This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri March 13th 2019.
This was just published a few weeks ago, but I want to get it online now because of the seriousness of the subject.
For the past month one of the big news items has been that military suicide is at an all-time high. The figures released by the Department of Defense of active duty suicides in 2018 are; Marines – 57, Navy – 68, Air Force – 58, and Army – 138. Marines, sailors, and airmen who take their own lives are often young people who have never deployed. The causes, which have been identified, are what you might expect, relationships, marriage problems, and financial problems, but in the Army the overwhelming majority come from special operations, and in particular Special Forces – the Green Berets. These are older men who have been deployed over and over and over for the past 15 years. Suicides within that group tripled in 2018, and after they leave the Army they are still a large percentage of veteran suicides.
If you overwork anything, it will wear out. That has been the message Special Operations Command (SOCOM) leaders have been telling congress for the past several years. Most of the work of Special Forces is classified. The shadow warriors. The silent professionals. There are five active Special Forces Groups with a total of less than 5,000 Green Berets, and there are two National Guard Groups. Two years ago the Commander of the US Special Operations Command testified before the House Armed Services Committee that Special Forces were deployed to 138 countries, or about 70 percent of the world.
When we were first married in 1966, Special Forces was a big attraction to us grunts in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They were getting promoted much faster than we were. My wife Betty said “No way”. Our SF neighbors would go on a three month deployment, come home for 30 days then go on a six month deployment to Vietnam, and then repeat it over and over. The rumor was that the SF divorce rate was 70 percent, I don’t doubt it. We had been married six months when I went to Vietnam the first time. Guess where I got assigned – the 5th Special Forces Group.
In Special Forces an Advise and Assist mission means a 12 man A Detachment (A Team) is sent into a backward undeveloped country that is at war with its neighbor. The team’s mission is to train an army, with little outside support, and take it into combat. They also go into modern developed nations to train them in unconventional warfare (guerilla fighting). They go on medical assistance missions to undeveloped nations. When the United States of America invaded Afghanistan it was with one 12 man Special Forces A-Team. Twelve Strong. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and several others Green Berets have been engaged in combat over and over, with most of it classified, so they can’t talk about it.
During my time in the Army, Sergeants didn’t show emotion, it was a sign of weakness. The only place you could release those inner feelings was at home. That is apparently still the case. There are stories from wives of Green Berets who committed suicide, about the change the wife saw in her husband after several deployments. Complete personality changes. Even after urging from their wife the soldiers would not seek help, because they would lose their security clearance and possibly get kicked out of SF or of the Army. I knew a couple soldiers who had nervous breakdowns. One Personnel Sergeant was able to recover and stay in the Army. The other committed suicide.
Everything the Delta Force does is classified. If you want to know more about Delta, read “Inside Delta Force” by Eric Haney. He and I were on orders to the first Delta assessment class, I didn’t go, he did and made it, and spent several years as a Delta Operator. He then wrote the book and was technical advisor on the TV show “The Unit”. The Command Sergeant Major (CSM) of the US Special Operations Command, Chris Farris, came up through the ranks of special operations, having spent 18 years as a Delta Operator. After many repeated deployments, CSM Farris and his wife Lisa, saw their marriage coming apart. They vowed to fix it, and they did. For the past few years they have together visited special operations groups everywhere, held town hall meetings, and appeared on television, urging soldiers to confront their problems and get help, if necessary. CSM Farris said that he didn’t think that he was suffering from traumatic stress, but an examination identified three spots on his brain that showed traumatic brain injury. He could only remember one incident of being “blown up”, but thinking back he recalled repeated training on breeching. Breeching is basically blowing open a door or an obstacle with a big explosion, and immediately going through it, so you have to be as close as possible when you blow it open.
Career soldiers have an attachment to and a love for the Army that is hard to explain to people who haven’t been there. The more elite the unit, the stronger the attachment. I pulled strings to get my last job in the Army at home, in the ROTC Department of MS&T (then University of Missouri-Rolla). I knew in the back of my mind that it would be my last assignment. I was home, helping Dad and Mom on the farm, my kids going to school where I and my Dad went to school, reconnecting with old friends and relatives, but that didn’t change the devastating trauma I felt taking off the uniform. I don’t regret retiring then, because I got to spend the last 14 years of my Dad’s life with him, and that was more important, but leaving the Army was traumatic.
During my first tour in Vietnam, with Special Forces, I contracted hepatitis from eating some really bad stuff. Our medic said; “You got yellow jaundice man, you got to go to the hospital.” Two months later, when I was released from the hospital in Japan, I was told that since I had only been in country nine months and two weeks, I had to go back, because anything less than 10 months was considered an incomplete tour. My enlistment was about up, so I got out of the Army. Two years later, after selling new and used cars in Fayetteville and Charlotte, North Carolina, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went back to the Army. Leaving the Army was like leaving a family that had cared for me for over twenty years. I was then a civilian, making a living just like everyone else, something that doesn’t concern soldiers.
A few years ago I attended a Veterans Day assembly at my grandson’s school in Ballwin. A speaker there was a man about 40 years old. He talked about his high school friend who was a star athlete, set athletic records at their school, and was smart and good at everything. His friend had scholarships, but wanted to go into the Army. His friend spent several years in the Army. He said that he saw his friend one day, wearing an old army field jacket, sitting on a bench at the Barnes Hospital complex. His friend slept on benches or under bushes. He said that he ask why, “You have family here.” His friend said yes but they just don’t understand, they just don’t understand.
It is an honor to serve in the Armed Forces of this great country. Most people who serve, do their job and their time, get out and go on with life. Over 17 percent of those who enlist, stay for a career. It is a protected and secure life, leaving it can be traumatic. I think problems veterans have will surface shortly after their leaving the service, so it you know a recent veteran who appears to be struggling, offer to help or encourage them to get help.
On March 6th President Trump signed an Executive Order creating a task force to study and attempt to reduce veteran suicide. Prayers with that task force. The active army is already taking action. Senior leaders like CSM Farris and a few generals are starting to go public with their battles with service connected stress, in an attempt to get the soldiers who are suffering to seek help. The inner culture of special operations does not encourage soldiers to admit that they are suffering.
The Army is having trouble increasing the number of soldiers, therefore having trouble increasing the size of special operations. Perhaps the United States needs to reduce the number of missions around the world.