Hardly a day goes by where someone on social media in our military circles publishes the sad news that another service member has taken his or her life. With so many of our veterans having ties across service lines and across the country, it hits home and hard.
There are about 22 veterans every day that are committing suicide. That number is far too high and we need to do better. One a day is too many, it has become an epidemic. And it needs national attention. Our veterans, who have sacrificed so much for us and in our name deserve no less than the best care that we as a country can supply.
It is really striking home in our Special Operations community. So many of the veterans from the SOF have a minimum of four combat tours under their belt and come home changed and in despair. They can continue to live and function in a combat environment, despite the danger every day. It is the transition to living back home that is the difficult part of this problem often with our veterans.
The Veterans Administration did a comprehensive study that was released in 2016 on veterans who had committed suicide. This long-awaited report, Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014, was one of the most comprehensive analyses of veteran suicides ever conducted.
Prior to 2006, the suicide rate for veterans in regards to age and sex was lower than the general population. But by 2014 that suicide rate for veterans was now 21 percent higher than the general population. Even worse still is stated in the report that veterans aged 18-24 who took part in contingency operations since 2003 have had their suicide rate increased by a staggering 359 percent.
One possible part of the issue is that the VA tends to over-medicate our veterans. From a piece in the Baltimore Sun about Veterans Suicides and the VA:
Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist of 48 years experience who testified at the 2010 congressional hearings on veteran suicides, told me “the kinds of issues that people deal with that result in their getting psychiatric drugs are not helped by psychiatric drugs, which can only harm the brain and make it more difficult to feel your feelings and to think clearly. They drug the veterans, hoping basically to stupefy them and make them passive so they won’t demand services. I think it’s a crime that those who are veterans, who have survived our wars, are being killed off by the pharmaceutical empire and its practices.”
A Navy veteran with PTSD who became disabled and suicidal after ingesting a veritable cornucopia of psychiatric drugs, most of them prescribed by VA docs, agreed. “The VA is there to get us all in the grave as fast as possible,” he said to me. “Instead of saying ‘have a shoebox full of medications,’ there should be a higher accountability.”
One other possible part of the issue is the very little decompression time that they face. They may be conducting combat operations on Monday and by the weekend taking their kids to the mall. And trying to cope with that they feel as the mundane, less-satisfying, less tangible issues of home life may be part of the answer.
Of course part of the problem is the type of soldiers that are selected for Special Operations, to begin with. SOF wants self-starters, self-reliant, assertive, enthusiastic team players. SOF operators have an extremely high degree of external focus and they must be able to make quick, accurate decisions while under a tremendous amount of stress. That type of personality is often the last to ask for help in anything.
The VA was very reactive to veteran suicide and perhaps has compounded the problem with overmedicating many of their veteran patients. Now they have some programs that are seeming to help. The services have their own programs and in Special Operations, each of them has multiple avenues for both active duty troops and veterans to reach out and get any help that they need.
Our veterans themselves have taken a more proactive approach to this. They’re much quicker to look after one of their own if they sense something is wrong. Are we all doing enough? No, but at least it appears that we’re heading in the right direction.
Suffering among veterans isn’t related to just the Global War on Terrorism or just with the US troops or actually anything news. The ancient Greek Sophocles wrote about Ajax during the Trojan War. Ajax was so overwhelmed by his combat experiences against the Trojans, he committed horrible acts upon returning home and later commits suicide.
We can all do our part and check on our closest buds and teammates and keep up with one another. We frequently know one another better than our families know us. It is just a small part of the puzzle but we are our own first line of defense. But hopefully, our elected officials, if they can stop trying to catch one another doing illegal acts or being serial sexual abusers can stop that long enough to pass legislation, good legislation to get our veterans the help and support that they need. One suicide a day is too many. 20 a day is an epidemic and has to stop.
If you are a veteran or the loved one of a veteran experiencing a crisis, call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at veteranscrisisline.net.
Photos: US Army