It seems that scarcely a week goes by without hearing of another Special Operations soldier that has committed suicide. This week was no different and as always it follows an all-too-familiar pattern.
A SOF soldier that has seen too many combat deployments and has resultantly suffered both physical and mental injuries, commits suicide after seemingly having turned a corner in his life. This is an issue that needs to get fixed, although the answers to this suicide pandemic are probably as varied as the veterans themselves.
Veterans suicide is a huge issue in this country. It isn’t going away and isn’t getting any better. According to recent data compiled by the Veterans Administration, between 2005 and 2017 78,875 veterans took their own lives. This is more than the number of Americans killed in every major conflict except for the Civil War and World War II.
According to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the number of veteran suicides has exceeded 6,000 every single year between 2008 and 2017. In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults.
These numbers are increasing despite several well-intentioned programs that were rolled out. The increase hasn’t been for lack of funding either — although perhaps the money could have been better allocated.
The factors for veterans committing suicide include post-traumatic stress disorder, misuse of medication, traumatic brain injuries, chronic pain issues, financial issues, family problems, sexual assault while in the military, as well as combat experiences. Many veterans could have had several of those factors which would put them at much higher risk than others.
Unfortunately, the current coronavirus pandemic could exacerbate the situation. Enforced isolation, which for veterans already suffering from potential suicidal thoughts, can increase the likelihood of pushing someone over the edge. This, along with the stress of personal finances and other health issues, could translate to a larger increase in the number over time.
According to the VA, prior to March, only about 15 percent of all VA mental health appointments were conducted over the phone or via virtual video conferencing. Currently, the VA is conducting those appointments at a rate higher than 80 percent. Telephone appointments rose from about 170,000 a month before the COVID-19 pandemic to 768,000 during the month of April alone.
While the VA certainly needs updating and modernization in many areas, just throwing more money at the problem won’t fix the myriad of problems that are facing the veteran community today. Part of the problem exists within the military itself. While the military and SOCOM have programs designed to help the veterans most in need of such services, many of the troops feel that this is simply lip-service.
There exists within the SOCOM community the fear that reporting any mental health struggles will lead to the troops being removed from their unit, skewer chances of their being promoted, and adversely impact their career.
SOCOM has recognized this and is implementing change, including changing the mindset of reporting mental health issues. Is this a fix? Hardly, but at least it is a small step in the right direction.
President Trump’s PREVENTS initiative will help in arming state and local governments with resources needed to identify and help veterans who are considered to be at risk of suicide. PREVENTS is hoping to raise public awareness of veterans’ mental health issues and allocate more money specific to combat them.
The initiative will stop the “one size fits all” approach. It will involve a multitude of different organizations as well as state and local governments to ultimately change the culture related to suicide awareness and mental health issues. It is a bipartisan issue and all of our support is needed for this awful situation to change.
As veterans, we, as a whole, have opened our doors to those brothers and sisters in need. But they have to be able to accept that help and realize that it is okay to ask for support. For Special Operations veterans, that part is the hardest of all. We require — no, we demand — that our troops be self-reliant and able to problem solve anything that comes in their path.
This issue, however, is different and it is okay to ask for and receive help. During our service, we all knew that we could always trust the guy right next to us. That hasn’t and will not change. We may not have all the answers, but we’ll be right there with you. We’d all much rather put out our hand to help a fellow veteran than hear about another member of the community being lost to this insidious disease.
And it is a disease, like cancer or any other killer out there. Mental health issues and depression are diseases and need to be treated and thought of as such by the veterans’ community.
The problem won’t be fixed until that number is at zero. For the rest of us, keep checking on our brothers and sisters especially those who may be isolated from everyone else.
Everyone and every case are different when it comes to these types of mental health issues. And we’ll keep doing our part to help one another out. Let’s hope that our fellow vets realize that they’re never alone. We’ll leave no man or woman behind.