Top Marine Makes Plea to End Suicide, Says 'Zero Shame' in Admitting Problem

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The Marine Corps insignia is visible behind Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller as he takes questions from reporters at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaign engravings on the USMC War Memorial (Iwo Jima), Nov. 21, 2017, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The Marine Corps insignia is visible behind Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller as he takes questions from reporters at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaign engravings on the USMC War Memorial (Iwo Jima), Nov. 21, 2017, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In the nearly four years Commandant Gen. Robert Neller has led the Marine Corps, the service has lost a rifle company-worth of Marines to suicide, and he says it's time to have a frank conversation about what's causing that.

Active-duty suicide rates in the Navy and Marine Corps reached a 10-year high last year. Seventy-seven active-duty and Reserve Marines died by suicide in 2018, and another 354 attempted it.

It's clear that Marines are struggling, Neller wrote in a letter to the force this week, and it's time to be honest about stress and trauma causing them mental stress.

"Let me be clear up front, there is zero shame in admitting one's struggles in life -- trauma, shame, guilt or uncertainty about the future -- and asking for help," he said in a two-page letter about mental illness addressed to Marines, sailors and their families.

Neller accompanied the letter with a raw video posted to social media in which he tells Marines that life is tough, just as being a Marine is tough. "Nobody said this was going to be easy, but you can deal with this. It has to be dealt with."

"Let us help," Neller added. "... If you can't do something, then OK fine. Your buddy's there to do it. And if your buddy can't help you, then we'll take you to a higher echelon of care.

"There's nothing wrong with that," he adds.

The video trails off with raw footage showing Neller removing his mic and telling the Marines filming him, "I'm still not sure it's going to do anything or not," as he walks out of the frame.

Some commenting on the video said the decision to keep that portion in undercut his message or that the video lacked details about resources available to Marines and their families. Others were relieved to see a military leader show the raw emotion many feel about a tragic problem they've fought for years to stop.

And suicide is an issue Neller has fought to stop.

About eight months into his tenure as commandant, he traveled to Atlanta, where he participated in a panel as part of the American Psychiatric Association conference. He was candid in asking for more help from the nation's top mental health professionals as the service struggled to combat suicide.

He's addressed Marines' emotional pleas to help their friends during town-hall events. Earlier this month, a California-based staff sergeant told Neller that, over the last six years, he's seen an upswing in the number of junior Marines having suicidal thoughts.

Too often, the problem is tied to alcohol, Neller said -- another sometimes unpopular message he has tried to spread through his "Protect What You've Earned" campaign, in which he urges Marines to think about what's at stake if they make a bad decision.

"How do you manage your own stress levels?" Neller asked the Marines in the room in response to the staff sergeant's question. "You go to the gym. You're asking about documentation or analysis; I can tell you there's analysis that says if you are trying to manage your stress, the most important things you can do are stop drinking, exercise more, pay attention to what you eat, and get more sleep."

In his letter to the force this week, Neller again tried to end the fear many troops have that asking for help will be a career-ending move. Marines must look out for each other, he said, and spend more time talking about mental wellness.

"We are all 'broken' in our own way -- and we all need help at times," Neller said. "It is critical we understand and respect that."

Marines are in a fight to save their fellow comrades, and they must approach that fight with the same intensity they apply to other battles, he added.

"We can never stand by and do nothing," the commandant wrote.

Editor's note: Those struggling can visit www.dstressline.com or call 1-877-476-7734. Someone is available to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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