Marine Corps Steps Up Suicide Prevention Efforts to Halt Deadly Trend
By John Roberts
Published March 30, 2011
The note begins, “Grandpa, I just wanted to give you my thanks for being a great influence in my life.”
Former Marine Sgt. Dana O’Brien can barely make it through the first line before tears begin streaming down his face. It was sent from his grandson, Marine Cpl. Daniel O’Brien during one of his two tours of duty in Iraq.
On the surface, Cpl. O’Brien appeared to have a lot to live for. He was a good Marine with a promising career ahead of him. And he had a beautiful baby girl, Alexis, who, it is clear from the photographs of the two, really seemed to love her daddy.
But on the inside, O’Brien was tormented. His wife, also a Marine had recently left him. And after an altercation on base at the Marine Air Station in Buford, S.C., he thought his career was over. In July 2009, he took his own life.
O'Brien's death was part of an alarming trend: Fifty-two Marines committed suicide that year, a record high, and the military is still struggling to deal with an elevated suicide rate among those who serve.
On July 6, 2009, O’Brien took an electrical cord out to a shed behind his barracks and hanged himself. His fellow Marines found him still alive and rushed him to the MUSC hospital in South Carolina. O’Brien died a few days later.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again,” his grandfather said. “There’s a knot right here in my gut, and it’s probably going to stay there.”
In response to the rising number of suicides, the Marines launched an aggressive program to combat the problem. Now, every Marine, from enlisted personnel to command staff, receives training in suicide prevention.
“Leadership is letting folks know that it is not a sign of weakness if you ask for help,” says Navy Lt. Commander Andrew Martin, the psychologist in charge of the program.
The Marines have adopted the attitude that to be an effective warrior mental fitness is as important as physical fitness, as Fox News found while attending a suicide prevention seminar at the famous Parris Island boot camp.
The company commander, Capt. Richard Fohn began by asking the recruits how many of them know someone who has committed suicide. Remarkably, more than half the class raised their hands.
“We talk about warning signs and risk factors,” Martin said. “What to look for, especially changes in behavior. So a big piece is, leaders, know your Marines. Know your Marines well, so you can notice when they are acting differently.”
No one is quite sure why suicide has become such a problem in the military. Martin said it could be the stress of repeated deployments with limited "dwell time" at home. Work problems and financial difficulties may also play a part. And as with Cpl. O’Brien, a broken heart was a common theme.
All branches of the military are working hard to remove the stigma associated with reporting psychological issues. The old way of thinking was to "suck it up" if a soldier or Marine was having problems coping. Now, the Marines are deploying psychologists to forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan so troops have a ready ear without facing the stigma of being sent back to headquarters for counseling.
As if suicide wasn’t enough of an issue in the military, the problem may extend beyond the services. Gen. Ray Carpenter commands the Army National Guard, where the incidence of suicide nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010. Carpenter believes the numbers are a leading indicator of a broader trend in society. The rate of suicide in the general population is lower than in the military. But the latest civilian numbers are three years old. Carpenter fears that when the 2010 numbers for the civilian population come in, they will mirror those among citizen soldiers in the National Guard.
“We think that we are seeing a societal problem, and frankly the Army is the canary in the mine shaft here,” Carpenter said.
The alarming statistics in the military may point to the need for greater suicide awareness education for all Americans. It may be too early to know for sure, but after implementing its aggressive program, the Marines saw a dramatic 30 percent decline in suicides from 2009 to 2010.
The changes come too late for Cpl. O’Brien. He had been seen by a doctor and had been prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft. But his family says there wasn’t the sort of follow-up there is now, and that he fell through the cracks.
Cpl. O’Brien’s grandfather struggles through the tears to finish reading the card Daniel sent from Iraq. It is agonizing to see this hardened former sergeant so consumed with lingering grief.
“If only every young man had such a great role model in their life,” he reads, “the world would bound to be a better place. Looking forward to seeing you and Grandma.”
Nearly two years after their grandson died by suicide, the O’Briens are still devastated. They hope by speaking out about his death, they may help save another family the pain they continue to endure.