By On January 9th, 2014

Toxic Leadership May Be Contributing Factor to Veteran Suicides


On January 6th, 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) released an eye opening report on how destructive leadership within the Army may be a contributing factor to suicide in combat veterans. The direction of the report was initiated by a very surprising source.  In 2010, while supervising the step down of Army forces in Iraq, Brigadier General Pete Bayer was “frustrated” by the number (30) of suicides that occurred in Iraq over the previous year. Through that frustration, he requested the help of a resource outside of the military ranks.  He engaged Dave Matsuda an Anthropologist contracted to assist field commanders with looking below the surface of the issues in Iraq.  Gen. Bayer recognized that this type of insight could lead to answers to his concerns over the suicide rate. He also valued that this insight would come from a source he could trust outside of the military.

Prior to this assessment, the investigation of combat theater suicides had a tendency to focus on what was flawed with the soldier. Army investigators would essentially ask the same questions: What was wrong with the individual soldier? Did he or she have a troubled childhood or mental health problems? Did the soldier just break up with a partner or spouse? Was he or she in debt? General Bayer was not satisfied with the information provided with this approach.  He allowed Mr. Matsuda to interview 50 friends of 8 recent soldiers who had died by suicide in Iraq. What he discovered was in addition to being able to answer one or more of the suicide investigation questions with a “Yes” response, another possible contributing factor began to emerge. The study uncovered a process known as “smoking” where one or more platoon leaders had exposed the victim to physically and socially humiliating experiences prior to the soldier ending his life.  The process of “smoking” was a common tool in basic training venues prior to 1980 (i.e. Private Pyle vs. the Drill Sergeant in the movie, “Full Metal Jacket”).  The Army field training manual acknowledges this risk under the term “Toxic Leadership”.

Working as a case-manager and counselor to veterans I have heard many stories of encounters with toxic leadership.  More than one veteran shared stories of being ostracized and/or punished by senior leaders, and, in many cases, their peers.  This theme was common in veterans of VHA (Veterans Health Administration) and non-VHA connected homeless shelters, prisons, mental health and substance abuse programs.  Many reported experiencing these encounters post-deployment at various military installations at home.  A high number of the less than honorably discharged veterans referenced this type of treatment prior to being discharged.  The Army had been working with the National Institutes of Mental Health on a study of soldiers and suicide.  The findings of Dave Matsuda indicate that the issue of toxic leadership deserves a respected place in that evaluation. The topic should also be studied in regard to veterans’ homelessness, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, Military Sexual Trauma, and “Bad Paper” discharges as well.

The leadership of Gen. Bayer in engaging resources outside of the military also needs to be recognized and applauded.  This study has inspired Forbes Magazine to generate the question of toxic leadership in corporate America.  According to the Forbes response three of the key mindsets of an effective leader are: 1) I keep an open mind about big decisions, I consult some people I trust, then I make the call and go with it; 2) There’s usually a right thing to do, and I can separate that from my own need for approval; and 3) I’ll have been successful as a leader if we get a specific goal accomplished.  In regard to the last item, Gen. Bayer should be given the opportunity to continue his efforts on the home front.

Click here to read the NPR story.


One Response

  1. Andrew Arkel says:

    I was in the Active duty during Desert Storm, I served under some very toxic leaders. I feel that being smoked is only the last straw in many cases of Veteran’s suicides. I feel that the environment and training need to be adjusted in that service members need to be educated and mentored, I have seen first hand the result of incompetency in many military leaders! The toxin drips down the chain of command. The movie A Few Good Men show a glimpse of what I am talking about. Many young soldiers are ignorant of life, have no real life experiences, have never had to be responsible for anything then you coddle them through basic training and expect them to survive in combat! Soldiers need discipline! There is currently a huge lack of discipline, respect and professionalism in the military today! We need better trained leaders, we need to change the toxic environment of me first team second and I’ll get promoted no matter who I have to step on!

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