Gay Military Suicide: Why?

March 4, 2013 in General

In the wake of the tragic suicide of gay  two-tour Afghan War veteran Corporal Doug Hughes, several questions occur to me. One of them is the extent of the problem. Sadly, it was fortuitous that Gay Star News recently published an excellent piece on LGBT military suicides within the United States. It cited a study that found that  LGBT soldiers who do not reveal their sexuality while in service are more likely to attempt suicide.

At the University of Montana and other institutions, researchers found that compared to their straight counterparts, lesbian, gay and bisexual soldiers in the closet are more likely to be depressed, have anxiety disorders and take drugs.

It should be noted that there are particular factors at work in the US context that do not resemble the situation in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, where LGBT armed forces service personnel have served since the early nineties after the end of military service discrimination.  Bryan Cochran, a contributing scientist, told GSN the problem with having LGB soldiers in the military was not LGBT people themselves, but the homophobic and transphobic harrassment that many experienced.

Actual LGBT military suicide attempts  number 14.7%, compared to another study which said suicide attempts was 0.0003% for the entire veteran soldier community. In particular, the study found LGBT soldiers are twice as likely to develop problems with alcohol and five times as likely to show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

LGBT soldiers are also more likely to show a range of illnesses at once.

Cochran also noted that: ‘On the other hand, a large percentage of LGB veterans (60.5%) thought that their experiences were more difficult than those of their heterosexual peers. Similarly, 68.7% said that they were constantly trying to conceal their sexual orientation while in the service. This concealment was related to current symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Given that 19.5% of LGB veterans in our study indicated that they were discharged due to their sexual orientation, the consequences of being out during DADT were clearly dire for many service members.’

As a consquence of their findings, researchers now believe the next step is to stop harassment and victimization experienced by LGBT soldiers. Corporal Hughes grieving family certainly hope so, according to supplementary coverage within the Fairfax newspaper’s website. They believe the death was preventable and are critical of the actions of the sergeant who had failed to detect his means of suicide.  They believe that Corporal Hughes was bullied because he was gay and that his death, in the early hours of April 3 at the forward patrol base Romero in Bamiyan province, raises questions about frontline attitudes to gay soldiers.

It has also emerged that Corporal Hughes unit was rushed into combat due to the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and may not have received adequate training and resources to deal with incident stress management.  The New Zealand Herald has also noted that Coroner Gordon Matenga, who refused an initial inquiry into Corporal Hughes death, was a conservative Mormon elder who had previously made a submission against the Marriage Equality Bill, prompting a reprimand from Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

One hopes for a resolute and comprehensive response to this tragedy, if only for the peace of mind and solace of Corporal Hughes mourning family at this heartbreaking time.

Update: It now appears that the New Zealand military suffered from funding and infrastructure shortfalls, which have led to the needless deaths of several New Zealand soldiers as well as Corporal Hughes, according to the New Zealand Herald.  The shortfalls resulted from loss of skilled personnel and resultant military training gaps and most occurred after 2010 as the Afghan War strategic situation deteriorated. An Official Information Act request disclosed that Corporal Hughes was one of three people who killed themselves due to scaled-down deployment training, which reduced the amount of advice on coping with stress. Other such incidents involved a 2010 Anzac Day crash which killed three soldiers, and the deaths of Lt. Tim O’Donnell and Private Kirifi Milla. 

In particular, an inquiry into Lt.  O’Donnell’s death linked resourcing to deployment training and called for a review. It said training was not guided by current tactics and the situation in Afghanistan. It also stated the “operational level of capability” training was “not resourced to prepare deploying personnel”.

Howevera senior commander downplayed the human resource management aspects of the situation and dismissed these areas as part of “business as usual” reviews, emphasising ”training on specific items of equipment to be used in Afghanistan”. More recently, Diamond Kazimi, a former Afghan interpreter who worked alongside the New Zealand Army in Bamyan province, where they were stationed and befriended Corporal Hughes, has borne out observations about logistical problems and stress relief training shortfalls during that particular tour of duty.

At the same time, Green gay List MP Kevin Hague has expressed concern that Mr Matenga’s conservative Mormon religious views may have interfered with his coronial duties, according to a 3 Newsreport.  Given that he had presented a parliamentary submission opposed to marriage equality, Mr Matenga should have declared a conflict of interest and resiled himself from dealing with this aspect of his coronial duties:

“He does hold strong views relating to gay people and under those circumstances, it is inappropriate for him to be making a judgement about inquests with these types of circumstances.”

Earlier, Attorney General Chris Finlayson had questioned Matenga’s conduct, stating that coroners needed to limit themselves to areas of immediate professional expertise, such as judicial interpretation, courts administration and evidence, stating that in his opinion, it was unwise for judges to declare interests one way or the other when it came to marriage equality or other controversial issues.  Mr Hague has also argued that if  New Zealand Chief Coroner Neil MacLean can veto the ruling against further coronial inquiry in this context, he should. (Unfortunately, according to the Fairfax chain’s Stuff website, this has not been the case and Justice MacLean has upheld the propriety of Mr Matenga’s conduct):
“Douglas Hughes’ suicide absolutely must have an investigation. It is very clear to me that it is in the public interest for the investigation to be as deep and wide-ranging as it can be.” Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is sure that New Zealand’s military personnel treat LGBT soldiers with professional standards. However, that isn’t the point here. What is the point is whether existing operational procedures and policies are adequate in this context, arguably not only for Corporal Hughes, but also to do justice to the other two soldiers who ended their lives in Afghanistan during this tour of duty. Labour and the Greens are calling for a full inquiry into the tragic end of Corporal Hughes career and life.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a whistleblower has stated the same objections to current Australian Defence Force policy regarding antigay bullying across the Tasman. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Morgan, an openly gay senior army psychologist in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) said on ABC TV on yesterday:

‘The way army deals with abuse is entirely consistent with how you would run a cover-up. My personal experience tells me that the Army’s abuse management strategies that I’ve seen – delay, deter and deceive – are still in force now. Every officer in my chain of command, every colonel and general all the way through to the current Chief of Army… systematically failed their duty in relation to the management of my complaint. We need an outside body to step in immediately and look after our current serving victims of abuse in the army… I don’t have anything positive to say about Defence’s handling of abuse and it’s mental health consequences’. 

 In contrast to New Zealand’s armed forces, Defence Force David Hurley has acknowledged the problem and promised that the ADF will review its existing policy and practise.

“Closeted gay soldiers more likely to attempt suicide” Gay Star News: 01.03.2013:

Tony Wall: “Soldier’s tragic death: Call for inquest” Sunday Star Times: 03.03.2013:

Tony Wall: “Soldier’s death preventable- family” Dominion Post: 04.03.2013:

David Fisher: “Coroner had attacked gay marriage” New Zealand Herald: 04.o3.2013:

 ”Defense deaths tied to training gaps” New Zealand Herald: 05.03.2012:

 ”Coroner erred in judgement” 3 News: 03.2013:—Hague/tabid/1607/articleID/288978/Default.aspx#ixzz2MbrkxwVe

 Ian Steward: “Gay soldier’s suicide: Support for no inquest” 04.03.2013:

 ”Rushed training a factor in death-interpreter”

 ”Australian army covers up abuse and bullying, says gay colonel” Gaystarnews: 06.03.2013:





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