Grief + Mourning Suicide

Soldier Suicides on the Rise


ContentImageIt’s unclear yet whether these tough economic times are driving up the suicide rate in America. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on suicide among the general population is from 2006. Even if we had more current data to work with, there is a lot of extrapolation necessary to make that connection. However, I think it’s certainly a possibility, given the utter desperation of so many people out of work and out of hope.

One thing we do know is that American soldiers, either still on active duty or those returning home, are facing serious mental health issues, some of which ultimately end in suicide. CNN has featured content lately about the increasing rates of soldier suicide. One story addresses the impact that multiple wars have had on enlisted and veteran personnel. Another discusses the “high risk behavior” that contributes to the rising Army suicide rate. Despite increased efforts by the Department of Defense to address the issue in the last several years, a successful coordinated effort and outcomes are still lacking.

Last year, Congress created the Joint Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces. The findings of their report were released yesterday and concluded, in part, that:

“The years since 2002 have placed unprecedented demands on our armed forces and military families. Military operational requirements have risen significantly, and manning levels across the services remain too low to meet the ever-increasing demand,” said the report, released Tuesday. “The cumulative effects of all these factors are contributing significantly to the increase in the incidence of suicide.”

It goes on to say that:

“The Task Force also found that occasionally leadership environments (usually at the junior supervisory and sometimes at the mid-grade level) resulted in discriminatory and humiliating treatment of Service Members who responsibly sought professional services for emotional, psychological, moral, ethical, or spiritual matters, which not only deters help seeking but also reinforces the stigma.”

The NY Times recently ran a story and video about the inner workings of the suicide prevention hotline at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Canandaguia, NY. It is a powerful piece of reportage chronicling the desperate multiple life and death moments happening every day at the call center. The piece is about the struggles of the staff answering the calls and the returning men and women for whom calling the hotline may be a last resort.

While suicide statistics are kept for active-duty service members, no reliable data exists for veterans. The NY Times article reports that “…..estimates, while not universally accepted, seem alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans account for about one in five of the more than 30,000 suicides committed in the United States each year.”

There are more CDC suicide statistics and prevention info here.

What can be done? What should be done about this growing problem? I don’t have the answers, but here are a few thoughts. First and foremost, active-duty and returning service members need access to consistent and fully-funded mental health services. Help needs to be readily available and not tied up in bureaucratic red tape. For vets, calling a suicide prevention hotline is a temporary BandAid, not a fully developed action plan going forward. Vets suffering from PTSD and depression need to receive the same level of help found in physical rehabilitation programs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There need to be discussions around erasing the stigma of asking for help. Ultimately, it’s the war(s) that are to blame for soldier suicide. Yes, some of those soldiers may enter the service with pre-existing conditions that the presence of war only exacerbates, but war can never be good for the mind, the body or the soul. Eliminating the “trigger” is one step in the right direction. Obviously, there are no simple answers or solutions.

I recently saw an article in American Libraries that got me thinking as it relates to my own work. It’s about how New York Public Library’s telephone reference line, ASK NYPL, has developed a policy in handling calls from suicidal individuals and law enforcement agencies who respond to them. You can read the full article here. It inspired me to see what, if any, policy we currently have in place at my library. The outreach work I do is usually concerned with promoting the programs, services and collections of my library and enticing various demographic groups who may not be using the library to do so. One of our priorities right now is serving as “a resource during these tough economic times.” But if outreach is “reaching out”, then it seems that this may also be a way to reach people who need help, something that we are already doing every day at the library.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, please talk to someone. The National Suicide Prevention Helpline is 1-800-273-8255. If you are an active-duty member or a veteran, dial the same number and press 1 to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for Veterans.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Update on Westboro Baptist Church Funeral Protests

Antigay Church can Protest Military Funerals, Judge Rules
Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor (August 17, 2010)

Death Ref has been following the Westboro Baptists Church’s funeral protests since our start. In a nutshell, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) protests outside funerals for veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The WBC claims (and has always claimed) that since America condones homosexuality God allows soldiers to die in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The logic is convoluted but the centerpiece of the WBC’s theology. As a result of these protests, which began in 2003 or so, many states passed laws which either banned funeral protests or ordered the WBC to stand at some distance away.


Last week, a federal judge decided that one of those laws (in Missouri) was unconstitutional, stating that it violated the protection of free speech. What I am waiting for is when the US Supreme Court hears a case about the WBC protests in October. It is really hard to tell what the politics of this case will do to the traditional liberal-conservative split. And it will be one of the few Supreme Court cases dealing with American funerals.

