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Why Are Record Numbers of US Soldiers Committing Suicide?

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The US military is grappling with a record number of soldier suicides. At least thirteen soldiers took their lives last month. That’s down from the twenty-four military suicides in January and eighteen in February, but still in line with the most number of suicides since record keeping began. As many as 143 soldiers reportedly took their own lives last year. We speak with Emma Prophet, an investigator at the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in Oklahoma, broadcasting from Cameron University. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our Community Voices, Community Media tour. And we’re joined by John Scripsick, lost his son in Iraq, and Emma Prophet. She is an investigator with the Board of Medicolegal Investigators, with the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office.

The number of suicides, Emma, talk about it.

EMMA PROPHET: There was a revealing article here, that I think actually got off of National Public Radio, that the first two months to three months of this year, there were more people that are active duty that committed suicide than there were killed in action. And that’s the first time that that’s ever happened. And it’s happening when they’re overseas, and it’s happening when they come home.

And it is an issue that has been pervasive with all wars. The effects of the trauma that they go through mentally is very profound, and there really isn’t anything set up that is pervasive enough to allow them to recover, that you may go see a counselor if you want to, but there’s no real program. They are starting to, I think, have groups to get together and talk it out, but also that can have an effect on your career, if you are known to go to those kinds of meetings, I think, at least from what I’ve heard talking —-

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

EMMA PROPHET: If you’re active duty, and you have to go get psychiatric care, that doesn’t look well on your record. And so, that can have a stigma.

But from my experience -— I’ve been doing this work for twenty-one years, and I’ve worked in New Mexico, in Dallas County and various areas of Oklahoma — a lot of what I see is people who have made it out a certain number of years, that are having severe problems with addictions of alcohol and narcotic drugs, that don’t get any help. Some of them do seek recovery on their own, but there’s no real plan set up for them once they’re back home over a period of time. And I do believe that some of these guys came home and were able to function for a while, but the toxic effect lingers and builds up. And over time, the only way to deal with it is through self-medication.

And when I worked in Dallas County, which has a pretty good — at least at that time; I don’t know what it is now — they had a pretty good size homeless population. And probably 85 to 90 percent of the homeless that we would get that had died were on VA benefits, so we knew that they had been in some kind of military action at some point in time. And that speaks volumes to how they slide through the cracks and are not being taken care of.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, as an investigator for the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office, what does that mean? What do you investigate?

EMMA PROPHET: I’m where the rubber meets the road on death investigation. I’m the one that responds to the death scene. I’m the one that does the collection of criminal, medical, personal information, and doing scene — crime scene work, photographing, taking samples, doing partial autopsies, and also notification of next of kin.

AMY GOODMAN: And the suicides that you’ve dealt with — we’re right here in Lawton, I mean, massive military base here, Fort Sill.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what you have faced in the last, even, few months?

EMMA PROPHET: Well, we’ve had one suicide of an active-duty officer that I have worked. Now, I’m not sure what my partner in this area has worked, but I know that I worked one in February, and he had been back from Iraq for about a year. And, in fact, his commanding officer who found him, when we were talking to him, was like, “This is the last guy I would have thought this would have happened to.” And so, he obviously — that is a concern. He’s conscious of that with his staff. But for whatever reason, the pain that this man was going through was significant enough that he took his own life. And —-

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the military is dealing with this adequately, overall?

EMMA PROPHET: I’m not really seeing them dealing with it adequately. You have to be proactive. You can’t wait for the guy to go in, because he’s going to be afraid of looking weak. And the whole military -— it doesn’t matter what branch you’re in — is to suck it up and go do what you’ve got to do. And that does not go well with dealing with psychological trauma.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, John, back to you. Having lost your son Bryan, the feeling of people here in Oklahoma, people you talk to, with your resistance to, your speaking out against the war?

JOHN SCRIPSICK: Most of my neighbors agree with me. They think this war is just for money. There’s a few people at the top making a lot of money, and then the poor people of Iraq are the ones suffering, and the families here that has lost somebody are the ones suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the feeling the same about both Iraq and Afghanistan?

JOHN SCRIPSICK: I’m not sure about Afghanistan. I did talk to one of Bryan’s friends that was there, and I’ve talk to the troops a lot about the difference in the culture there compared to us. He seemed like a smart kid. He said that he didn’t think bullets would solve anything, but maybe knowledge or education would.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank both of you for being with us. John Scripsick lost his son Bryan in Iraq. He’s speaking out against the war. And Emma Prophet is an investigator with the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office.

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Davis Joyce, Author of “Alternative Oklahoma: Contrarian Views of the Sooner State”

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