nolan's friend Peters put it that day to Richard after Nolan's memorial, is to send the message that if you want to try to get out of the Army, this is what would happen.
Mentally ill soldiers, and those soldiers thought to be faking an illness to get out of duty, are not the only troops who've been subjected to Unit Watch. Commanders have been using the policy to aribitrarily punish men and women in their command, as illustrated in a series of e-mails sent between a Lt. Col. Gordon G. Groseclose and his peers in the Army's chaplain corps and mental health community.