“Do I tell people I have two children or three?” she said. The woman at the conference pulled out her phone to show me a picture of her dark-eyed teenage son. She told me he dyed his hair to match his date’s dress for the prom. She told me he committed suicide a year before they PCSed.
“And do I tell people here? They don’t know him. They don’t know me,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say. I just know I never met someone so alone in all my life. Suicide isolates surviving family members.
Yet that woman and her servicemember and their children are not alone in this.
Suicide, suicide attempts and suicidal ideation are present not just among military members but among family members as well.
So why does the military so carefully collect and analyze the rate of suicide among servicemembers, but not family members?
It could be the cost.
In a report recently sent to Congress, the Pentagon's Defense Suicide Prevention Office outlined a proposal for tracking suicide among military family members.
The DoD estimates that it would take approximately 18-24 months to complete the study at a cost of about $1.2 million. Full report here.
That may seem like a lot, especially in a time in which everything is on the chopping block.
Yet so many of us know or know of suicides among other military families. It isn’t a problem that is going away.
Just this month, a Ft. Hood soldier came home from deployment and, not long after, her husband and daughters were found dead in their home. Army investigators said it appeared to be a murder-suicide.
A study by researchers at USC late last year showed that 24.8 percent of military kids who had a parent deploy reported making a suicide plan. Eighteen percent of military kids in the study said that they had actually made an attempt.
Without a way to count the number of suicides among family members, there is no data to start to address the problem -- or even to know if it is a problem compared to the civilian population.
Because the problem does exist in our country. According to the Center for Disease Control, for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year in that age group alone. Nearly 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year.
What is the cost of all those lives? What is the cost to their surviving family members? What is the cost of a study compared to that?
The military counts on all military families to be endlessly resilient, permanently strong, ultimately able.
Which is just plain silly. Twelve years of war exerts a cost on military family members.
And yet even offering data on how much this would cost feels like box-checking from the DoD. The report itself was only done in response to a Congressional order to do so. The order requested an assessment of the "ability of the Services to collect information and perform analysis on suicide among immediate family members as part of their suicide information retention and analysis."
We know that this is season of cost cutting and belt tightening. But if tracking military family suicides could lead to more prevention, then isn't it worth it?