Skip to main content

Suicide on the homefront in military families

By Kristina Kaufmann
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 2155 GMT (0555 HKT)
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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT