Impact of Soldiers’ Suicides on Comrades

One study sought to identify whether potential impacts of suicide on one’s comrades played a part in deterring suicide, based on a theory that three keys for suicidal tendencies is the ability to self-harm (i.e., such as having access to appropriate means), a perceived sense of being a burden on one’s comrades, and a perceived sense of being thwarted in attempts to belong to the group. In this study, however, while a retrospective study of Air Force suicides noted that the collective set of these three factors were at least partially predictive of suicide, none of them were singly predictive. Nevertheless, it was clear that perceptions of the impact of the suicide on comrades—for better or worse—provided an important influence on the decision to take one’s own life.

Suicide is a personal act that nevertheless affects many other people beyond the person who commits the act. In the close-knit community of a military unit, a suicide by one member affects the entire unit. One key study investigated in detail how a suicide impacted the other members of the unit to which the person belonged. The case study looked at the impact of one soldier’s suicide on the rest of his unit. The suicide took place in 2008, a few months into a 15-month deployment to Iraq. The soldier had gone to his living quarters after lunch and shot himself; he was pronounced dead about half an hour later, after being evacuated to a combat support hospital. In this case, the soldier was being treated by a psychiatrist for depression and was taking antidepressants and another medication for insomnia. He also had anger management issues. His prior declarations regarding suicide were that while he had briefly thought of it, he had no such plans and no such intentions. The psychiatrist recorded the impact of this suicide on other soldiers, both in the dead soldier’s unit and in other units on that base, the staff of the medical clinic which had first responded to the suicide, and the staff of the combat stress control (CSC) team which dealt with the aftermath. These impacts were followed both immediately and for about four months after the event.

Cataloguing the symptoms experienced by these various groups, several soldiers in the unit expressed strong disbelief and a large amount of guilt that they had not been alert enough to stop the suicide; two specifically underwent psychiatric care for this traumatic stress. After being provided with sleeping medications, they expressed no further symptoms after three days. Two other soldiers (one female), reported for psychiatric care, including one who disbelieved suicide completely and insisted that the soldier’s death was a murder for about 48 hours after the suicide. The medical clinic staff expressed stress over the cause of death, the type of wounds, and the difficulty of dealing with the shock and unexpected trauma of the suicide. Perhaps the most immediate acute response to the suicide came from the members of the CSC who reported exhaustion and numbness from helping others process such deep emotions. Furthermore, the commander of the base imposed significant burdens by insisting on reports to be completed with extreme haste (i.e., the day of the event instead of the more normal 30-day due date).

As the days passed, several other soldiers experienced mental health problems ascribed to the trauma of the suicide, and three had to be airlifted out of the war zone. In addition, the psychiatric staff of the CSC experienced increased workload burdens and a change in how they dealt with soldiers who might conceivably have a risk of suicide. In essence, the “caregivers” for the soldiers experienced self-doubt, and an overly conservative response to the suicide. The soldiers, particularly those in the same unit, experienced a sense of stigmatization, as if they were somehow personally at fault for the suicide. In essence, the feelings of the surviving soldiers were as intense as the feelings of close family members after a suicide, derived in large part from the intense personal relationships that arise in a cohesive fighting unit.