First, I am fully aware that Veterans Day celebrates the achievements of those who serve or have served, not explicitly those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, as Memorial Day commemorates. When I address those who are “gone but not forgotten” I wish to highlight those among the ranks who are pending investigation for misconduct. For many if not most, the respective commands treat them as though they are already gone. For those facing probable court-martial for myriad offenses, their commands treat them as though they have already been forgotten.
The isolation that comes with facing investigation and likely court-martial is for many more than they can bear. In the past several weeks, I am aware of two instances that members took their lives. These are two suicides of members pending investigation and the clients of my colleagues. Perhaps my drawing a link between their investigation status and their deaths is not fair; it is true that I know very little else about them other than that they were facing investigation and probable court-martial. It stands to reason, however, that as they awaited word of the outcome and their future, the time ticking by was a contributing factor.
Among the other factors impacting someone in their position would be the likely removal from their position. Most if not all service members who are awaiting the outcome of an investigation are removed from leadership positions and even from their jobs. I daresay for my clients, I would be hard-pressed to think of one who had not complained to me that in addition to waking daily with the realization of their status, they had no purpose in even reporting to duty. For those who answered the call, suddenly finding themselves without a purpose in uniform is itself an enormous strain. If not already a topic for consultation, when I explain to clients about Article 13, UCMJ’s prohibition to pre-trial punishment, nearly every one brings up that they do not have a meaningful job to do. For those with security clearances, those clearances are held in abeyance pending the outcome of the investigation; this occurs in all cases, not those with any ties or indicators of any particularized security risk.
Many confide that as part of their isolation their co-workers do not dare speak to them. I believe whole-heartedly that many co-workers do not know what would be appropriate to say so they say nothing; others fear that they are not allowed to speak to the individual because servicemembers have “rights” and the co-worker might be tempted to ask them what is going on. So many potential witnesses and co-workers confess to me that they just don’t want to get involved and for those folks, not speaking a word to the person is the easiest delineating way to show they do not have any relevant personal knowledge. No matter what the intent is of the co-worker, peer, subordinate, or superior, the result is the same: the person pending investigation falls deeper into isolation.
Mistrust of the system from secrecy of the process likewise contributes to feelings of seclusion. In other words, the inability to obtain pieces of the investigation as produced creates additional apprehension about what exactly is being amassed against the member.
The strain of the investigation for those who inform their family members creates increased interpersonal tension; often the forces collide and the support structure dissolves. When a member under investigation loses that support structure at home, he is especially vulnerable to making regrettable decisions.
The support system that key leaders employ feels to many a “CYA” tactic devoid of true caring other than to protect the leader himself. In the last two years, the military has taken steps to limit a member’s outlets for emotional counseling to only those from the base. Formerly, Military One Source was able to provide a referral for an off-post civilian mental health provider. Part of my standard briefing to new clients had been this resource, but it is no longer available. For most of my clients, this means they do not obtain mental health support during the investigation and court-martial process because they do not want to provide information to “green-suiter” providers that they do not trust to maintain confidentiality. The uniformed providers’ confidentiality is more limited than those for independent civilian practitioners.
For all the training the military provides about suicide prevention, there is no training specific to those facing the heightened stressors of a pending misconduct investigation. I have even heard callused reaction to suicide by a member pending trial as it saving taxpayer money for trial and incarceration. I care little if the member was guilty of any offense; their lives matter. They answered the call to serve our nation and in a time where less than 1% of U.S. population answers that call, veterans deserve better.
As the holidays approach and increase the strain on many, be a part of bringing someone out of isolation. Be a part of forging a connection, not a divide. You may save a life in the process.