This weekend our nation remembers those who suffered most acutely from war; we salute those veterans who gave their lives in battle. The Memorial Day holiday has an interesting history. Just around the same time the Catholic Church was moving holydays and allowing Saturday evening vigil masses to satisfy the Sunday mass obligation, Congress moved four federal holidays to Mondays in order to give federal workers three day weekends – Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. It didn’t take long for most states to follow the federal lead, except interestingly, for Veterans Day, which after a decade of Monday celebration, was moved back to its traditional date of November 11. (WWI hostilities ended 11/11/1918 at the 11th hour; orginally Armistice Day)
We are reminded this Memorial Day, that war takes the lives of our soldiers not only on the battlefield, but off it as well. Some who speak of the glory of war too often forget its gory cruelty. Veterans cannot forget and haunted by the memories, they sometimes take their own lives after their fighting is done.
The commanding general of Fort Bliss, Maj Gen Pittard1 was criticized for recently blogging a comment that suicide was a thoroughly “selfish” act, which brutalized family members, friends and colleagues. His blog comments were made after attending the funeral of a soldier who killed himself at home with his family on Christmas in front of his twin six year old daughters. It is important to read about Fort Bliss and the full text of the general’s now deleted blog comments before agreeing with some politicians that the general “completely misunderstands” military suicides, or that he is “totally insensitive” to the problem. The general retracted his statement, but reemphasized his concern about suicide not only in the Army, but in our nation.3
Meantime, no one led the charge to correct a statement from one of the Kennedy’s outside the funeral of Mary Kennedy, who hanged herself: “Mary suffered from depression…I just think about the story of Michael the Archangel, who had to battle the forces of evil, had to battle Satan who was trying to enter paradise, and that's what Mary did her whole life. She was battling, battling those demons and keeping them out of the paradise that was Mary. She was an angel, she was an angel who was brought to us to live with us here on Earth. And I think that God just brought her back up to heaven and said: 'You don't have to fight for me anymore, you can be back where you're supposed to be.”4
Emotionally sympathetic, but theologically bizarre comments like these are precisely why the Catholic Church forbids eulogies (praising the deceased) at mass and exercises increasing vigilance over the Words of Remembrance given by family or friends whenever they are spoken in church.
I’m no angel, you’re no angel. Our battles are vastly different from angels, who do not experience hunger, thirst, fatigue or even physical pleasure. Angels don’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffer from any illness, even a cold. Angels cannot kill themselves.
Here apparently suicide has moved away from any opprobrium at all, to a hereditary illness, then to an honor in heaven, a kind of heavenly Purple Heart. As General Pittard reminds us however, “There is nothing noble about suicide.” Implying that there is, even to console the sorrowful, is dangerous.
If we can agree that suicide is not a moral flaw, I hope we can also agree that suicide causes terrible pain and suffering to others…suicide is surely not a moral virtue. Nor is suicide inevitable. (In fact a recent study determined that 20% of those dying by suicide are legally intoxicated; is getting drunk part of the suicide plan, or does drinking loosen inhibitions against self-harm? There is so much we do not yet understand.)
We reflect on the wounds of war this weekend: The wounds that kill on the battlefield and those that kill after the battle is done. God help us to understand the horror of war, and that some casualties of war can be prevented far away from enemy fire.
General Pittard comments that “suicide is a serious problem, not only in our Army, but throughout our entire nation.” As for the soldiers under his command, a buddy system has been instituted – all soldiers have a teammate watching out for them; the general exhorts them: to “Please look after each other; please do not allow your buddy to make a rash decision that will have permanent life-ending consequences. Choose life.” That doesn’t sound like insensitivity or misunderstanding to me.
As citizens we can make sure mental health treatment is freely and confidentially available. And we can fight the stigma that a history of mental health treatment carries in many professions and occupations.
As Catholics we can embrace the graces of Pentecost. Ask the Holy Spirit to make us ever faithful in
prayer, to increase our respect for the Eucharist and strengthen our spiritual and communal bonds.
May we become
- a community of compassion and consolation, of less strident criticism, but not of lesser moral values.
- a community of courage to confront social evils and battle to right them.
- a community of freedom to worship our God, help our neighbors and defend our most precious moral and religious values.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!
Pittard's original blog entry Jan 18 2012: I've edited out the phrases which were criticized so as not to propagate them, you can Google them everywhere. The whole post is a bit more difficult to discover:
"We lost a Fort Bliss Soldier to an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. I heard the tragic news as I walked out of a memorial service for another one of our Soldiers who decided to kill himself at home on Christmas Day so that his family would find him. Christmas will never be the same for his two young daughters he left behind....edit...There is nothing noble about suicide. I care about each and every one of our Soldiers, family members and civilians at Fort Bliss. I know there are a lot of people hurting out there, especially with the future Army personnel cuts on the horizon. If you are hurting mentally or emotionally, then seek and get help; but don’t resort to taking your own life. ...edit...SEEK HELP! If you need help, please call 915-779-1800 or 800-273-TALK (8255). It is a confidential call. Please look after each other; please do not allow your buddy to make a rash decision that will have permanent life-ending consequences. Choose life.”