There has been a lot of attention paid lately to the problem of suicide among young gay people. Getting at-risk groups more help is an important and wonderful thing, and I hope the “It gets better” campaign succeeds in its goal. Today being Veterans Day, I wanted to discuss another group that has seen an alarming rise in suicides over the past few years: military personnel, past and present.
There were 197 Army suicides in 2008, according to the Army’s numbers. The total includes active- and non-active-duty soldiers.
Last year, the number was 245. This year, through May, it’s already 163.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported on a Veterans Affairs (VA) study that discovered suicides among veterans aged 18 to 29 rose 26% from 2005 to 2007. And that number doesn’t include women veterans.
There are so many reasons for these suicides, from the difficulty in getting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recognized as an illness to the very culture of the military, which considers any form of weakness to be unacceptable. And if you’re soldiers in a situation where you have to rely on each other to survive, it’s understandable that you would want everyone around you to be strong, and to be strong for them. The problem is that the military creates soldiers to think like this, but provides little support once the soldier returns to civilian status, which often clashes with military training and thinking, even in mundane, everyday life.
On-duty soldiers considering suicide are lucky if they manage to get a sympathetic ear. My husband Paul, who was Army Airborne and a Special Forces selectee, told me about his time on a U.S. military base in Italy. There, anyone who had to be put on suicide watch was considered an annoyance at worst, and at best the target of derision and disgust. “Just do it already” was a common sentiment among the men who had to stand guard.
Salon.com has done an excellent job of reporting and analyzing on these problems. But as much as the military may improve its support, or even manage to foster a greater tolerance for PTSD and other service-related mental illnesses, there’s still public opinion. When Vietnam veterans returned home, in some cases they were met with hostility and insults like “baby killer!” by protesters who blamed the troops for their part in the war. Things have generally improved since then, but still, some people who are against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to blame the soldiers, this time with the added ammunition that “they all volunteered to go off to war.”
I worked at a suicide hotline in San Francisco, where I spoke with many veterans. Not everyone who called the line was in immediate danger of killing him- or herself; in fact only a small percentage of our calls were like that. Most of the veterans I spoke with were homeless, and I heard many stories of the dire straits that put them there (and many invectives hurled at the VA). I was good at talking to people without judging the reasons they were calling. And as I mentioned, my husband is a veteran, and of course I’m proud of him. Despite having seen some awful things, thankfully he returned without suffering from PTSD.
I was considering this fact when I was researching this post, and the thought crossed my mind that he had a lot of strength of character to go through his service and return mentally unharmed. Then I realized that the inverse of that belief is that people must be weak if they struggle with, or succumb to, PTSD or suicidal impulses. Do I really believe that? It’s the exact opposite of what I thought I believed, that given the horrors of war, it’s not a question of strength when soldiers return unable to shed those experiences. This is something I need to examine, and if a bleeding-heart commie pinko liberal like me thinks this way, I can only imagine that there must be many others who do as well, consciously or unconsciously.
Tonight, HBO is airing a new documentary chronicling the history of combat disorders from the Civil War until now. I think it’s a great thing to air on Veterans Day and I plan to watch it. Unfortunately, for so many veterans suffering from these disorders, it doesn’t get better. The promise of hope, if they even get that much, is an empty one.
If you have no veteran to hug today — and even if you do — you can help instead by donating to a charitable organization in support of these wounded warriors and their families. The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, in addition to providing funds for families who have suffered military losses, has built a new facility specifically to study and aid patients with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Another organization is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which among other things provides seminars about military suicide prevention, and support to the survivors.
I will be hugging my veteran tight today, and be grateful that he is whole without letting it be a judgment on anyone’s strength. And I will be thinking about those who haven’t been so lucky. They fought for us, and it’s only right that we should fight for them.