Skip to main content

Suicide on the homefront in military families

By Kristina Kaufmann
updated 5:55 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kristina Kaufmann: After 12 years, many military families know nothing but war
  • Kaufmann: Military families live in continuous anxiety when loved one is deployed
  • She says 22 veterans take their own lives each day, but how many family members do?
  • Kaufmann: We need to help spouses, children, parents and siblings who are suffering

Editor's note: Kristina Kaufmann is executive director of the Code of Support Foundation, which tries to bridge the gap between military and civilian communities.

(CNN) -- When I married a soldier in June 2001, I knew my life was going to change. I moved from Berkeley, California, to Fort Sill, Oklahoma -- talk about a culture shock. But I was in love, and enthusiastically dove head first into a military life I knew nothing about.

And then 9/11 happened, and my husband went to war.

And then he went again, and again ... and again.

Kristina Kaufmann
Kristina Kaufmann

After more than 12 years of sustained war and multiple deployments borne by less than 1% of the population, we now have an entire generation of military families that know nothing but war. And war comes home. I've known three Army wives who've taken their own lives.

Although we're certainly not the first generation of military families to deal with the aftermath of war -- there's simply no precedent for how repeated deployments have affected the mental health of military spouses, children, parents and siblings. It's like living in a continuous state of emergency for more than a decade and never being able to fully exhale in relief. As soon as your soldier comes home, you're just counting down the days until he or she leaves and returns to the battlefield.

What is wars' true toll on the spouses and children?

Incredibly, in spite of this reality, the majority of families thrive as they transition out of military service and re-integrate into civilian life. But too many others are struggling to cope with depression, anxiety and what some veteran spouses are calling Secondary Post Traumatic Stress.

Airman returns, sees son for first time

Recent research conducted by the University of Southern California found that military connected adolescents have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts than their civilian counterparts, and other studies indicate that military spouses -- particularly those serving as caregivers to support their wounded veterans -- are more at risk to suffer mental health problems.

In addition, the stigma that prevents many service members and veterans from seeking help is just as prevalent in the military family community. This is particularly true for career noncommissioned and officer spouses. Ask a military wife how she's doing, and most will answer, "fine" -- because, what other choice does she have but to keep it together? For some families, the line between "fine" and hitting the wall going 100 miles per hour can be a very thin one.

I know firsthand how important it is that we have these conversations out loud. Back in 2006, when my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, I drove into our quiet neighborhood one evening to find many police cars and emergency vehicles. A fellow Army wife who had gone out of her way many times to make me feel welcome at our new post had taken her own life -- and the lives of her two young children.

I threw up when I found out.

As the spouse of a battalion commander, I had the opportunity to use this tragedy as a way to start an open dialogue about mental health, depression and asking for help with the wives in our unit. But I didn't. I didn't say a word. I was scared. If this lovely woman, who was widely regarded as a model volunteer and quiet leader, was capable of such an act, what did that mean for the rest of us? Better to sweep it under the rug. I remember feeling ashamed for even thinking about addressing it openly. It is a decision that I regret to this day.

We can't fix what we don't acknowledge. We do know that one active duty service member and 22 veterans take their own lives every day. Neither the Departments of Defense nor Veterans Affairs tracks the number of family members who die by suicide.

But that could be changing. Last month, at the request of both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, the Defense Department Suicide Prevention Office published a report on the feasibility of tracking suicides among military family members.

According to the report, it would cost less than $1.2 million dollars over a 24-month period to expand tracking capabilities to include active duty family members. Even in this era of sequestration and budget cuts, $1.2 million is a nominal price to pay to expand our knowledge and understanding about military family suicides.

It's not a perfect solution, and it wouldn't capture the entire spectrum of National Guard, Reserve and veteran families, but it's a significant first step in the right direction. It's taken military family advocates years to just get this report issued.

Now it's up to House and Senate Armed Service Committees to respond to the report and convene hearings to address the mental health of military families. This isn't just about ensuring military readiness, it's a moral imperative. Never has this country asked so much, of so few, for so long. Now, we need our country to stand for us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kristina Kaufmann.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 5:48 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT