Small Wars Journal

The Black Rock

The Black Rock

I want to write about something we don't talk about. More than likely, you don't want to read this, but you need to. It seems paradoxical to our military values. Often times, we would rather wish it away with eyes wide shut instead of gathering intel, defining the problem, maneuvering to the position of strength, and assaulting through the objective like we are taught. According to the Associated Press,

"Families of service members who commit suicide are now getting condolence letters from the president just like families of fallen service members, a White House official said Tuesday."

Dishonorable quitter's right? They couldn't suck it up, I suppose. Perhaps. Muddled in those waters is the current discussion of toxic leaders. Over at Wings over Iraq, Starbuck assumes,

"When a private is charged with DUI, it causes little more than mere consternation. But when a senior officer is charged with DUI, fraternization, or shoplifting, it's simply pathetic. (Until the bloggers get ahold of it, of course. Then it becomes endlessly amusing. Well, until we find a suitable LOLcat to distract us)."

Seems logical right? One plus one equals two? But then there's this spot report. In February, Lt. Gen. David Fridovich acknowledged his struggles with addiction.

So, logically, Fridovich is a toxic and pathetic leader? I don't think so.

Instead, something is going on with a small population of mid and senior level officers and non-commissioned officers. I have had the privilege to meet some of these amazing men and women. I can't say that I fully understand their plight because I don't. And, I don't know the answers. But, I do know that the folks dealing with the hardest problems often have more tours in combat than you or I, and they are the most decorated.

Another way to understand what they're going through is to listen to their dilemma instead of brushing it off to "Dude, I know that you spent your entire twenties fighting a war. Now, it is your designated time to fix all your family and personal issues. Then, suck it up and drive on."

We can do better than this.



Tue, 09/16/2014 - 12:33am

Why suicide rate is getting high? What would be the main problem why service members commit suicide?

I reckon that those interested in the subj. of the commentary will find that a read of Lord Moran's "classic", The Anatomy of Courage" will be worthwhile.

Bill M.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 11:40pm

Mike, always enjoy your think pieces. Some leaders, probably spurred by an outside study, do think the issue is resilience. They were asking for volunteers just before I retired to participate in various surveys to first identify what makes some people resilient and others more prone to have problems, and then they were hoping to teach those resilient traits to everyone (actually I think it is mandatory predeployment training now). There may be something to this, so I'm not criticizing it, but I also suspect the Army will be disappointed if they expect resilience training to significantly reduce the amount of troubles our soldiers are having. Too many variables impact people's lives and sometimes regardless of how resilient the Army multiple choice survey indicates we may or may not be, anyone can experience a perfect storm of events in one's life that brings them to their knees. I recall two friends who were incredibly tough physically and mentally (I was actually envious of one's level of toughness since I was quite competitive at one time), but both experienced a significant emotional event in their lives that brought them down to their knees in ways I just couldn't imagine. If you asked me prior to the event, I would have said this couldn't of happened. They were plenty resilient on a day to day basis, and they were rated by their peers they would have been the soldiers voted least likely to crumble, but a specific event based in each of their lives destroyed them (major depression, alcohol abuse, driving violations, fighting, etc. from previous well disciplined individuals). Back then the Army really didn't care, and it didn't even pretend to care, so they were just put out of the service. Now I suspect they would be offered some pop psychology counseling and some meds. I'm a fan of good psychology, so don't get me wrong, but unfortunately the problem I have seen now is that we're turning soldiers over to very junior psychology interns that have limited life experience to provide guidance? Doesn't seem to be working, but you may have a different view.


When I said the Army didn't care about Soldiers, I specifically meant the institutional army, but appreciate you bringing that up. The bean counters who manage by statistics are only concerned about managing their statistics. Suicides are too high, start a program to lower the numbers, if the numbers aren't lowered start another program. Retention is too low, start bonuses to retain folks, if the numbers go up that is all they care about, not job satisfaction, etc. I suspect to some degree in an organization our size you have to do that, but not at the expense of removing the humanity from the system.

Soldiers have to take care of soldiers, leaders have to take of soldiers, and there are a few non-profit groups formed by soldiers, marines and sailors that try to do just that, also the One Source program is actually a good program also. I used them successfully to find the help I needed for a couple of soldiers and myself.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 6:58pm

<b>MikeF:</b><blockquote>"...Im gonna concentrate on the individual- teaching the young studs how to lead and trying to live up to the good standard.

