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December, 2007



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Soldiers and Suicide
By Gene Stoltzfus
Each week in 2005, 120 persons who had served in the US military killed themselves according to CBS news this week. That is 6,256 suicides in 2005 a rate twice as high as the general population. The thought of these soldier victims of war takes me back to the soup kitchens where I served occasionally since coming back from Viet Nam in 1967. In those lines I met the homeless soldiers who didn't take their own lives but nevertheless are the living wounded. Some watchers estimate that more than three times as many veterans from the war in Viet Nam have committed suicide as the 58,000 who lost their lives in direct combat.
Is there meaning in these statistics? How do we explain this collapse of faith? How does that place within where hope lives, disappear into a vacuum bereft of feelings of love, compassion and belief in life? Is the participation in the horror of war too painful to bear? The suppression of powerful feelings can suppress all feelings. "They just want out," one person who once contemplated suicide told me.

The conclusion, that suicides are on the rise due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is supported by various studies. The statistics, their validity, the methodology and the conclusions will be argued for a generation but the trends cannot be denied.

When I speak out publicly about war in Iraq, or earlier on Viet Nam, some audience members charged me with supporting a culture of disrespect for returning soldiers. Images of troubled and suicidal soldiers who also attended those public events awakened me last night. In my audience dream I felt the simultaneous shouts from both camps of returning soldiers, those coveting my support as an act of patriotism and the tired faces of broken soldiers groping for feelings to explain the thick and dark now silent experience of war. The images of my dream had no words, only the vapid character of hopelessness thrashing about in a sea of soft patriotism.

In my younger days I kept my distance from the returning soldiers because I could not authentically celebrate their work as heroism. My journey to compassion for the broken warrior has grown over the years. The journey has included engagement with and respect for all soldiers. I realize at my core that 500 years of persistent teaching of "returning good for evil", "love of enemy", and "refusal to kill" was an unearned gift of my subculture. I now see my former rejection of soldiers as a self-created flaw arising from my idea that they had brought about their own problem by the choices they made. The subculture from which I came did not command me to use a rifle and overwhelming power to penetrate the defenses of an enemy. I was not taught to command others to do so. I was not expected to break down doors, destroy furniture and shoot at people. I was not expected to protect my buddies with lethal weapons. I was not encouraged to discount the civilian casualties. However, I witnessed some of the horror of this so I can see the disjunction and crippling that occurs in the body, mind and spirit as a result.

Whatever else it is, be it individual suicide arising out of internal breakdown or suicide bombers believing in a cause, suicide is also the abandonment of hope in civil society to provide meaning and justice for all. It is a reminder that there remain deep crevices of hollowness even in the most advanced society and the most devout of religious faiths. It reminds us that patriotism that holds warfare as its supreme test of loyalty has deep decaying cavities. It reminds us of the hard work ahead, creating a more perfect union of faith, hope and justice.

When I returned from Viet Nam where I had been a civilian volunteer I was welcomed home by my community, not as a hero, but as one who had tried to speak the truth about war. When my efforts to speak grew tired and lacked internal meaning, I went to find help for my empty heart, set adrift by the reality of war and the support for it in the larger society. I found help, including financial support from my church's health insurance agency and from other individuals. The help I got 40 years ago was probably more personal, more enlightened and nuanced than Veteran's Affairs or the Department of Defense can offer even today. That help was one expression of generations of development of a culture for peace.

As the suicide statistics grow here and around the world, I hope that I will not meet suicidal former soldiers in soup lines thirty years from now. I hope that the churches, peace groups and institutions that strive to create a culture of peace like the one that gave me life, will grow into a renaissance of creativity that includes all the victims of war. But, I also know that the very best efforts of faith or therapy will not rebuild some of their inner life, laid waste by the firebombs of war. I know that we have very large work before us --- foolishness to many liberals and conservatives alike --- to put an end to war before it puts an end to life.

posted by Peace Talk at 4:31 PM 3 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, November 11, 2007
About me
Gene Stoltzfus
Location: Fort Frances, Ontario
Until 2004, I was the Director of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a program of Brethren, Mennonite and Friends churches and other affiliated organizations that places teams in high conflict zones like Haiti, Hebron (West Bank), Iraq, Colombia, and Mexico In addition CPT projects have been developed in urban North America, with Native people on the highly conflicted border between Mexico and the United States. CPT includes 40 trained full time peacemaker corps members twelve staff people and nearly 150 reservists (persons trained to work in CPT settings for up to three months each year) who emphasize human rights protection, nonviolent action, peacemaking campaigns and documentation.

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