Sunday, January 2, 2011

David Senft: A Foreseeable Suicide that Wasn't Foreseen

The New York Times ran an article today about Staff Sgt. David Senft, who died in Afghanistan in mid-November.  All indications are that Senft killed himself with his roommate's firearm.  This was at least his third attempt at suicide.

Senft was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, and had also done one tour in Iraq.  It seems that everyone who knew him knew he was depressed and traumatized by his experiences in the wars, most notably responding to the site where a helicopter carrying wounded servicepeople had been shot down in Iraq.   After one of his previous attempts to kill himself, Senft admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital and his deployment to Afghanistan was delayed.  In Afghanistan, his superiors were concerned enough about his suicide risk that they took away his weapon.

Senft family wants to know why, if everyone knew he was in this much trouble, he was allowed to deploy to Afghanistan and why, if he was enough of a danger to himself to take away his weapon, he wasn't sent home.  These are decent questions, and the army says they have three different investigations into Senft's death going on.

I have no idea who, if anyone, screwed up here.  I am, as the name implies, just a Monday Morning Quarterback.  However, I do know that it is much easier after the fact to look back and see what might have been done differently than it is to make predictions looking forward.  Anyone -- in the military or not -- who ever comes into contact with someone who may be at risk of suicide has to make a judgment about how big the risk is.  It's easy to look back now and say Senft was a big risk -- obviously, since he killed himself -- but what is obvious now was not necessarily obvious then.

Could this have been prevented?  Probably.  In fact, we could probably eliminate most of the suicides in the military if we disarmed all military personnel, stripped them naked and locked them in empty rooms.  Everyone recognizes that we don't want to do that.  But where is the line?  How many other soldiers like Senft came across however he did and turned out to be OK?  How do we balance the risk of a suicidal soldier with the risk of severely restricting someone who doesn't need those restrictions?

After a suicide, it's very typical to start pointing fingers about who should have or could have done something differently.  In this case, the finger is being pointed at Senft's superiors.  No doubt they're pointing fingers at themselves, too.  Maybe they deserve it.  Or maybe, this is a case where although they could have done something differently, no one at the time thought they should have.  Sometimes, you just can't know.


Colleen said...

You really have to wonder, though....isn't there some standard? If someone is worried enough to take your weapon away, then one might argue that you need psychiatric treatment, and likely not in a place where you *need* that weapon!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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