We can do better, and we will."</blockquote>Works for me... ;)

Re the G1 and the system. In the post Cold War and DS/DS drawdown early 90s, one of my favorite Three Buttons, a former ActionO in Distribution at OPD and a former MilPerCen Cdr went up to DC and offered to tell them all the pitfalls found during the Post Viet Nam drawdown. They blew him off. His comment was that "the shelf life of a former PersCom commander is measured in days..." Egos in the five sided building are interesting things. All of which means the G1 isn't terribly interested in you or I, or the opinions of other or even in the army (units), merely in the 'US Army,' the institution...

MikeF (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:00pm

Bill M,

As with most of the posts I write, the intent is to provide a different view in order to spark discussion. Im a firm believer that the collaboration here at SWJ makes a difference. The purpose of this post was empathy. Call it love for your brother, looking out for your Ranger buddy, or just trying to walk in another mans shoes. For this specific group of folks, I believe that were seeing a question of "what do you do when a normally high performing, reliable soldier suddenly has a significant disruption in performance?" I chose LTG Fridivechs story because I felt that it was a heroic effort to say, "Heres what happened to me. Maybe it can help you." I dont think its an issue of resilience; they proved that quality over multiple tours. Rather, its an issue of perseverance through a temporary small war in their head while theyre trying to work through some issues.


Thanks for the article. I think that the author and I are saying much of the same thing. For me, its not an issue of what is currently going on, but how do they get back to either performing in the Army or serving the country as a veteran. The brain has a remarkable ability to heal.


"However, as a resident Dinosaur and relic from the 'suck it up' era, I have to admit I'm far more concerned with the capability and performance of the organization."

Completely agree. Unfortunately, the Army G1 hasnt called me to ask for advice on revamping the personnel system so Im gonna concentrate on the individual- teaching the young studs how to lead and trying to live up to the good standard.

We can do better, and we will.


Thu, 07/07/2011 - 3:46pm

Thanks to those words from Ken White - said much better than I.

RGR on all and I too will accept it.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:55pm

<b>Charles:</b><blockquote>"...Because the failure to manage the force structure appropriately BEFORE the war, and employ it correctly at the ONSET of war, came back to haunt us."</blockquote>Yes. That personnel system again...<blockquote>"In the end, I don't think any of us are really going to change what our senior leaders do (or what happens to them along the way to cause them to do the things they do)."</blockquote>Yes. That personnel system again...

Redundant but true.

Incidentally, I believe that first quote of yours is most accurate and telling in the "employ it correctly" aspect. We did not do it well. That is a lick on the civilian policy makers and on the Army which was too narrowly focused on its mission at the expense of its missions.

That personnel system -- indeed the US Army as an institution -- excels at producing a large barely acceptably trained Army from mobilizing masses. It really does. It has an individual training process designed to take raw material and produce that level of capability and no more (except for the unusually talented individuals whose talents tend to be discouraged in peacetime...).

What it does <u>not</u> do is provide a small, selected, professionally trained force that is capable of telling its civilian master what it can and cannot do because it is conditioned to conformity and warfare as practiced in northwest Europe in 1945. No matter that it had fought a quite different war in the Pacific at about the same time, that is has not engaged in such a war since 1945 and may not for some time...

Having said all that, the problem is that we live in and serve a democracy. Democratic governments do not like Armies, don't really know how to handle them at all well and certainly do not want them to be <i>too </i> good -- they may stage a coup or something. They also do not want really hard training; too many people get hurt and the Mothers get hostile at harm to their kids...

Thus the US Army is never going to be on the cutting edge of military performance in peacetime, is always going to take deep and harmful cuts in personnel and procurement post-any-war and the Regular Army is going to take it in the shorts at the onset of new hostilities due to those factors and undergo a painful learning curve. The arc of that curve is going to be situationally (read: intensity of combat) dependent. On balance, I think the benefits of a democratic nation outweigh those very strong negatives but others may differ.

Regardless, we have over 200 years of historical proof of the existence of that boom and bust cycle. -- and I do not see that changing. I certainly wish it would change, I know it probably could be changed -- but, like you I doubt it will change.

