Military gun ownership and suicide: Give commanders the hand they need to help

Military gun ownership and suicide: Give commanders the hand they need to help

By Col. Hank Foresman (U.S. Army, ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist

In the December 7 Washington Post there is an interesting opinion piece by Generals (Retired) Reimer and Chiarelli, where they urged that Congress repeal a provision of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents commissioned and non-commissioned officers from talking with their troopers about their gun ownership. 

One of the most effective measures of suicide prevention is to ask those perceived to be under duress: "Do you have a gun in your home?" If the answer is yes, we might then suggest that the individual put locks on the weapon or store it in a safe place during periods of high stress — things that any responsible gun owner should do.

Unfortunately, that potentially lifesaving action is no longer available to the military. A little-noticed provision in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has had the unintended consequence of tying the hands of commanders and noncommissioned officers by preventing them from being able to talk to service members about their private weapons, even in cases where a leader believes that a service member may be suicidal.

I commanded three companies for a total of 54 months. I did not have to talk to my soldiers about their gun ownership because I did not have to deal with the epidemic of suicides that face the military today. But, if I had, I would have wanted to know about gun ownership so if I thought a trooper was suicidal I could do something to help him.

I know how important this is. A few years ago, shortly after I retired from the Army, I experienced several weeks of acute vertigo. As a result of being carted out of the Pentagon on a stretcher, I experienced a very serious episode of depression to include having suicidal thoughts. When I realized what was happening I had my wife gather the pistols which we each keep near the bedside and had her lock them up in the gun safe; on top of that I had her change the combination of the gun safe and not to give it me. Why? Because I wanted to take away any access to weapons that would allow me to do something stupid.

I got help; the doctors were able to address not only the vertigo, but also the underlying depression. I now know the combination to my gun safe, and I regularly go shooting. In fact I am doing so today.

Generals Reimer and Chiarelli are right, commissioned and non-commissioned officers need to have every tool available to them to battle our epidemic of suicide to include asking soldiers about their gun ownership. Despite what some in Congress think, this is not an attempt to circumvent the Second Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. Rather, it is a tool to our soldiers.

The author served 33 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a colonel. He deployed to Kosovo, Iraq, and Kuwait.