I haven’t been able to get the statistic out of my mind: 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. How can such a number not rattle us all? How would we respond if 22 teachers a day were committing suicide? Or doctors? Or police officers?
I think we would want answers. We would talk about this daily in our communities. We would seek action. Do we? Are we?
At this rate, every four and a half months, veteran suicides exceed the death toll from 9/11, the event that triggered our two most recent wars. What will it take to get the same leave-no-stone-unturned, spare-no-expense commitment from our government to address this tragedy?
It’s important to clarify that the numbers on military suicides are not easy to interpret. With PTSD so much in the news due to the recent shootings, it’s easy to assume that most of these cases are those recently traumatized by their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), 69% of veterans who have committed suicide are over 50, and have presumably been out of the military for some time. According to the LA Times, “Many older veterans are killing themselves for the same reasons that other civilians in the same age group kill themselves: depression and other mental health problems coupled with difficult life circumstances.”
Nevertheless, other studies estimate that among younger veterans and active duty personnel (the other 31% in that VA study), the suicide rate is twice that of the civilian population. While it’s true that studies on this issue have many limitations, one thing they all agree upon is the high likelihood that suicide among young veterans and active personnel is underreported.
In addition, many young veteran fatalities that would not be included in this statistic involve those who survive combat only to perish through alcoholism, drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Between 2006 and 2011, young veterans in California “were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents,” a pattern also seen in a 1987 study of veterans who had served in Vietnam and again in the mid-1990s among Gulf War veterans (LATimes).
Whatever the age of these veterans, however recent or distant their service, these numbers are alarming. No one disputes that our nation has a serious problem. “An epidemic,” Senator John Walsh has called it.
So why do we tolerate this problem? My guess is, its invisibility. Most of us don’t see soldiers every day, like we see teachers, doctors, policemen; soldiers are out, isolated elsewhere, doing what they do. Deployed to faraway lands or secluded on bases, behind well-guarded fences. As veterans’ advocate Jeff Hensley explains in “The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” these victims “were men and women who stood watch while our nation went about its business, blissfully unaware of their sacrifice.”
If soldiers are invisible, their families are even more so. Beyond the drama of “Army Wives” is a world we civilians have little genuine understanding of. In large part, we have no understanding of this world and its suffering because it is so taboo for them to talk about it.
In my class Women, War and Terror, we discuss Carol Cohn’s theories about “the ways in which gender discourse intertwines with and permeates” our thinking about war. “The impact of gender discourse…is that some things get left out.”
“What is it that cannot be spoken?” Cohn asks. “First, any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction.” When we talk about war, “Weapons’ effects may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with her skin hanging down in strips…. Psychological effects—on the soldiers fighting the war or on the citizens injured, or fearing for their own safety…all of these are not to be talked about…. What gets left out, then, is the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity—all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse” (“Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War”).
Soldiers, regardless of their sex, more than any other group, have it ingrained in them to take their suffering silently, “like a man.” The same is expected of their families.
“Be strong. Don’t complain. Never worry or distract your warrior when he’s on deployment. Defend the home. Liz [Snell] doesn’t remember anyone telling her how a good military spouse behaves. It was just understood,” goes the story in CNN’s “The Uncounted,” a powerful, in-depth look at the issue of suicides among military family members. It’s worth reading every word.
We are currently preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan that may or may not materialize, and are somehow always on the lookout for more conflicts to get involved in to keep our military-industrial complex going. But there is no more urgent conflict for our military to take on than the one of its own making: reinforcing an inadequate and overwhelmed system for providing desperately needed services for our servicemen and women and their families.