"[US Army MAJ GEN Dana] Pittard says he never thought about suicide while in combat or at West Point. Both were stressful environments where he felt he was expected to fail—in Iraq because of the difficulty of the mission, and at West Point because he was one of the few black cadets. “I didn’t want to give people the satisfaction,” he says. “Whatever enemy we’re fighting, they’re going to have to kill me.”
But he wonders if his time in Iraq left him too comfortable with death, even numb to it. On April 29, 2004, north of Baghdad, an IED intended for Pittard exploded moments after his truck passed by, hitting the Humvee behind him and killing 20-year-old Specialist Martin Kondor. The soldier was one of thousands to serve under Pittard during the war, but Pittard can still recall Kondor’s name, hometown — York, Pennsylvania — and the date of the bombing. He says details like these stick in his mind. “Stuff like that kind of haunts me.”
Suicides haunt him, too. One of the soldiers in his brigade in Iraq committed suicide, alone in his room with the door locked. He didn’t leave a note. “We all lived so close together,” Pittard recalls. “To this day, I’m not sure why.”
After Kondor’s death, Pittard says, there came a point when he felt sure he was going to be killed in Iraq. He says he stopped worrying about his safety, a feeling he described as “empowering” and “liberating.”
“Of course I thought about my family, but I knew they’d be taken care of. They just wouldn’t have me physically there,” says Pittard.
Although Pittardinsists he didn’t feel suicidal, Dr. Ritchie says that the fatalism he experienced is common among soldiers and often results in increased risk taking — driving too fast or drinking too much. In those cases, she says, it can lead to suicide.
Soldiers who have deployed multiple times, like Pittard, are most at risk when they get home. Pittard returned from Iraq in August 2007, and was stationed in California. In 2009, he moved to Virginia, where he was named deputy commander of the agency that runs the Army’s training programs. It was here that he sought psychological counseling. At first, he went with his family, and the purpose of the visits was to help one of his sons. Then, he started going alone. For the first time in his life, he wanted to talk to someone about his depression.
One evening in early 2010, driving on the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge over the James River on his way home from work, he had visions of crashing his car over the short cement guardrail and into the water 20 feet below. It was the nearest he’d ever come to suicide.
At the time, Pittard didn’t tell anyone in the Army that he was going to counseling. He was living off-base, and he went to a private psychologist, not a military doctor. “I wasn’t concerned that anyone would find out,” says Pittard, “but I didn’t think anyone would ever find out.”
They have good reason to be concerned. Some Department of Defense policies still create career penalties for people who seek mental health care. The deployment-eligibility requirements for Central Command and Africa Command, for example, “disqualify or require waivers for individuals who have received a mental or behavioral health diagnosis.” That culture of silence extends to the top leadership of the military. In July, Major General John Rossi, a former neighbor of Pittard’s, became the highest-ranked soldier ever to take his own life. For months, the Army refused to acknowledge his death was a suicide."