I can accept that.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:20pm


You raise two interesting points.

On the potential for taking advantage of the brain's awesome ability to re-tool itself, I'm sure we'll be able to do that and sooner rather than later. However, I suggest that in the near term, a viable approach is to be far more selective in the psychological sense on who is accessed into what type of service...

Our really dysfunctional personnel system is still predicated on policies developed in 1916-17 and modified and 'improved' in 1940-41. Those basic policies have been tweaked since then but basically are attuned to producing a large marginally trained mass Army mobilized from the general population. Recent overlays designed in the minds of some to produce a professional force do not really do that; a volunteer force yes -- professional, not so much...

Such a force would make your second point, tour length, moot. Deployments of multiple years would, could, and should be the norm for such a professional force of long serving persons, 20 year Privates and 30 year Captains. We once had those and they worked well for the time. Those days are probably gone and a designed turnover of personnel does have advantages that offset the loss of continuity and great competence.

If, as seems probable, we will continue to be volunteer and short term focused and if societal and political pressures militate (obligatory pun choice...) against a truly professional military, then selection of brains fit for task (a somewhat sociopathic Infantry would likely avoid many psychological problems -- though it might incur others...) you are correct that the Policy makers need to consider that. <u>So does the Army</u>...

Mike says we can do better than this. I agree but he, you and I know replacing the dysfunctional personnel system is a part of the fix, better selection -- everyone <i>cannot</i> do the basic job, the leading job or the commanding job acceptably -- would help and an accurate honest assessment of capabilities desired and possible for the Force as an entity is imperative.

If that is not done, we'll keep putting bandaids on a system that has essentially due to numerous expansions and contractions and far too much short term thinking -- just fixing it for an incumbent's watch -- grown to be dysfunctional. Mike is admirably concerned with the individuals. That aspect is important, I agree. However, as a resident Dinosaur and relic from the 'suck it up' era, I have to admit I'm far more concerned with the capability and performance of the organization. On that, too we can do better...


Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:04pm

I must admit, reading these types of articles and discussions often leaves me very cynical. We speak of shorter deploymentS, doing things the smart way, and taking care of our people. We hear leaders, both in an out of uniform, talk about not just reacting to problems but being proactive to stop them from snowballing or becoming an issue once again in the future.

However, we then see these same leaders talk about downsizing the force, cutting budgets, cutting benefits, getting rid of projects to modernize the military and so forth. Some call that politics, others call it attending to a budget crisis. I call it mismanagement. And, it's the same mismanagement that put us behind the power curve in the two current theaters.

We decided to make incomplete war, to fight it on the cheap, to reduce manpower in theater, etc. We then found it wasn't getting the job done so we turned planes around on the airstrip to have Soldiers headed home put their kit back on and head back into combat. We extended deployments, we shortened at-home periods. Why? Because the failure to manage the force structure appropriately BEFORE the war, and employ it correctly at the ONSET of war, came back to haunt us.

So, here we are, ten years later. We are trying to close down two theaters. Our materiel is broken as are many of our people. And yet again we are paying lip service to doing things the right way, yet we're already planning to change the force structure, we're cutting programs, and steadying ourselves for a coming age of austerity. We dovetail these discussions into other discussions about toxic leadership, learning and forgetting the lessons of WWII, Vietnam, Korea, and we all seem to collectively pledge not to allow the problems occur once again. "Not on my watch.", right?

But, this is nothing new. In WWII a lot of guys entered the service after Pearl Harbor was attacked. They stayed in uniform and mostly overseas from 1942 to 1945 or so. Not much of a rotation there. SLA Marshall wrote that two months after D-Day, US forces had exactly 1 lone rifleman in reserve, within France, ready to backfill. Our nation has a pretty well established history of not properly attending to the human factors of leadership, manning, and force structuring.

I don't hold out much hope that any of this will be corrected in the future. But, despite all its ills, I do love being in the military. In the end, I don't think any of us are really going to change what our senior leaders do (or what happens to them along the way to cause them to do the things they do).


Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:43am

Mike -- I wonder if you saw this article in The Atlantic last month: <a href="… Brain on Trial"</a>? The gist of it is that modern discoveries in neuroscience are leading us to revise the way we understand volition, impulse control, and personal responsibility, and that this will necessarily have a dramatic effect on the criminal justice in the future. It's not directly related to what you've written about, but I couldn't help but think about the author (a neuroscientist)'s comfortable self-assurance in asserting that we now know there's simply no difference at all between "brain problems" and "mind problems." There's biology/physiology behind all of it, whether it's serious brain damage leading to dramatic personality change or a simple inability to regulate inappropriate behaviors, sometimes linked to low birth weight or childhood nutrition.

Anyway, my point is this: the piece holds out hope for the future that as we learn more about the science behind this, we'll be more able to teach people how to take advantage of the plasticity of their brains to sort of re-train the damaged or under-performing bits and help people "get better." Small consolation for those suffering today, though.

Bill M. -- Just briefly, I'm not sure it's fair to hold the Army responsible for tour length rather than those who employed the force carelessly or without taking adequate supplementary measures to avoid deployments being stretched out to the absurd 15-month mark. For what it's worth, both GEN Dempsey and GEN Casey before him have committed to a plan that will see operating force units eventually reduced to a NINE-month "available" period in the ARFORGEN cycle. Of course, it would've been nice to do that when "available" equated 100% of the time to "deployed," but better late than never, I suppose.


I would have liked to have heard the arguments made that raised suicide to the same level of being killed in combat. It may have simply been pressure from the media that convinced the White House to send letters of condolence to these fallen warriors also. There is no doubt that some war wounds are invisible to the untrained eye, and IMO many of the suicides (not all) are combat related.

Personally I don't think a letter of condolence for the family is too much to ask. Furthermore, I don't think it is too much to ask that a letter of condolence is sent for a military member killed in training. I haven't done the math, but on a personal basis I probably know as many killed in training for combat as were killed in combat. Is there a difference in dedication to one's nation from the soldier who dies because his parachute malfunctioned training for war, and one who was killed in the chow hall from a mortar attack? Medals such as purple hearts, campaign awards and valor awards address the where and how, a letter of condolence should be color blind to all factors other than a service member died while serving (traffic accidents at home don't apply, etc.).

The deployments are too long, and they're still largely unpredictable. A guy PCS's from a unit that has just redeployed to a unit gearing up to go again, and ARFORGEN doesn't capture and manage this individual OPTEMPO problem. The Marines and SOF are smarter with their shorter deployments, and if the Army really wants to address its mental health issues they need to do the same, but it appears they care more about the budget than their personnel. We have been at this war for 10 years, so telling young and older guys to just suck it up got old a long, long time ago. I think you hit it when you wrote that many young men and women have basically dedicated their entire 20s years to the war. It is well past time to stop asking these young men and women to just suck it up, because we can't find a way to manage this forever war more effectively.

How is the problem managed now? It isn't, instead the symptoms are managed with pop psychology and medications. There is also an effort being made to identify the traits of resiliency. Why are some service members resilient and others aren't? I suspect that will falter also, because there are so many variables that will influence this.

I read LTG Frido's article, and personally don't associate it with the suicide issue. He addresses another important problem though, and that is the use of pain meds for various injuries (they're needed, I'm not against them). I have known several senior NCOs and Officers who needed pain meds for combat and other injuries, who didn't abuse drugs previously but found themselves abusing the pain meds. These are educated people who live by a moral code, so it simply shows you the power of these drugs to change one's personality, so obviously there is a requirement for our medical community to not only manage the pain, but to manage the meds they're issuing out so they pre-empt the addiction problem. It was courageous article that many officers and NCOs could have wrote, but only one did.


Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:24pm

Brave post, although it shouldn't require bravery to say that. It's nowhere near antithetical to our values to love our own. Perhaps we're still too macho to love, a word that draws it's own snickers and 'nohomo' comments.

The Army was pretty damn harsh around the edges when I left, but I lived my brothers and adored my leaders.

Jimbo (not verified)

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:19pm

All the responses thus far--composite fitness, condolence letters for suicides, calls for increased discipline, etc--address the symptoms, not the cause. You're right, we ignore the elephant in the room: OPTEMPO. The Army expects a Soldier to deploy for 12-15 months then come home for a year and doing it again fresh as a spring chicken. That might be a reasonable assumption the first time, but not the second and third times. People don't like to admit it, but the force is tired.