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Suicides Cast A Pall Over Marine Reunions

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Marines are trying to promote more reunions like the one the Darkhorse Battalion held. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to the Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller about this.

ROBERT NELLER: In my first month in this office, I was out actually at Mateo where 5th Marines is. And a Marine stood up and said to me, hey, General, my buddies are taking their own lives. What are you guys doing about this? And I didn't have a really good answer. And so we started to think about what could we do as an institution to try to get everybody back together 'cause we know that when units are together, that's when they're the strongest.

And we know the bond that these men - and I say that because in a (unintelligible) battalion, they're all men.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Yeah.

NELLER: So we just kind of said, well, we need to foster the rekindling of this relationship because when these guys were together, as tough as they had it, they pressed through. As many as their casualties were - you know, we don't like talking about body counts - but they pacified Sangin. They destroyed the Taliban. They crushed them. And they should be proud of that.

And so that cohesion that held them together in the toughest of times is something that's going to help stay together in these times, good and bad.

INSKEEP: Is there any scientific basis suggesting that they're less likely to have trouble, less likely to attempt suicide or anything else if they go through reunions like this?

NELLER: You know, I don't know if there's any data. But I agree with you intuitively. It just makes sense. When veterans came back from World War II or Korea, you know, they joined the VFW or the American Legion or the Marine Corps League. And that was the place where they went to tell their stories and share and get comfort with each other and help each other, you know, transition.

And so I would like to think that these reunions are going to do the same thing. And I would ask all veterans out there to reach out to other veterans, as I know they are, and continue to give them support as they move on with the rest of their lives. These are very capable people. And the great majority are doing great, but a few are having trouble.

And we just need to stay connected with them so that they can find their way to success in their life.

INSKEEP: I'm reminded of a couple of things that are commonly said about veterans, one of them being that in the moment of combat, you may not really be fighting for your country. You're fighting for the person beside you.

NELLER: Oh, I think that's very true. You know, we all take an oath to the Constitution. And we stick our hand up, and we join the service to go do what our nation asks us to do. But at the end of the day, when you're in the fight, you know, it's about the Marine or soldier or sailor or airman on your right or your left. That's what you're focused on at the time.

And that's why the relationships that are forged in these environments are just so intense. And when they break sometimes, that's why it's really - it creates difficult times to find something to compensate for that.

INSKEEP: Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman sent over some stats from 2014, which was the last year in which there were stats for suicides in the Marine Corps. This is just active-duty personnel. Thirty-five suicides in that year in the Marine Corps and 242 suicide attempts. How bad is that?

NELLER: It's not good. And we're still struggling with that. The great majority of these Marines that took their life have not been in combat, but that doesn't matter. You know, we've got to do better. And I do believe our leadership is totally focused on this. So we continue to work on that. Our progress is not what I would like it to be. It's a tough problem, as it is a tough problem in the nation.

INSKEEP: Thanks for the clarification that most of those suicides were from people who were not in combat. Why would that be?

NELLER: I have no idea. I mean, for some reason, these young men and women - predominantly men - got distraught, determined that that was the only way they were going to solve their problem, which is a tragic and sad thing. So we're all going to have to work harder to make sure that they realize that this is not the way.

It's not going to solve the problem, and you're going to leave behind a lot of people that are hurt and that need you.

INSKEEP: General Neller, thanks very much.

NELLER: Thank you, sir.

GREENE: That's our colleague Steve Inskeep with General Robert Neller. He is the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.