Per usual, Death Ref will keep everyone in the loop.

Cemeteries Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Arlington Cemetery Problems Just Keep Coming

At Arlington Cemetery, Years of Problems
Aaron C. Davis and Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post (July 26, 2010)


Arlington Cemetery Problems were Documented in 2005 but Never Fixed
Aaron C. Davis and Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (July 28, 2010)


As Many as 6,600 Arlington Graves Mixed Up
Anne Flaherty, Associated Press ( July 29, 2010)


Ex-Cemetery Official Takes Fifth
Christian Davenport and Aaron C. Davis, The Washington Post (July 30, 2010)


Editorial: Arlington’s Broken Trust
The New York Times (August 02, 2010)

The Arlington Cemetery story just keeps going and going. At this point, and based upon the reporting largely by the Washington Post, it looks like Arlington Cemetery is going to require a review of the entire cemetery.

I have no idea how that will work or how much money it will require but it’s going to get complicated.


The issues at Arlington Cemetery have gotten so complex that I have added an Arlington Cemetery tag so that people can directly follow the stories.

Two things happened last week: 1.) The former head of Arlington Cemetery testified before a US Senate Sub-committee and he plead the 5th Amendment on some question. The 5th Amendment. 2.) It’s become clear that no one knows how many graves are mis-labeled, incorrect, or non-existent.

These are not insignificant obstacles.

I’ll keep following the story as it develops.

Cemeteries Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Going Extreme to Fix Arlington Cemetery

At Arlington Cemetery, Army Ready for Drastic Measures
Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post (July 1, 2010)

The situation at Arlington National Cemetery keeps getting more and more complicated. I wrote last week about the mismanagement of Arlington’s burials and you can find that post here: Fixing Arlington Cemetery. To its eternal credit, the Washington Post has doggedly followed the story and the above article ran today.

As it reports, the burial problems at Arlington are so severe that military officials are willing to publicly discuss mass dis-interments and DNA testing. This is the last scenario that I know anyone in the entirety of the United States government wants to happen but Arlington’s problems are probably that bad. My hunch is that the entire scope of what’s wrong is a lot worse than even the cemetery investigators comprehend.

Arlington National Cemetery has over 330,000 graves. The already identified problem areas are a smaller piece of the entire cemetery but if the situation grows and grows then the US Military (particularly the Army which handles the cemetery) will have an unprecedented debacle on its hands.

Cemeteries Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Fixing Arlington Cemetery

In Debt to an Arlington Whistleblower
Dana Milbank, The Washington Post (June, 20 2010)

Over the weekend, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank published a column on the debacle at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. There is a reason that I am interested in Milbank’s column but before I explain why, here’s a brief recap of Arlington’s current problems: 211 unmarked graves, misplaced headstones, and the dumping of human ashes in dirt, along with speculation that there are up to 15,000 instances of such desecrations, all brought to light by whistleblower Gina Gray.

Milbank’s column follows on from over a week’s worth of reporting about all of these problems and more. I’ve listed many of those articles below. The first report to come out was by Mark Benjamin at and you can find it below too.

The point, I think, is this: Dana Milbank and everyone else got information from a person who saw what was going on at Arlington and blew the whistle. Gina Gray, whom Milbank names, worked for a short time at Arlington until disagreements with her superiors caused her to be fired. She also served in the Army and it seems clear that her sense of duty to the dead soldiers overrode any sense of job preservation. She could have kept quiet about the problems that she saw but she didn’t. She contacted reporters until the issue finally made its way to the Inspector General’s office. It’s worth noting, I think, that Mark Benjamin’s reports appeared in Salon on July 16, 2009. Almost a year ago now. I don’t actually see this as a situation where the Inspectors moved too slowly. Instead, it seems as if the situation quickly unwound and became a lot more complicated than initially expected.

Regardless, Arlington National Cemetery will see these problems fixed. That’s not much comfort for families who are not sure whether or not their dead loved one is affected and it never will be.

The problems being reported are a serious situation and they will be studied for some time to come as examples of the worst things that could happen to a cemetery.

