A lot has been written about the death by suicide of members and former members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, but it remains one of the most tragic consequences of military service. We are told that far more American service men and women have died from suicide in recent years than from hostile action. It is reported that more than 6,000 current and former members of the Armed Forces die from suicide every year. It is truly a tragedy.

Understanding Military Suicides.

I am not an expert in suicide in general or military suicide, in particular. Anyone contemplating suicide should immediately contact the suicide hotline at 988 and notify friends and loved ones of suicidal thoughts. There are professionals that can help, and it is important to access that help at the soonest opportunity.

On the other hand, I am familiar with the unique stressors involved in military service and combat and non-combat deployments. All branches of the U.S. military are mission-oriented leaving little room for failure. The need to accomplish the mission often leaves little room for the people conducting the mission. Unfortunately, even when things go well, people can sometimes die. Even when not involved in actual combat, training can be intense.

Then there is the stress of being separated from family members, sometimes for long periods of time. Separation from spouses and children, though necessary, are not healthy. The separation itself causes stress, but events happening at home can distract service members who cannot be there. Unfortunately, marriages sometimes fall apart while service members are deployed. Parents and grandparents sometimes die while the service member is away. The separation from normal support systems sometimes leaves some people without anyone to talk to or rely upon in times of high stress. Poor leadership can make matters worse.

As a Navy Judge Advocate, I have been involved in multiple suicide investigations, and I have known people who decided to take their own lives. After leaving active duty, I investigated multiple suspicious deaths which were later determined to be suicides. The death of anyone is a tragedy, but we sometimes forget those left behind—the mothers and fathers and children who have now lost a large portion of their lives.

We cannot help those who have taken their own lives. We can sometimes, however, help those who are left behind.

Suicide and Service-Connectedness.

The unfortunate reality is that members of the military are more prone to suicide than members of the civilian community. There are a variety of reasons for this, including:

Mental illness either caused by or aggravated by military service. One of the most common types of mental illness experienced by service members is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a serious mental disorder commonly caused by military service. The VA, however, estimates that about 80% of people with PTSD also suffer from other mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dissociative disorder, adjustment disorders, just to name a few.

Often times, military members and former members of the military will attempt to hide these issues believing they may impede career advancement inside or outside the military. They often turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. These mental conditions may manifest themselves in criminal activity or homelessness. Ultimately, they may lead to suicide.[1]

[1] Even those veterans who seek treatment at a VA facility may not receive adequate treatment. In one recent case, a veteran sought treatment for mental health at a VA facility where through negligence and malpractice, the veteran committed suicide. The veteran’s family eventually settled a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for $5.75 million.

The human psyche is simply not designed to handle the mental stresses associated with military service. With physical injuries, trauma to the head, broken bones or damaged organs, the injuries are readily apparent and hard to deny. Mental injuries are no less real, but they are not visible to the human eye nor detectable through an x-ray or CAT Scan.

Isolation and loneliness. Although service members serve in units with other service members, this does not mean they are immune from isolation or loneliness. Being stationed in a foreign land, away from family and friends for the first time, can be terribly isolating. Sometimes these feelings can be overwhelming and, when combined with other factors (like alcohol and firearms), cause a service member to take his or her own life. It is usually a temporary feeling and would pass, but in a fit of despair, the service member might decide to take his or her own life.

Exposure to Trauma. As a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania, I came to know a family friend who served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines during World War II. He spent a significant amount of time in combat and spoke of a friend who died when the pin on a hand grenade popped off and the hand grenade detonated. On another occasion, he told me that one morning he went to a stream. On the other side of the stream was a Japanese soldier, a teenager, who was filling a canteen with water. He shot the enemy soldier in the stomach as he was dipping the canteen into the water. The Japanese soldier looked him in the eye, clutching his stomach, blood running from his hands, as he died. He acted properly, but when he told me of that incident thirty-five years after the fact, tears ran from his eyes.

One evening many years later, I experienced similar feelings while serving aboard the USS SARATOGA (CV 60), although they were by no means as traumatic as the combat experiences of my friend. During Operation Desert Shield, during a port call in Haifa, Israel, a ferry carrying sailors from Haifa back to the ship sank and twenty-one sailors frowned that night. When the alarm onboard the ship sounded, I went to the hanger deck to see if I could be of assistance. I watched as the bodies of my shipmates were brought on board. It was a vision that haunted me for years afterwards.

Trauma may be cumulative. No one experiences serious trauma and then just “gets better”. The trauma only gets worse with each passing event. A chief petty officer I worked with that night quickly fell to pieces. He had been on a ship during the Vietnam War and experienced a fire. The chief had lost friends in that fire, and on that evening in December, 1990, he once again experienced that loss, together with a new loss.

Military service is unique in that severe trauma is actually part of the job. The only thing is, the human psyche is not designed to simply deal with it.

Other Causes. There are many other aspects of military life that are factors leading to suicide. After military service has ended, a return to civilian life can be difficult, and many retired and former members of the military have difficulty adjusting to the civilian lifestyle. In fact, suicide frequently has multiple causes and often plays out in the victim’s mind where the victim’s family members cannot see what the victim is going through.

In terms of assisting the survivors of the suicide, the legal issue is whether the suicide was “service connected”. This can be a difficult determination to make, but the VA does understand that there is a relationship between military service and suicide.

Obtaining Benefits for Survivors of Suicide.

Although benefits for survivors of suicide are not guaranteed, qualifying family members of service members who die as a result of suicide may be entitled to Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) under certain circumstances. Entitlement to compensation is governed by 38 CFR 3.302. This section requires that in order for the suicide to be compensable, it must result from an “unsound mind” or “mental unsoundness”, and this mental unsoundness must be service-connected.

The regulations draw a distinction between “intentional acts” resulting in suicide and mental unsoundness. Before filing a claim, a thorough investigation should be made concerning the facts and circumstances surrounding the suicide, and proper documentation must be presented to the VA to obtain benefits. However, the regulation provides that in the case of doubt, all reasonable doubt must be resolved in favor of the survivor.

To be considered for benefits, the survivor must call the Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) at 1-800-827-1000 to report the veteran’s death. There will be forms that need to be completed to apply for benefits. Again, evidence should be gathered to support the claim.

Benefits Available. The benefits available to the survivor include:

  • Dependency and Indemnification Compensation (DIC).
  • Survivors’ Pension.
  • Civilian Health and Medical Program/Department of Veteran’s Affairs (CHAMVA).
  • Educational Assistance.
  • Home Loans.
  • Counselling.
  • Burial.

Each of these benefits programs has its own criteria and application process. Not every survivor is entitled to VA benefits. If benefits are denied, there is an appeals process that can result in benefits even after they have been initially denied by the VA.

How Can We Help?

Applying for death benefits can by difficult. The process is challenging, and it becomes even more challenging when one is experiencing the death of a loved one.

Dennis Boyle is a retired Commander from the Judge Advocate General’s Corp, U.S. Naval Reserve and is a veteran himself. He is also accredited by the Veterans Administration to represent veterans and their survivors before the Veterans Administration. He offers veterans a free consultation to review the case. If he decided to take the case, he will do so on a contingent basis. Therefore, there will be no fee unless the VA decides in the survivor’s favor.

Dennis Boyle
Founder / Partner

Mr. Dennis Boyle is an accomplished white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation attorney who practices throughout the United States and internationally.

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