Breaking The Silence

03.10.15 9:25 AM ET

Top U.S. Commando Tells Troops: Get Counseling, I Did

The Special Operations Command’s war on suicides is prompting its storied, silent commander to speak both publicly and privately—all but ordering his forces to get help.

Suicides by special operators have fallen for two years straight. But the rates are still among the highest in the military. And that’s prompting the ordinarily tight-lipped commander of the elite forces to speak frankly about seeking help, and all but ordering his troops to do the same.

“I have, with my family, sought counseling and assistance,” said Special Operations Command’s General Joseph Votel, in comments to several hundred current and former troops at a recent Washington conference. The remarks were made publicly and on the record, but have not been previously reported.

“I did it an earlier time in my career, but it’s been since 9/11, and I encourage everybody to do that,” he said, in response to a question from The Daily Beast.

That kind of frank exchange combined with an increase in counseling resources—including anonymous counseling—seems to be helping, slowly.

Suicides have dropped from a peak of 23 in 2012, to 18 last year, according to updated figures from U.S. Special Operations Command made available to The Daily Beast.

That’s actually slightly lower than the U.S. national suicide rate of roughly 20 suicide deaths per 100,000 people. But it’s not good enough, says Navy Captain John Doolittle, the new officer in charge of the command’s Preservation of the Force and Family Task Force.

“Even one is too many,” he said in an interview.

The high rate of special operations suicides as compared to the other services reflects the strain of more than a decade of deployments since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—a trend that continues for special operators even as most conventional forces come home.

It also reflects the continued stigma against seeking counseling that is arguably even fiercer among special operators than conventional forces. It literally goes against their training, which often requires pushing through pain to reach a target on the battlefield.

Votel, who last led the elite Joint Special Operations Command, said that is changing, with more special operators seeking help.

“I’m also seeing an increase in friends, in peers, in numbers in the chain of command who are referring to their people for help, without any further ramifications,” in terms of their careers, he said.

The famously reticent U.S. Army Ranger is speaking out because he faced a suicide crisis shortly after taking charge last summer.

In the four months from August to November of 2014, there were seven apparent suicides, five suicide attempts, and 14 cases where troops were hospitalized for “suicide ideation,” meaning they were considering taking their own life.

“We are not winning this battle yet and we need your help,” Votel wrote in a November 2014 missive to his troops, obtained by The Daily Beast.

Votel pointed to one bit of silver lining in that those 14 cases of “ideation” meant someone—either the operator, a family member or a fellow operator—had spotted the problem and intervened.

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“When our leadership or people identify a person who is exhibiting behavior that indicates they may harm themselves—we act quickly,” Votel wrote.

Since then, Votel has ordered stepped-up training of how to spot the signs of stress, and the Pentagon has worked to make more counseling resources available to his people.

The Pentagon’s health affairs department has budgeted nearly $15 million this fiscal year to behavioral health resources for special operations Plus, there’s another $10 million in the special operations budget toward behavioral health and suicide prevention efforts. There’s also $1.2 million budgeted for the spiritual domain—including giving chaplains suicide intervention training, and some basic counseling training. (For many in the military—older troops—it’s easier to talk with a chaplain than with a therapist.)

Almost a fifth of special operators anonymously surveyed by Doolittle’s office this year reported that they’d sought out some form of behavioral health support, with most of them going to the psychologist, counselor or chaplain who is part of their unit, Doolittle said. That’s up from only 15 percent of those surveyed last year and 11 percent the year before.

“I can think of several peers and senior enlisted [officers] that have gone through various forms of psychological treatment,” said Doolittle.

“Some kept it on the down-low, but some folks have been very vocal,” which has helped degrade the view of seeking counseling as weakness, he said.

What has arguably helped the most is embedding psychologists and other types of counselors available in special operations units and also borrowing the practice of using “military family life counselors” for operators and families alike. They provide what some troops refer to as “Starbucks therapy”—meetings outside the base that don’t appear in the service member’s record, or even get written down at all.

“When you are talking about convincing the guy to drive across base and go see a psych at a medical treatment facility—quite honestly, we’ve had problems with that,” Doolittle said. But give them a chance to talk to someone they see in the gym and the chow hall every day, and there’s less stigma—one reason chaplains in places like Afghanistan invest in expensive coffeemakers to plant outside their offices to give troops one more reason to stop by.

“For every one operator or support person that’s gone to a medical treatment facility, roughly another three are going to that ‘embedded’ care [team],” Doolittle said.

In 2015, there will be a total of 131 special operations-specific behavioral health professionals “embedded” in SOCOM units and bases, up from just 60 in 2013.

That’s on top of dozens more made available by the various services who are both embedded in special operations units and across the military health system.

The therapy can help troops deal with the grief of losing a teammate or unlock a traumatic memory so the brain can stop going over it repeatedly. But sometimes, the counseling is simply to train an operator to “down regulate” after deployment.

In laymen’s terms, a body under constant threat that goes on missions night after night pumps out adrenaline at such a constant rate that it gets out of whack and can’t readily adjust to the relatively threat-free environment at home. So that hypervigilance that kept the soldier, sailor, or SEAL alive overseas can lead to soul-maddening sleep disorders, among other issues.

There are also counselors available to help families get re-acquainted after multiple deployments that can turn an operator into a stranger in his or her own home.

The harder-to-teach skills are convincing an operator to incorporate breathing or meditation into their daily training and getting regular sleep, so their brains can process and deal with the memories of whatever they saw during the day.

But SOCOM is trying to teach that, too, experimenting with programs that teach everything from yoga to “accelerated resolution therapy,” in which an operator replays an incident in his or her head like a movie, allowing the brain to “process” the tough memory and put it away.

The sting in the tail: Those who don’t take aim at their issues end up in a spiral of drinking, divorce, and worse, and end up out of the brotherhood that is the reason they stay quiet about the trauma in the first place.

That’s why the leading quiet professional Votel is slightly less silent when it comes to suicide.

Dozier is a contributing writer for The Daily Beast, and is also researching a book on resiliency and special operations and intelligence. She volunteers for military-related charities.