Exactly four years ago, I was hired by the best equipped, most richly funded and lethal fighting force ever assembled. Their primary need for my expertise surrounded the scourge of sexual violence occurring within their ranks. I gave them everything I had for 32 months as a civilian with a background in special victims prosecution.
I was supposedly hired to do far more than train JAGs on the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault. I was told- initially at least- that my mission was to make candid observations and help create meaningful changes; hence bringing me in as an HQE or “Highly Qualified Expert” at a level on par with general officers and the Senior Executive Service.
I took the mission seriously, and in return I was largely bullied and marginalized, almost exclusively by a tiny handful of unfortunately placed mid-level officers who viewed myself and my two colleagues as subordinates, there to carry out their pre-planned agendas, rather than the change agents we were supposed to be. To my detriment, I fought back. The bullying continued, blossoming into what amounted to stalking humiliation as I entered my third year of service. I left honorably in February of 2012.
I have never written of that experience in this space, for two reasons: First, I encountered largely honorable, dedicated and decent men and women in every facet and at every level of the US Army, and did not want anything I said to create an unfair impression of a group I admire greatly and through which I made lifelong friends. Second, I simply feared I could not do it fairly.
Instead I wrote privately to the JAG leadership who hired me, several months after leaving, to express what I believe were ignored blind-spots despite the valiant efforts I had seen and in some measure been a part of. I got a polite non-response and decided I had done and said enough.
And then I saw this. The Army reported a record 325 suicides in 2012, up from 283 in 2011. The issue is of course deeply complex; 12 grueling years of war provide infinite reasons. But the analyses I have read remind me darkly of things I suggested with regard to the mental health of not only JAG lawyers themselves but also investigators, commanders, support personnel and soldiers of every rank and responsibility who were witness to or otherwise affected by the crimes I was hired to help reduce. Two of these issues stand out in particular, and on both I fought for changes and development. I did so largely in vain.
One issue was same-sex sexual assault. Whether or not the victim identifies as homosexual (most perpetrators do not), they are uniquely disadvantaged. Prior to the final repeal of the odious ban and the “DADT” compromise, many victims remained silent because any real or perceived consensual homosexual conduct before an attack could still lead to discharge. Prior to the lifting of the ban in 2011, I implored the JAG to bring in nationally known and respected experts to help us understand the issues, believing that reports of victimization would likely rise. Same-sex rape victims are some of the most wounded, vulnerable and isolated imaginable; we needed specialized resources as investigators and prosecutors to assist them.
I was ignored, at times aggressively so.
I also petitioned for better vicarious trauma services for the JAGs- both prosecutors and defense counsel- who had to consume not only the facts of the cases we regularly saw, but also things like high definition video of child rape and torture in the context of child pornography cases. Again, I was ignored; Army officers, I was told, received vicarious trauma training already. When I pointed out that this was largely combat related (a very different stressor) it was suggested that I alert the leadership when I encountered someone who “seemed to need help.”
These two examples address a tiny percentage of the issue of mental health and the danger of suicide within the military context. But they were two that I felt I had a responsibility to address, even if tangentially, as part of my mission. I quickly became used to my ideas being ignored while working for the Army. Such is life, and I do not begrudge substantive differences in opinion, particularly with regard to an institution and culture that I only served temporarily and without wearing a uniform.
But when those differences are more about posturing and personality conflicts than rational argument, and when present and former warriors are taking their own lives in desperation and despair as war and its accompanying hardships continue, I cannot in good conscience remain silent on any aspect for which I have insight.
I know the concern is there. I know that general officers understand the pain of suicide; they attend the funerals without exception. They engage the families. They bear the misery themselves in large measure. I simply wished then and wish now that the ones I worked for would have given me more of an ear than their subordinates did.