Elite U.S. Army soldiers should spend more time, not less, learning to prevent self-harm
A recent article on Military.com claims that the Pentagon’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force wants to make sure infantry squads approach training like the 75th Ranger Regiment does.
“Rangers are doing Ranger things,” stated Joe L’Etoile, the task force’s director. “Infantrymen in the Marine Corps need to be doing infantrymen things.”
While his recommendation to stop tasking soldiers and Marines with jobs that can be done by contractors — such as serving as gate guards, lifeguarding at the pool, etc. — is laudable, his idea that we should reduce the time allotted for classes aimed at reducing destructive behaviors like suicide is not.
“Rangers do Ranger things, daily, so they are very good light infantry,” L’Etoile said. “We produce very good light infantry today, but I think we can raise the game if we stop distracting people from the tasks that don’t contribute to their lethality.”
One way to do this, according to L’Etoile, is to adjust the priority placed on common military training, or CMT, events — such as classes such as on preventing suicides, sexual assault, sexual harassment and cyber attacks.
“They are all important, but are they more important than lethality,” L’Etoile said. “That is the question that needs to be asked.” L’Etoile said he wants future commanders to have the latitude to say “until I get to where I am at on lethality, I am only going to focus on these three CMT topics for X amount of hours.”
Wait, what does that even mean? Get to where I’m at? Okay, you are where you’re at. How about “get to where I need to be?” – but that, of course would require knowing what your lethality goal is, and how to measure it.
“Lethality” is the capacity to cause death or serious harm or damage. So presumably commanders would have a way to measure their individual or unit capacity to cause death, and would have training that supports increasing that capacity.
Based on Mr. L’Etoile’s comments, it sounds like the Task Force has found a way to measure that capacity, has done a definitive comparison of how lethal Ranger squads were in Afghanistan and Iraq compared to Marine rifle squads, and that’s the basis for recommending “Aaaaarrrmmmyy training, sir!” for all hands – and for doing just a little more of it by cutting out training designed to prevent destructive behaviors.
So let’s talk about the requirement for those “three CMT topics” as they apply to the Marine Corps. Start with 52 weeks a year to train. Take out four weeks for leave, another two weeks for liberty associated with federal holidays and that gives you 46 weeks of training time.
230 training days. 1,840 training hours. How much will be spent on mandatory training to prevent suicides, eliminate sexual harassment and assault or defend against cyber attacks?
Suicide prevention is covered by Unit Marine Awareness and Prevention Integrated Training 2.0, which “integrates substance abuse, suicide prevention, family advocacy and combat and operational stress control concepts.”
Regulations note that “there are 90 minutes of curriculum provided. However, with quality discussion — which increases learning and leadership confidence in frank, kneecap-to-kneecap discussions — UMAPIT 2.0 will likely take two total hours.”
The “Take a Stand” and “Step Up” training modules also are both designed to be a 90-minute classes. So let’s say two hours at a maximum for sexual assault prevention and response.
Cyber security is online training that takes approximately an hour, and sexual harassment and hazing fall under “Prohibited Activities,” another class that should be covered in around two hours.
So, a total of around seven hours of training per year, or about .38 percent of the available training time in a given year. Which is not much, considering the ongoing epidemic of military sexual assault and harassment in which men are both the most numerous victims and perpetrators, the known cyber threat from our peer competitors and the fact that even during the height of combat operations in Iraq, an infantryman was less than twice as likely to die in a close combat engagement than he was to die of suicide.
If that last statement surprises you, consider the facts. Cambridge University’s Journal of Psychological Medicine did a study in 2015 to examine why infantrymen made up only 16.8 percent of all soldiers in the U.S. Army but accounted for 28 percent of all suicides.
Between 2004 and 2009, that resulted in 139 suicides by Army infantrymen — active-duty only, no Guard or Reserves. In the same time frame — and remember, this is the height of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — slightly fewer than twice that number of regular Army infantrymen died in what can reasonably be considered close combat engagements, according to the iCasualties.org data set for U.S. casualties.
Filtering the total casualty list for regular Army personnel serving in an infantry unit and killed by infantry weapons gives a result of 265 close-combat infantry deaths.
Why is this worth highlighting? Because we have a member of the senior executive service stating that we may need to reduce our efforts at suicide prevention in order to ramp up our close-combat training.
If anything, this should indicate that for every two hours of close combat training, the infantry soldier and Marine of the future may need an hour of training in suicide prevention, stress management, life skills, safety and other means to enhance resiliency.
In fact, considering their own recent issues with suicide and misconduct, perhaps the 75th Ranger Regiment should live its motto, “Rangers Lead the Way,” and help champion a higher level of training focused on making sure that the young men and women of our infantry forces live to see the battlefield.
Because this year, as in every year since the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan, the most lethal threat to an infantry Marine or soldier is still themself, with accidents the leading cause of death and suicide a close second place.
Edward Carpenter is a U.S. Marine Corps officer. The views expressed by the author are his own, and do not represent the official policies or positions of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.