Top commanders in the U.S. Army have announced publicly that they have a problem: They have too many “toxic leaders” — the kind of bosses who make their employees miserable. Many corporations share a similar problem, but in the Army’s case, destructive leadership can potentially have life or death consequences. So, some Army researchers are wondering if toxic officers have contributed to soldiers’ mental health problems.
One of those researchers is Dave Matsuda. In 2010, then-Brig. Gen. Pete Bayer, who was supervising the Army’s drawdown in Iraq, asked Matsuda to study why almost 30 soldiers in Iraq had committed or attempted suicides in the past year.
“We got to a point where we were exceptionally frustrated by the suicides that were occurring,” Bayer says. “And quite honestly feeling — at least I was — helpless to some degree that otherwise good young men and women were taking their lives.”
Matsuda might seem like an unconventional choice to study Army suicides. He’s an anthropologist; the Army hired him to advise U.S. commanders on how to understand what was really going on below the surface in Iraq. But Bayer says those skills are what prompted him to ask Matsuda to look below the surface of the suicide problem in the Army.
“What we valued about [Matsuda], as well as a few others who worked for us, was he didn’t wear a uniform. He wasn’t one of us, so to speak,” Bayer says.
Whenever a soldier committed suicide, Bayer says, a team of Army investigators would essentially ask the same questions: What was wrong with the individual soldier? Did he or she have a troubled childhood or mental health problems? Did the soldier just break up with a partner or spouse? Was he or she in debt? The answer was often “yes.” But Bayer says he felt part of the puzzle was missing.