A brief compendium of articles:

Christian Davenport, The Washington Post: Arlington headstones found lining stream

Christian Davenport, The Washington Post: More burials will be checked

Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post: Arlington graves sat unmarked

Yeganeh June Torbati, The New York Times: Inquiry Finds Graves Mismarked at Arlington

Mark Benjamin, Grave offenses at Arlington National Cemetery

Mark Benjamin, At Arlington Cemetery, Wrongly Marked Graves, Mismanagement

Burial Cemeteries

Bodies Misidentified at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC

Army: Bodies Misidentified at Arlington Cemetery
Anne Flaherty and Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press (June 10, 2010)

This is a breaking story which I just got from the Washington Post via the Associated Press. In short, an investigation at the Arlington National Cemetery has revealed that despite strict protocol for US military funerals and burial, the bodies of at least 200 soldiers have been improperly identified or even misplaced. It’s hard to say much more at this point until more details emerge, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this development. Stay tuned!

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Burying Dead Soldiers and Judging Free Speech

High Court: Justices to Consider ‘Funeral Protests’ in Free-Speech Case
Robert Barnes, Washington Post (May 31, 2010)

The Washington Post ran a really interesting article today on an upcoming US Supreme Court case involving freedom of speech and protests at funerals for dead soldiers. I expect that the story ran today because it is, afterall, Memorial Day and a good time to reflect on freedoms, liberties, and the people who died while in the US military. The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether or not the Westboro Baptist Church, run by Fred Phelps, has a right to protest near soldiers’ funerals. What makes this case particularly complex is that the WBC protesters (which are never more than a handful) hold signs proclaiming their thanks for dead soldiers since God is punishing America for condoning homosexuality.

For years, the WBC has protested at all kinds of funerals under the “God Hates Fags” banner but it has really only been the soldiers’ funerals which drew the most ire. We’ve been covering this particular legal case on Death Ref and you can read those posts here: Father of Dead Soldier Ordered to Pay Up and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.

The case’s most provocative legal question is this: Will a majority of the US Supreme Court rule in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, even though its tactics are almost universally despised? What are the limits of free speech in this situation? Can Albert Snyder (the father of dead Marine Matthew Snyder) sue the Westboro Baptist Church in order to stop its protest activities without violating the first Amendment to the US Constitution?

Robert Barnes, the reporter at the Washington Post explains:

…First Amendment specialists think Albert Snyder has a difficult case to prove to a court that has been particularly outspoken on government attempts to regulate speech and has accepted two privacy cases for the term that begins in the fall.


George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove, the author of “Understanding Privacy,” said he finds it “perplexing” that the justices took the case. The message of Phelps and his followers is “stupid and obnoxious,” Solove said, but seems to fit squarely into the kind of unpopular speech that the Constitution protects.


The church maintains that its protests are not aimed at the dead — there was no particular reason to select Matthew Snyder’s funeral for picketing — but at the actions of the living.


A sampling of the signs carried at Snyder’s 2006 funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., included “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.” The demonstrators abided by the law and stayed away from the funeral itself.


Albert Snyder sued Phelps, and Snyder argued at trial that the demonstration invaded his privacy, caused emotional distress and violated his rights to free exercise of religion and peaceful assembly. He said a treatise posted on the church’s Web site specifically mentioned Matthew and his family.


A jury awarded Snyder more than $10 million, which was cut in half by the judge and then overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. A three-judge panel said that although Phelps’s rhetoric was offensive, it was protected as speech concerning issues in the national debate.

The politics of this case are also compelling. A number of both conservative and liberal elected officials have joined together in support of the military families while simultaneously passing laws in about 40 US states banning (or severely curtailing) protests by the WBC. On the one hand, this is not particularly shocking. On the other hand, social conservatives do not necessarily disagree with the WBC’s anti-gay rhetoric and liberals have historically made the case for unpopular, protest speech.

And no matter where the WBC protests, the counter protests are usually much larger. Indeed, a Veterans motorcycle group called the Patriot Guard Riders attends soldiers’ funerals (but only if invited by the family) so that the next of kin is insulated from the protests. In the middle of all this is a funeral director trying to negotiate this moment in American cultural politics but then that’s nothing new.

So the questions remains open: What are the limits of free speech in this situation?

I think that it is also inevitable that this case will end up in the election politics of the autumn, which is too bad because the questions being raised are really important and not easily decided.

Sadly, it is the soldiers’ families who get caught up in the middle of this and at the end of the day I have a feeling that the impact on next of kin at the funerals will carry a great of weight with the Supreme Court.

