May 2014

Suicide Study Findings Ignored by U.S. Military

Dave Matsuda

It was early February 2010. My unit, I Corps, had been in Iraq for nearly a year, and was scheduled to rotate home. I walked out of my office on the second floor of the Aw Faw Palace — the United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) headquarters — in a reflective mood. My title, cultural advisor, and my position reporting to USF-1’s commanding generals gave me access to the entire country. I’d been on mission in every province, establishing relationships with Iraqi tribal elders, military commanders and political leaders. And I’d studied the subtle corruption created by the military’s connection with elders and leaders, as well as the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq.

I made my way along the palace’s curved rotunda hallway, past windows through which the Iraqi sun pierced so intensely that I felt like an ant under the magnifying glass of a tormenting child. Brigadier General (BG) Peter Bayer stepped through the glare.

“Doc, I have a mission for you. The most important work you’ll do in Iraq,” he said. 

I thought I’d already done my most important work in Iraq, but it’s not wise to question a general. 

“What are your orders?” I asked. 

“I want you to find out why so many of our soldiers are committing suicide. Don’t worry about having enough time, I reserved a seat for you on the last flight home.”

I left to conduct the suicide study armed with two “champion letters.” The first, from BG Bayer, explained the importance of my mission and moved me to the front of the line in overcrowded transportation hubs. The second, from the chief surgeon, secured my access to rank and file soldiers. As a Chinook helicopter lifted off late-night to take me on my first study trip I thought about Charlie Waters, a retired senior officer and high-level consultant, who had committed suicide a month earlier. Waters, a middle-aged man, wasn’t typical of the military’s suicide victims, who tend to be young. His suicide made old-timers like me take a good look in the mirror. 

After securing another flight using one of my champion letters, I arrived at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sanderson on my way to investigate recent suicides. A waiting convoy took me to Combat Outpost (COP) Arapaho, where I hopped on a resupply mission to Checkpoint Charlie. The checkpoint, located at a crucial rural intersection, consisted of a watchtower and several shipping containers, surrounded by a sand-berm. Soldiers at the understaffed rural checkpoint stopped vehicles round the clock in an effort to prevent terrorists from transiting to urban areas. 

At the checkpoint it was evident that Rob’s—a pseudonym—recent suicide was a festering wound to his “battle buddies.” In a series of interviews I learned that Rob’s closest mates felt that that a “recruiter’s false expectations” made him feel inferior. Rob bought into the “heroes’ narrative bullshit,” in which he leaves his troubled past behind and reinvents himself in the U.S. Army by becoming a special operations assassin. But he didn’t make special operations, and instead was posted at this “nowhere checkpoint doing menial inspections with no one to kill.” The more dejected Rob became, the more his superior officers “smoked”— ridiculed and ostracized — him. Rob finally hit a low point.

Like an animal caught in a trap that chews its leg off to escape, Rob began the process of severing himself from life. Having made peace with his decision to die by self-directed gunshot, suicide became Rob’s mission. “He fooled everyone,” one of his battle buddies said, ‘by inverting the Army’s “these behaviors indicate suicidal tendencies” list. If the list said, “watch out for such and such a behavior,” he threw everyone off the scent by not doing that behavior.’ 

Another friend jumped in, ‘Right before he committed suicide Rob seemed in control. He told me he was going to turn the tables and smoke his toxic leader who, after being punished, would finally have to listen to us. Funny thing, the investigation into his suicide ignored us. The toxic leader never had to listen to us.”  

Exhausted, I returned to FOB Sanderson. An aide said the captain in charge of Rob’s checkpoint wanted to see me. 

“So how did it go out there,” the officer asked.

“Too early to tell,” I replied. “Got a lot of data to sort through before I reach even preliminary conclusions.”

“Did they” he fixed my eyes in cold stare, “talk about me?”

“They did not,” I lied. “Anyway the study is totally anonymous and confidential. No name, rank and serial numbers,” I said feigning lightheartedness.

The way the captain said, “I think that’s best, we wouldn’t want to ruin any careers,” told me I was looking into the eyes of the toxic leader whose “smokin sessions” contributed to Rob’s suicide.

Several days later, at FOB Sabre, as I interviewed those who had been affected by another soldier’s, “Burris,” suicide, a pattern began to emerge. Interviews with the chain of command focused on closing the case of a “selfish self-murderer,” while interviews with the deceased’s circle of trust were about grieving, trying to make sense of a lost life, and holding toxic leaders accountable.

‘How would you feel?’ a frustrated soldier yelled during an interview, ‘if “Little Army’s” toxic leaders did nothing to stop your suicide and “Big Army” couldn’t close the investigation fast enough. They told Burris’ mom that his suicide was caused by a troubled home life. Can you imagine, blaming his mom for what they did to him? Burris was “squared away” before they started smokin him.” 

Based on 50 interviews, I concluded that the Army’s anti-suicide policies and investigations demonstrated several critical biases. For example, quantitative surveys, in which researchers use statistics to draw their conclusions, weren’t paired with qualitati ve fieldwork, where those who served with the deceased are asked to tell their version of events. Similarly, the emphasis is on clinical distance and closed ended survey questions, in which interviewers only read an incident’s official background file, under the assumption that getting to know the subject, his chain of command, and circle of trust too closely would bias results. The “yes or no” questions used in Army suicide investigations can illicit false positives or negatives. For instance, if I ask the closed ended question “Are you the only one in your family to contemplate suicide”, how does the subject respond truthfully if they’ve never contemplated suicide? 

To be holistic Army suicide studies must include personal interviews, in which the researcher, while maintaining objectivity, delves into the suicide victim’s personal and professional life, and the lives of those who survived his loss. This personal approach is most effective when paired with open ended questions like “What does Rob’s suicide mean to you?” Open ended questions usher the researcher into the subject’s worldview, and empower the informant to contribute otherwise unanticipated in-depth information from a primary source. 

 A bias also exists for accepting without question the word of the chain of command, while discounting or ignoring the suicide victim’s circle of trust. If, as is the case in some Army suicides, the leader is toxic, their answers may be self- serving, even to the point of blaming the victim. A more comprehensive version of events could be captured by including the victim’s circle of trust in the investigation. Their accounts can add much needed depth to suicide studies. And the circle of trust provides a check and balance to the official account.

 My study was small and anecdotal, but it linked toxic leadership to suicide. To my knowledge, no other research has made the connection between a toxic commander and a soldier under his command committing suicide. The prevailing wisdom has long held that suicide among soldier is caused by a traumatic upbringing, recent setbacks, and the pressure of fighting and facing death. Add to this mix a toxic leader who relentlessly humiliates and ostracizes a soldier who has just returned from patrol and the pressure can be, I contend, fatally unrelenting. 

 I submitted the study, returned home and waited for it to be integrated into Army suicide prevention investigations. Instead, despite my periodic queries and occasional protests, the same flawed research methodology was used in study after study, even as the death toll from suicides continues to rise. 

Comparing Army suicide research with the definition of insanity — doing the same experiment over and over while expecting a different result — I sent my study to Daniel Zwerdling from National Public Radio (NPR), who took a close look at the relationship between toxic leadership and Army suicides. Zwerdling’s findings, based in part on my research, underscore the need for the military to stop toxic leadership from continuing to contribute to soldier suicides. I’ve received more than a thousand e-mails in response to the NPR story, which aired earlier this year, ranging from urges to continue the work, requests to deliver the study results at conferences, and invitations to join anti-suicide projects. 

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