Divorce: The Leading Cause of Suicide in the Military

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Suicide is a major concern with veterans and active duty military members, which is why the causes of veteran suicide need to be addressed, to move the conversation forward. Divorce takes its emotional and financial toll on men and women, and is especially hard when there are children involved. But divorce impacts military men much differently than civilian men, and, according to several experts, it is one of the key factors in the rise of veteran suicides.

Dr. Roger Schank, founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, and author of several books on the subject, says one key difference for Active Duty men going through divorce is how they cope with the situation. “Certainly; when men get divorced they tend to rely on their buddies to get them through,” said Dr. Schank.

But in the military, your buddies are pretty much only the people you work with, and showing one’s sensitive side and hurt feelings is never good at work and is even worse in a military culture. Divorced men in the military have narrower options for new relationships as well, and military men also have a harder time with their children because they are likely to be away from them for long periods.

Divorce is a stressful situation, and the military considers financial support of dependents a top priority, often above taking care of the service member himself. A service member can be NJP’d (Non-Judicial Punishment) and/or court-martialed for failure to financially support his family, even when there is no support order or custody order in effect.

Julia Swain, attorney with Fox Rothschild in the Family Law Practice Group, specializes in family law, and handles plenty of military divorces. Swain knows firsthand that divorce impacts military men much differently than civilians. “This is true from both a legal and a personal perspective,” she said. “On the legal front, military men have the protection afforded them by the Service Members Civil Relief Act (formerly the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act). Most importantly, this Act enables military men to postpone legal proceedings for at least 90 days. Practically, given the high level of telecommunications and the Internet, delay of legal proceedings is not often encountered because most military men are capable of participating in legal proceedings by telephone, video conference or other means from almost anywhere in the world.”

However, troops serving abroad can go weeks without access to a phone or internet. Troops serving in combat zones may be  staying on a FOB (Forward Operating Base) with limited communications access, or go on patrols for extended periods of time. Those aboard ship often go through communications blackouts, known as “River City” (restricted comms), to prevent enemy forces from predicting a fleet’s movements due to the OpSec liabilities of Sailors and Marines posting their whereabouts and destination on Facebook. Even stateside troops participating in field operations may go for a month or longer without a phone or internet.

Swain believes the difficulties faced by military men going through divorce include the distance that they are stationed or deployed away from their family, complications in maintaining regular communication with children and the inability to be involved in day-to-day activities and decisions regarding their children.

“The geographical distance can severely undermine the bond a military man has with his children, particularly if the mother is not supporting the relationship. When no children are involved, the distance may actually be a good thing because it reduces the chances for contact between divorcing spouses. Some military men get married very young due to the added financial advantages given to married military men. A word of caution, however, that marriage is a legal relationship that is much more difficult to get out of than into,” Swain said. A disgruntled military wife has a lot more power to cut off a husband from communicating with his children. Military commands have noted that many dependents leverage their benefits and officers afraid of negative PR to alienate military fathers.

Military men divorce

The suicide rate is also extremely high for military men going through a divorce, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, a Clinical Assistant Professor at Brown University. He specializes in men, marriage and relationships, and said one of the primary reasons the suicide rate was the highest in the military this past year (2017) was due mainly to divorce and custody battles. In fact, studies have shown that an ever-growing majority of suicides among Active Duty military and veterans are brought on or influenced by divorce or the ending of a relationship. According to a report released by the VA last September, veteran suicides account for 18% of the suicide deaths in the U.S., while they only make up 8.5% of the adult population.

“There are lots of reasons why military men respond differently than non-armed men,” said Dr. Haltzman. “They have access to firearms, and are more prone to successful suicides, and they have split allegiances compared to non-military men: first God, then country, THEN family. And women don’t usually like it that way.” He also believes that age plays a significant factor. “Many of the men are young and don’t have great role models for relationships,” he said.

Michele Moore, a social worker at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, said that divorce is not easy for any family, but it can be especially difficult for active duty military families.

“The stressors or difficulties are there on the military side of it, but the counter to this is military men most likely have many more resources available to them than non-military men,” said Moore. “If an active duty member is unable to cope with his/her job after divorce…they probably would not have been able to cope as a civilian. In general, the military tends to have a “harder and more intense” lifestyle and work rate than most…but still must deal with life and all that it brings.”

The facts and the experts don’t lie. The military needs to get their priorities in order when it comes to service members undergoing divorce. Putting the needs of dependents before those of the men they depend on is only fueling the problems that lead to 22 veterans ending their life everyday.

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