As the Washington Post puts it:

Snyder said he was only vaguely aware of the protests at military funerals until the protest came to him. He still gets emotional recalling that day.

“All we wanted was a private funeral for my son,” he said. “They turned it into a three-ring circus.”

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Father of Dead Soldier Ordered to Pay Up

An update to our “God Hates Dead Soldiers” post. The family of dead Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder has been ordered to pay $16,510 in legal fees to Fred Phelps.

Interestingly, the case, which is to be heard by the Supreme Court, centers not on Phelp’s First Amendment rights, but rather “the complaint included claims for defamation, two counts of invasion of privacy (intrusion on seclusion and publicity given to private life), and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” (Citizen Media Law Project)

The judgment has sparked the outrage of Bill O’Reilly who has vowed to pay the Snyder family’s debt. Said O’Reilly,

“It’s obvious they were disturbing the peace by disrupting the funeral. They should have been arrested, but our system is so screwed up, so screwed up, that loons are allowed to run wild. Snyder is fighting the good fight, and he is taking his case to the Supreme Court as he should. We are behind him 100 percent.”

Hmmmm… not so sure I’d want Bill O’Reilly’s monied interests on my side.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

“Thank God for Dead Soldiers”

So says Fred Phelps. You may be familiar with Phelps and his hate-mongering followers—most of whom are actually his family members—because they have been making headlines for at least the past 20 years.

For the uninitiated, Fred Phelps is the founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. He is best known for his various anti-gay protests and placard-waving antics around the country, featuring such slogans as “God Hates Fags” and “Fags Die, God Laughs”, among other free speech protected hate bombs.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court decided that they will hear a case involving Phelps and the family of deceased soldier Matthew Snyder. In 2006, Phelps protested at Matthew Snyder’s funeral, claiming God hates America — and hence soldiers — because of our nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. One of the signs he and others waved had “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” plastered across it. The Snyder family sued and was awarded a judgement of $10.9 million dollars. However, last September, the U.S 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, overturned the decision on free speech grounds.

According to an article in today’s LA Times,

Snyder’s family appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the protests had “tarnished” their son’s funeral. “Matthew deserved better. A civilized society deserved better,” they said.

As Chris Weigant, of the Huffington Post points out, it is not so much about free speech per se, but rather, protected classes of speech such as religious and political speech.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this case as it will test to what extent these classes are protected. Fred Phelps makes my skin crawl—as a librarian who supports the First Amendment—and as a human who finds the profanity of this man’s behavior repugnant. But ultimately, the case will come down to whether the Snyder family can claim damages in their case. According to the Citizen Media Law Project, the case centers on “defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

No Presidential Condolence for Soldier Suicide

A few weeks ago, various news outlets reported the story of Spc. Chancellor Keesling, an American soldier in Iraq who committed suicide. While incidents of suicide among soldiers who are currently active and those returned home is certainly newsworthy, the focus of this particular story was quite different. Although Mr. Keesling received a proper military burial, his family did not receive the standard condolence letter sent by the president, as is customary for fallen soldiers.

This didn’t sit well with the family. Was he not a hero too? Did he not serve his country honorably? Mr. Keesling’s family then found out the reality: there would be no condolence letter — it was a matter of policy. Incensed, Mr. Keesling’s father, Gregg, wrote letters to President Obama and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. asking them to reconsider the policy. You can read the letter here.

An Op-Ed piece in Friday’s New York Times also addresses the issue, which looks at the notion that recognition of soldier suicide valorizes or venerates death.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I can certainly see how a grieving family would want to have their son or daughter’s military service recognized and respected and how a letter from the president would help ease that pain just a bit. However, I also don’t think killing oneself is the same as dying in combat, getting killed by friendly fire or any other way while serving. It is a different kind of death — or so we are to believe — one that does not jibe with the heroic propaganda and selfless ideology of the military.

This does not mean that Mr. Keesling did not serve his country honorably or that he doesn’t deserve recognition somehow. But ultimately, it is Mr. Keesling’s family that will live with the pain of his death for the rest of their lives, and no letter is going to change that. For President Obama and other military officials, a condolence letter is just part and parcel of the war machine, or S.O.P (standard operating procedure) in military terms. Although the Administration is looking into their current policies surrounding condolence letters, suicide, for now, is not considered “honorable.”

I believe that focusing on the root causes of depression and supporting mental health efforts for military personnel is the best strategy — and will hopefully help lessen the number of suicides in the first place — and the pain for those left behind.