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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

The Tragic Suicide of 1st Sgt. Jeff McKinney

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 16th 2008

Traumatized soldier 1st Sgt. Jeff McKinney who committed suicide on July 11th, 2008The Army Times has an excellent article on the tragic suicide of 1st Sgt. Jeff McKinney, a man with so much to live for (a wife and child he clearly loved (watch the video of McKinney with his family), and the earnest respect of the men he led) who put his rifle barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger in front of the men he led. What pushed him over the edge like that? Substantial psychological trauma at least – something like an Acute Stress Disorder (the precursor to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD), and very possibly also a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Impulsive suicide like this is the sort of thing that can happen when you are responsible for the lives of men who die or are gravely wounded in front of you. This kind of thing isn't new. When I worked on a PTSD rotation at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center in the 1990s I knew of a Vietnam era veteran with PTSD who was still staggering (25+ years later) from his inability to protect the men who served and died under him way back when. Shakespeare, as usual, nailed it a long time ago when he wrote: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown".

Soldiers sign up for this sort of thing you might say. They do what is necessary to protect the country and sometimes being traumatized is necessary for the good of the country. There is some truth to this sort of statement which is most meaningful, I think when the war in question is necessary.

There have been wars (like World War II) where receiving a mortal wound was something that, while immensely tragic, was necessary for some soldiers to endure and thus the sacrifice was a truly heroic act. Having no relationship at all to the events of September 11th, 2001, the current war just doesn't seem to qualify as a necessary war. This is not to say that McKinney was not heroic. He was and remains absolutely heroic, but he was heroic in spite of this particular war; not because of it. What makes McKinney heroic is the example of his humanity and his devotion to duty in spite of the insane circumstances.

It is positively awful that McKinney had to endure what he endured (and ultimately could not endure); that his family will have to endure his absence for the rest of their young lives; that all the other men and women in uniform who are enduring similar circumstances still must endure; for such an unnecessary, unjustified cause. What an awful, immense and ultimately unnecessary loss of a good man.

McKinney did not go for help even though it was apparent to those around him that he probably could have used some. The Army Times article describes this phenomena in terms of a reticence that many soldiers have of reporting that they have sustained a trauma. This hesitation to report a non-obvious wound is so very understandable, and yet it is exactly also an action which will increase the likelihood of their untimely death (by suicide or trauma-fueled accident or misjudgment). Soldiers will naturally want to view themselves as tough and capable. Without such a self-image, how long would they last given what they have to do? They will want their peers to see them as not only tough but also dependable. Lives are at stake and soldiers must be able to trust and depend upon one another. How could decent people living in such a combat situation legitimately be so selfish as to look out for their own lives if that means also that doing so puts other people at increased risk for harm. They will want their superior officers to view them as tough and dependable as well. Few people want to be seen as a failure. It seems inevitable that the good soldiers who care about the people around them will avoid help-seeking, and yet, precisely by avoiding help-seeking, they harm themselves. Catch-22.

I'm reminded of a haunting ballad by Richard Thompson, one of my favorite musicians, called the Woods of Darney about a World War I era soldier:

Now the bugle calls, they say this is the big one
A curse on the life of a soldier, you say
But don't you know that's a soldier's small comfort
For the bugle to sound, and to hear, and obey

If individual soldiers cannot self-identify as vulnerable when they are truly vulnerable and in need of care, who can possibly look out for them? Only their own peers, I think. Those people around them who do not need, for institutional reasons, to view them as an expendable resource. McKinney was a leader of men - not, I gather someone exactly surrounded by same-rank peers. It doesn't sound like there were a lot of people at his level around him who could look out for him the way he was trying to look out for those he commanded.

This story just really touched me. Both for the loss this man and his family have sustained, and for the thousands of identical men and women soldiers with similar stories which have not been reported on which are happening right now. I feel so angry when I think about this stuff, and so impotent to do anything meaningful to stop it. Fellow Americans, let us please do what we can to end this unnecessary and tragic war as soon as is possible. Let us please do what we can to support policy that will in turn support our traumatized and broken veterans and their families.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like this will be possible until next November when the coming presidential election takes place.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Jeff Mckinney - Nadine B. - Jun 18th 2009

    Jeff, i miss u!

    Tragic - Tony - Mar 3rd 2009
    What's tragic is Jeff was given meds he should not have been taking.  Jeff did not have PTSD, he had a brain injury, a physical injury which manifested psychological impairment.  No different than if one diagnosed you with anxiety disorder after stabbing you in the leg with a knife.  The pressures from these blasts is insane.  After your brain is turned to mush from a large blast your judgement gets a little clouded.  Mix that with a "fight, but don't fight to win war" and you have the Soldier questioning everything he believes in.  To say that there is no previous study in this area is BS.  The British conducted extensive research following WWI and it's "shell shocked" vetreans.  I saw Jeff approxiately six months before the incident, he was fine, hadn't changed in 10 yrs.  I was shocked to hear the news but after getting the details I knew exactly what had happened.  But for the Army it is easier to say that he had pre-existing psychological problems than to admit to medical negligence.  By these Soldiers taking their own lives it relieves the military of any financial burden, both medical costs and life insurance payouts to family members.  Would you have psychological problems if everything you believed in was a lie?

    Military Suicide - Tracy eiswert - Dec 27th 2008

    Hello. I read your article about the 1st Sgt. that recently committed suicide. I wanted to tell you my story. My husband was in the 278th TN National Guard and he committed suicide on May 16, 2008. Here is my story:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/video/blog/2008/11/military_sees_rise_in_troop_su.html

    Sincerely,

    Tracy Eiswert

    Please, help me spread the word about veteran suicides! Send this link to everyone you know. P.S. The VA has denied all my appeals for a 100% rating................

    - Vrishali - Jul 10th 2008

    Truely, this war was not necessary at all.

     I still don't get what it was for.  see what it has led to. 

    Great article, though. 

     

    Please. Give it a break. - - Jun 20th 2008

    "Having no relationship at all to the events of September 11th, 2001, the current war just doesn't seem to qualify as a necessary war. This is not to say that McKinney was not heroic. He was and remains absolutely heroic, but he was heroic in spite of this particular war; not because of it."

    I really expected that I would find a place were the political bias would be put aside. What a shame and shame on you!

     

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