“We started to realize that, while it might not even be the principal reason for suicides, this pressurized environment was having an impact,” said Joseph Votel, a retired Army general who commanded SOCOM from August 2014 to March 2016 and recalled discussions about the suicide study, but said he never saw the final product. “People were witnessing horrible things on the battlefield; people were injured and were taking a lot of medication to manage the pain; people were in 15, 16 years and dealing with the wear and tear of a military career, and they worried that they couldn’t keep up.”
Votel, who spoke openly about mental health and encouraged service members to seek counseling while at SOCOM, conceded there was a stigma associated with admitting suicidal thoughts: “That may be a result of social pressure or it may be a result of pressure being exerted by leaders,” he said, noting that he believes there has been marked improvement in recent years. He also pointed to the close-knit nature of Special Operations forces and the small-team dynamics that leave service members feeling that they are letting their comrades down if they’re unable to deploy.
The United States has leaned heavily on its Special Operations forces since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with elite units deployed almost constantly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other conflict zones. This reliance increased sharply during the Obama administration, as commandos were often tasked with duties that conventional forces might have handled and some units were home on leave and for training only as long as they had been overseas. Earlier this year, a SOCOM ethics report noted that a Special Operations forces culture “focused on force employment and mission accomplishment has led to sustained high operational tempo” to the “detriment of leadership, discipline and accountability.”
Some of the suicide study’s most salient findings deal with deficiencies of the military’s suicide-prevention programs and with barriers to assistance, subjects that commandos’ loved ones spoke about in detail. “Suicide-prevention training was viewed as a check in the box,” one said, noting that soldiers and their supervisors treated it as a perfunctory exercise. All the deceased, the report noted, had undergone the training. At the same time, statements by leaders encouraging troops to seek help were seen as disingenuous. “He saw that individuals who shared having suicidal ideations were escorted like a criminal for evaluation,” someone close to a S.O.F. member recalled.
“Do we have programs? Yes. They’re throwing a lot of money at it, but it’s not solving the problem,” said Donald Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who served 10 tours in Afghanistan. “It’s a joke,” he told The Times. While serving as the chief of Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017, Bolduc went public about his personal struggles — including traumatic brain injuries from a 2001 bomb blast and a 2005 helicopter crash in Afghanistan and post-traumatic stress — to show service members that seeking help wouldn’t hurt their careers. “I said: ‘It has negatively affected my personal life. But I can be a better version of myself if I get help, and I want you to get help, too,’” he told The Times. But entrenched opinions about mental injuries and weakness were one reason, Bolduc now believes, that his own career was derailed by high-ranking generals heading SOCOM, leading to his retirement in 2017.