In the spring of 1977, I was the duty sergeant in Wiesbaden, West Germany, when I got a call that one of our soldiers killed himself while on guard duty. I called the duty officer. Within what seemed like just a few minutes, the battalion command staff was in the headquarters and handling the crisis.
I heard he fired his M16 full auto with the barrel in his mouth. That was the last official word I heard about the young man who was now dead. The Chaplain did not mention the soldier's death the following Sunday or at any time.
The day after the incident, our first sergeant delivered one of his rambling talks about why we should not kill ourselves.
In the Army in the 1970s, suicide was still wrong. It was a failure. Soldiers who took their own lives got no honors. They were not mentioned. In the 1970s in the military, suicide was still a Sin. The young soldier “committed” suicide, because what he did was a sin and a crime. Today, when suicide is mentioned, I usually hear it as someone “taking his own life.”
I left the Army in 1979 and went to college. Then in 2007, I re-enlisted at 54 years old. Much about the Army was the same. The first time I went to field training in 2008, I rode in the back of a “Deuce and a Half” truck carrying an M16 rifle. But later that year when the father of one of our soldiers took his own life, I found out that the Army’s view of suicide was not the same. Most of the company turned out to support their brother in arms at the funeral. Suicide was no longer a sin.
This year two soldiers in that same company took their own lives. I watched the Honor Guard practice for the first funeral. Watching the Honor Guard practice, I thought how much the Army has changed since the 1970s. I am not sure if our $10,000 life insurance policy back in the 1970s paid in the case of suicide, but I am quite sure that the families of these soldiers will receive the current full death benefit that is somewhere close to $500,000.
Both then and now, I cannot imagine the severity of the pain these men must have experienced; pain so strong that it led them to take their own lives. Both in the Army and out, I have seen the pain suicide causes for the friends and family of the deceased. They are bewildered, guilty, devastated. Suicide was a tragedy in the old Army and is a tragedy now. But I am glad today’s Army counts suicide among the casualties of war. No matter whether we lose a soldier to accident, illness, injury, enemy fire or suicide, we have lost one of our own.