To a growing number of medical experts and the Special Operations Command itself, suicides by soldiers like Sergeant Lube tell a troubling story about the toll of war on the nation’s elite troops. For 12 long years, those forces, working mostly in secret, carried the burden of much front-line combat, deploying time and again to the most violent sectors of Iraq and Afghanistan.Yet for all their well-known resilience, an emerging body of research suggests that Special Operations forces have experienced, often in silence, significant traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Both conditions have been linked in research to depression and, sometimes, suicidal behavior.Absent other data, suicide has emerged as the clearest indicator of the problem: In the past two and a half years, 49 Special Operations members have killed themselves, more than in the preceding five years. While suicides for the rest of the active-duty military have started to decline, after years of steady increases, they have risen for the nation’s commandos.“The numbers are shocking,” said Dr. Geoffrey Ling, a leading brain-trauma expert and director of biological technologies at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He believes Special Operations forces are at higher risk of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress because of their high-stress work, he said. “To us, it is a canary telling us there are bigger problems at hand.”The highest levels of the command have taken notice. With Special Operations forces expected to continue deploying not only to Afghanistan, but also to hot spots like North Africa and Southeast Asia for years to come, senior commanders are openly pushing their troops to seek help, and worrying that the struggle to heal the force has only begun.
Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden and who now heads the Special Operations Command, has created a task force, Preservation of the Force and Family, to address the mental, emotional and physical needs of his troops. In a 12-page internal document disseminated in late March, he ordered new procedures and training to “help leaders at all levels do everything we can to prevent a suicide.” (Read more.)Share