Sunday, February 8, 2009


PRESENT DAY, AND THE FALL OF 1991: Recently I have been deeply troubled reading reports in the U.S. media of the huge increases in the number of suicides among military personnel over the last few years. In some sectors I believe it to have quadrupled. The actual statistic is secondary to the fact that something, somewhere, is drastically wrong. Whether it is in the sphere of training, screening, pastoral and family support – I do not know. I merely hope and pray that the official enquiries recently launched (and why does that fill me with a sense of institutional foreboding?) will identify, if not a solution, at least a direction to follow.

For those who have never served in the military may I gently say, no – teach you – that a suicide inflicts infinitely more damage on the unit in which that man or woman served, than any other form of death or injury. Be it in the field of battle, or at sea, or in the air, even when severe casualties are being received, a trained battalion, ship or squadron will continue to fight, pull together and function normally under adverse circumstances. Yet on news of one of their own taking his life, such a professional team will start to falter and fail. Never underestimate the negative power of undermined morale in both peacetime exercises and combat operations. And, yes, I can speak here from experience. Not merely dealing with such tragedy within the operational unit, but also having to inform the next-of-kin and close friends that their loved one took his, her, own life.

My first encounter with a suicide in the Royal Navy (and the first of quite a few. And why did they always call me to go and “deal with it?”) was in October 1991. Once again a late phone call. The ship? HMS GLOUCESTER. Where? Grand Cayman. Usual procedure. Royal Air Force shuttle to Washington, pick up tickets for onward flights etc, etc. (Pieces of trivia and confession here. I flew the last ever Pan Am flight from Miami to Grand Cayman. The whole outfit was going bust. Buckets of champagne were served in Club and First – in fact we didn’t care about seats, but just partied, cabin crew included. My head on arrival was unclear, to say the least!)

Despite glorious island surroundings, the ship was in somber mood. On arrival I discovered that the customary “day one” cocktail party was about to begin, with invited local political and military dignitaries and, as one scurrilous captain who remains a friend once put it, “those taken up from trade!” Jeez! Not more alcohol?

It was not a good moment to pay my visiting call on the ship’s Captain, so I had to nurse a glass of wine through uncountable and indescribably dull cocktail party conversations on that flight deck, before we all retired, and I was given a chance.

Now I will refrain from mentioning this Commander by name, but although he was a splendid fellow and respected by all in his ship’s company, he did love to close his cabin door and signify that he wanted to be alone by playing opera recordings at various volumes. The higher the volume, the worse the crisis.

I was greeted in the flat outside his cabin by his Secretary. “ It’s pretty loud. How bad?” I enquired. “Bad.” He looked at me, “And it’s Wagner.” We both understood.

The following meeting took place without Wagner, but with coffee and a decent port, and the facts. A young artificer (naval apprentice) had been found hanging in an engineering section. No note, no clues. Yet so many questions. So many distraught members of ship’s company.

Now I will not bore you with detail about how I met with whole messes, and yet quietly with individuals, and the content of those conversations, for it is unhelpful history, but somehow, as the ship sailed slowly north to the Bahamas, many accepted a sense of being able to move on, even with unanswered questions. It was from those islands that I flew home, with the singular task of burying this young man. Which I did, near Brighton, on a sunny autumn day, and with family that wanted answers that I could not give them.

Since that day I continue to carry many such young people in my memories. And yet, despite their wasted lives and their unheard anguishes, I have no answers. Simply tears. And even more questions.

Official government enquiries? Please be diligent.  You see, some of us have been there.


Saintly Ramblings said...

Just a thought ... "wasted lives" ... is any life "wasted"? The relatively short lives of those you have dealt with have had their impact on both you and their comrades. You prove that they are not forgotten. Their legacy lies in increased understanding of the human condition, and probably an increased awareness amongst their fellows of the fragility of human emotions.

I sincerely believe no life is "wasted", from the still-birth to the geriatric alcoholic depressive. Every life (even still-birth) impacts upon others, and in our human interaction lies the key to growing self-awareness and compassion.

T said...

Those are indeed gracious comments. My use of the word "wasted" was narrow, I accept, yet I still struggle with the concept of a young life not being lived out to its full potential. You see, I still hang on to something of the "what if ...?" Within the naval world I saw so many promising young men and women come through the rigors of the training system. I saw future leaders, inspirers, creators. Some, of course, proved otherwise. I remain agnostic.