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Catholic Voice
  September 8, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

On duty with the Navy 2014: Suicide deadlier than combat


Most Rev.
Michael C. Barber, SJ

I spent three weeks recently on duty with the Navy as part of my commitment as an active reservist. I am currently assigned to work for the admiral who commands Navy Region Northwest, which includes the main bases on Puget Sound in Washington State.

We have submarines, aircraft carriers, shipyards and naval aircraft. Most people think a Catholic Navy chaplain spends most of his time celebrating Mass and the sacraments. These duties are very important, and we do perform them with joy. But military chaplains must take care of ALL service members, not just those from your particular denomination.

Thus most of our time is spent counseling those with personal problems. As a senior chaplain (with 23 years in uniform) I also mentor and supervise younger chaplains from all faith groups on the bases throughout our region.

What's the biggest problem in the military? Suicide.

Did you know that in 2012 there were 349 military suicides? 349. More soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines die from suicide than in combat or car crashes. During my three weeks on duty I had to speak with sailors in a unit where a young officer had taken his own life.

They were all asking themselves "Was there anything we could have done? Were there any signs we missed?" "Why didn't he confide in me?"

Sometimes you will never know what led someone to take their life. It's not unusual for friends to say "I never knew he was having problems." Relationship problems, financial difficulties, public failure, embarrassment or humiliation are common causes. Others may be suffering from depression or mental illness. Most studies indicate that suicide is not frequently related to deployment or combat experience.

A few years ago I buried a young Marine. He was sharing an apartment with his girlfriend. He went home late one Saturday night after partying with his buddies.

His girlfriend locked him out and told him through the door that she was finished with the relationship. He banged on the door and begged to be let in. He then left . . . and took his own life.

Another Marine I knew took his life one weekend evening. He was living with his mom. No one suspected anything at all was wrong. A quiet, reserved guy, he never acted abnormally or upset. He took his life in his bedroom one Saturday night. It is still a mystery why.

I was called once by a sailor's mother whose son had been arrested and was subject to being kicked out of the Navy when/if the commanding officer found out.

He was upset and considering suicide. I visited the young man immediately. The CO gave him another chance after I intervened. When sailors are deployed at sea for nine months or more, we have to be vigilant in the last week when the ship is coming back to home port.

That's when the "Dear John" letters or emails begin to arrive, signaling broken relationships. Sailors who get these letters often want to take their lives by jumping off the ship into the ocean. They have to be put on "suicide watch" and never left alone.

Whether you are civilian or military, help is always available. Chaplains, pastors, counselors and caring medical professionals are ready to assist. Speak up if you notice warning signs that someone you know might be considering suicide: They talk about it, they start giving away prized possessions, they talk about being trapped, they speak of being a burden, they talk about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live, they start looking for ways to take their life such as buying excess pills or a gun. They seem withdrawn or isolated. You, or the hurting person, should call the National Lifeline 800-273-8255 (TALK). Or speak with your priest, doctor or counselor.

Remember for us Christians, no defeat in life is ever permanent, only temporary. We live with hope, hope in the Resurrection. We live with Jesus' promise of eternal life "where every tear will be wiped away." Rev. 21:4.

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