Notes From a Veteran
The sad reality of suicide rates among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans
This is not an easy story to tell, nor is it an easy problem to address. The facts are disheartening. The reality is that suicide rates for soldiers returning from war is not new. The ravages of PTSD have been a part of post war history forever. It might be argued by some that war is a natural product of human nature. But I would argue that the reality is quite the opposite. That the experience of war devastates so many, if not all warriors to one degree or another, is precisely because war is not natural to human nature.
War certainly is a constant in history. When we read the histories they are generally about the causes, the various reasons given to promote, or to defend wars, and the political positives or negatives that result, depending on which side one happened to be on. Not much ink is given, though, to the common soldier’s experiences on returning home. Nor is there much given to the internal/external challenges they either bring home with them in the form of physical and mental injuries, or those that they encounter from society, or the economy, etc., on their return.
The ironic fact is that neither the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the veterans themselves, nor our society, has prepared to deal with the symptoms of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and the like. The military itself was never organized to do anything else but to fight wars and to win. Societal views have been shaped by Hollywood accounts of bravery and cowardice. Take for example the scene in the movie “Patton” where the general berates, insults, even strikes the young soldier who is obviously shaken by the experience of combat to the point of being emotionally paralyzed. Patton didn’t understand, indeed, wouldn’t. But today’s generals are beginning to understand it and, thankfully, are beginning to do somethings about it.
Recent articles have begun to deal with the matter of post war suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. It has been stated that there is one suicide every 80 minutes in this present group of veterans. There were widely varying estimates of how many Vietnam Veterans took their lives after that war ranging from 9,500 to a very wild 200,000. These numbers are not the concern of this article though. One veteran suicide is one too many.
It does not take much imagination to feel tremendous levels of sympathy and concern for the number of veterans who have committed suicide in the last ten years. We are devastated by the loss of every one of them, but not as much as those families who have so intimately felt the losses.
Through June of this year, 155 troops have killed themselves, which was almost one a day this year. During the same period last year, 130 had died by suicide. The most interesting point about these statistics, though, is that, contrary to the common understanding that these may be the result of the multiple deployments that modern 9/11 veterans have had to endure, over half of the suicides were of military personnel that had never deployed. It seems that there are broader societal issues that may be involved including substance abuse, financial distress, and relationship problems that existed before, during and after wartime experiences.
On Friday, June 22, 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta , in a speech to the annual Department of Defense-Veterans Affairs Department suicide prevention conference said that preventing suicides is a foremost leadership responsibility shouldered by all military commanders, but especially by junior leaders, non-commissioned officers and petty officers with direct oversight over troops. He called suicide “the most frustrating challenge of his position. He told this Defense Department and Veterans Affairs crowd that “We will not tolerate actions that belittle, that haze, that ostracize any individual, particularly those who have made the decision to get help.
Leadership throughout the department must make it understood that seeking help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.”
Panetta told his audience that they had to do everything they could “to make sure that the system itself is working to help solve the issue, not to make the wrong judgment.” He outlined three areas that needed to be encouraged and developed across the services and the agencies that care for veterans: the fostering of unit cohesion, the understanding of mental health issues, and the acceptance of treatment. All of these are very important areas to be developed for the sake of our veterans and their families. But most importantly, military personnel have to be taught that asking for help and accepting treatment will not effect their careers negatively. The various entities such as the Department of Defense, the Veterans Affairs, and the individual services, must implement immediately all the necessary elements of leadership and health care to end this epidemic within our veterans.
Panetta ended his speech with these words: “We are a family. And by God, we have to take care of our family members. That’s not just Italian, that’s American.” Leon Panetta is serious about this. He is dedicating himself to promote and ensure that these things begin to happen for our veterans. This is a good move. It is an effort that is past due on its responsibilities, but I am encouraged that suicide rates are being spoken about publicly, at those high levels, and that there is a growing determination to do specific things to confront and to help end this terrible reality.
If you know a veteran who is growing more isolated, who may be doing things like giving away treasured possessions, even speaking casually about suicide, tell him or her that you care, that you want to help. Get them to go to the local VA, or take them there. Be there for them. Let them know that they can get passed these feelings, that they are not necessarily insurmountable or permanent. These men and women are our family. They have done so much for us, it is our turn to do something for them.
Reprinted by permission of www.TheVeteransSite.com
Notes From a Veteran
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