The effects of warfare have always been devastating to our society and our shared global community. In the United States, the focus on such factors as PTSD began largely following the most recent wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11th terror attacks.
The men and women who bravely served our country and survived returned home after their service in combat with battle scars of another kind: mental, emotional, and psychological. The prevalence toward violent outbursts and wildly irrational behavior was seen more with these service veterans than others, though the Vietnam-era veterans had demonstrated some symptoms that, at the time, went largely unrecognized.
The media began to focus on the amount of suicides being committed by veterans and speculating about particular potential connections. This past week, USA Today and Military Times released a comprehensive study regarding this disturbing trend.
The first finding of the report suggests that the rallying cry from veterans’ advocacy groups may be inaccurate. Those groups would demonstrate and centered their key message around “twenty two per day”, which is in reference to the suicide rate of veterans in the United States.
However the data from this study seems to indicate that the number of veteran suicides is twenty per day. The number is still a huge problem and a heartbreaking statistic, but some other reports still have the number at twenty two, so the consensus remains that there is a problem and it has to be addressed.
There have been 7,400 veteran suicides, which is 18% of the total number of suicides in the U.S. in a given year. The astounding part of that statistic is that veterans constitute less than 9% of the U.S. population. The federal government was quick to point out that 70% of the veterans who tragically took their own lives did not regularly utilize VA services.
The suicide rate in female veterans rose the most precipitously with an 85% increase over the past 13 years. The rationale behind that increase is not a situation that can be easily determined or tracked. It certainly does not fit the general stereotype of veteran suicide, so much of the mainstream media reporting is on male veteran suicide.
Another troubling statistic is that 65% of the veterans that have taken their own lives are 50 years old and older, and have spent no time fighting in the most recent wars against the terrorist groups organizing in the Middle East.
In response to this terrible situation, which is of growing concern, the VA hired over 5,300 new staff in mental health support type jobs. The more challenging aspect is going to be determining methods to get the veterans to use the services offered and to stay consistently compliant and accountable with those mental health services.
Furthermore, there are so many other organizations in the non-profit arena working and dedicated to solving the tragic prevalence of suicide within the veteran community; that those involved in it feel that needs to change as well. In essence, without one single authoritative group to lead this effort, it will be too scattered to achieve any type of traction.
There are several proposals regarding how this single entity authority would work, and this type of structure has become necessary with other large social justice causes in the past, so the interest groups involved with veterans’ issues will approach it in a similar manner.
The other response that has come out of the combination of the recent media attention and the survey data on this continued horrible trend of suicide within the veteran population is, an effort termed by the federal government as being more “aggressive” in their procedures in getting these veterans into VA offered services.
Unfortunately, there is no hard data on the root cause of the rise in the suicide rate for veterans. The suicide rate could correspond with untreated mental and emotional trauma from being in combat. It could also be in response to the changes from when a soldier has to adjust to being back in their home or in their community; and the transition to being back in that scenario after being away for several months to a few years can be overwhelming.
In addition, the rise in this rate could be tied to any number of combinations of these issues coupled with the isolation that many veterans deal with upon their return home from active duty. The study data also indicates that difficult economic times may be a contributing factor in causing that transition home to be more challenging which leads to depression and then to suicide.
A large number of the suicides take place within three years of the veteran being out of military service. It is also not completely correlated to those who served in active forward areas or combat zones. The study data shows that military service members serving in other capacities have a tendency to take their own life. In a piece done by the LA Times where they interviewed military officers about the findings, the consensus is that there is no way to understand why these terrible events take place.
In my view, the numbers of veterans that take their own life both shocked and saddened me. The importance of mental health services for these service men and women becomes absolutely critical for them to be able to survive the transition from active duty to the civilian life. The human need for connection suggests that the VA should increase their capacity for holding support groups in communities more actively to support our veterans.
Furthermore, the indication that economic conditions could be a major contributing factor to the suicide rate in veterans suggests that more effective job placement is needed. The other component to that is, in many cases, more robust job training programs to help provide new skill sets to our veterans to compete in an ever-changing job market.
The root of the issue is mental and emotional, it stems from places in the human psyche that we may never fully understand. It is a stark reminder of the true cost of war and the emotional scars it can leave on these brave men and women. It is a reminder of the “dog eat dog” world where everybody is out there with their own self-interest in mind. A soldier coming from an environment where he or she was used to having fellow soldiers to lean on, would find that transition especially isolative. That leads to a scenario where we have twenty of these tragic suicides a day.
If you are interested in finding out more about how you can help the veterans of military service to better transition into your neighborhood or your community, please contact your local VA office, your local Congressional representatives, or your local American Legion office. Those of you who are reading this and have served our country in military service of any kind, I thank you for your service. If you are reading this, and your family has suffered through the suicide of a family member, you are in my prayers.
It is time for action, it is time for us to step up and help so that our military veterans can return home to move forward into active and productive lives. Some may think this is impossible, but I believe that in America anything is possible because of the compassion of our people.