13 November 2007
are the casualties of wars you don’t often hear about - soldiers who die
of self-inflicted wounds. Little is known about the true scope of
suicides among those who have served in the military.
investigative unit wanted the numbers, so it submitted a Freedom of
Information Act request to the Department of Defense asking for the
numbers of suicides among all service members for the past 12 years.
"Those numbers clearly show an
epidemic of mental health problems," he said.
120 War Vets Commit Suicide Each Week on Average
By Penny Coleman
Earlier this year,
using the clout that only major broadcast networks seem capable of
mustering, CBS News contacted the governments of all 50 states
requesting their official records of death by suicide going back 12
years. They heard back from 45 of the 50. From the mountains of gathered
information, they sifted out the suicides of those Americans who had
served in the armed forces. What they discovered is that in 2005 alone -
and remember, this is just in 45 states - there were at least 6,256
veteran suicides, 120 every week for a year and an average of 17 every
As the widow of a
Vietnam vet who killed himself after coming home, and as the author of a
book for which I interviewed dozens of other women who had also lost
husbands (or sons or fathers) to PTSD and suicide in the aftermath of
the war in Vietnam, I am deeply grateful to CBS for undertaking this
long overdue investigation. I am also heartbroken that the numbers are
so astonishingly high and tentatively optimistic that perhaps now that
there are hard numbers to attest to the magnitude of the problem, it
will finally be taken seriously. I say tentatively because this is an
administration that melts hard numbers on their tongues like communion
Since these new
wars began, and in spite of a continuous flood of alarming reports, the
Department of Defense has managed to keep what has clearly become an
epidemic of death beneath the radar of public awareness by
systematically concealing statistics about soldier suicides. They have
done everything from burying them on official casualty lists in a
category they call "accidental noncombat deaths" to outright lying to
the parents of dead soldiers. And the Department of Veterans Affairs has
rubber-stamped their disinformation, continuing to insist that their
studies indicate that soldiers are killing themselves, not because of
their combat experiences, but because they have "personal problems."
Active-duty soldiers, however, are only part of the story. One of the well-known characteristics of post-traumatic stress injuries is that the onset of symptoms is often delayed, sometimes for decades. Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still taking their own lives because new PTSD symptoms have been triggered, or old ones retriggered, by stories and images from these new wars. Their deaths, like the deaths of more recent veterans, are written up in hometown newspapers; they are locally mourned, but officially ignored. The VA doesn't track or count them. It never has. Both the VA and the Pentagon deny that the problem exists and sanctimoniously point to a lack of evidence they have refused to gather.
They have managed
this smoke and mirrors trick for decades in large part because suicide
makes people so uncomfortable. It has often been called "that most
secret death" because no one wants to talk about it. Over time, in
different parts of the world, attitudes have fluctuated between the
belief that the act is a sin, a right, a crime, a romantic gesture, an
act of consummate bravery or a symptom of mental illness. It has never,
however, been an emotionally neutral issue. In the United States, the
rationalism of our legal system has acknowledged for 300 years that the
act is almost always symptomatic of a mental illness. For those same 300
years, organized religions have stubbornly maintained that it's a sin.
In fact, the very worst sin. The one that is never forgiven because it's
too late to say you're sorry.
between religious doctrine and secular law has left suicide in some kind
of nether space in which the fundamentals of our systems of justice and
belief are disrupted. A terrible crime has been committed, a murder, and
yet there can be no restitution, no punishment. As sin or as mental
illness, the origins of suicide live in the mind, illusive, invisible,
associated with the mysterious, the secretive and the undisciplined, a
kind of omnipresent Orange Alert. Beware the abnormal. Beware the Other.
For years now, this
administration has been blasting us with high-decibel, righteous
posturing about suicide bombers, those subhuman dastards who do the
unthinkable, using their own bodies as lethal weapons. "Those people,
they aren't like us; they don't value life the way we do," runs the
familiar xenophobic subtext: And sometimes the text isn't even sub-:
"Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the
streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that
took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington and
Pennsylvania," proclaimed W, glibly conflating Sept. 11, the invasion of
Iraq, Islam, fanatic fundamentalism and human bombs.
Bush has also
expressed the opinion that suicide bombers are motivated by despair,
neglect and poverty. The demographic statistics on suicide bombers
suggest that this isn't the necessarily the case. Most of the Sept. 11
terrorists came from comfortable middle- to upper-middle-class families
and were well-educated. Ironically, despair, neglect and poverty may be
far more significant factors in the deaths of American soldiers and
veterans who are taking their own lives.
Consider the 25
percent of enlistees and the 50 percent of reservists who have come back
from the war with serious mental health issues. Despair seems an
entirely appropriate response to the realization that the nightmares and
flashbacks may never go away, that your ability to function in society
and to manage relationships, work schedules or crowds will never be
reliable. How not to despair if your prognosis is: Suck it up, soldier.
This may never stop!
Neglect? The VA's
current backlog is 800,000 cases. Aside from the appalling conditions in
many VA hospitals, in 2004, the last year for which statistics are
available, almost 6 million veterans and their families were without any
healthcare at all. Most of them are working people - too poor to afford
private coverage, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or
means-tested VA care. Soldiers and veterans need help now, the help
isn't there, and the conversations about what needs to be done are only
just now beginning.
Poverty? The symptoms of post-traumatic stress injuries or traumatic brain injuries often make getting and keeping a job an insurmountable challenge. The New York Times reported last week that though veterans make up only 11 percent of the adult population, they make up 26 percent of the homeless. If that doesn't translate into despair, neglect and poverty, well, I'm not sure the distinction is one worth quibbling about.
There is a
particularly terrible irony in the relationship between suicide bombers
and the suicides of American soldiers and veterans. With the possible
exception of some few sadists and psychopaths, Americans don't enlist in
the military because they want to kill civilians. And they don't sign up
with the expectation of killing themselves. How incredibly sad that so
many end up dying of remorse for having performed acts that so disturb
their sense of moral selfhood that they sentence themselves to death.
There is something so smugly superior in the way we talk about suicide bombers and the cultures that produce them. But here is an unsettling thought. In 2005, 6,256 American veterans took their own lives. That same year, there were about 130 documented deaths of suicide bombers in Iraq.* Do the math. That's a ratio of 50-to-1. So who is it that is most effectively creating a culture of suicide and martyrdom? If George Bush is right, that it is despair, neglect and poverty that drive people to such acts, then isn't it worth pointing out that we are doing a far better job?
I say "about"
because in the aftermath of a suicide bombing, it is often very
difficult for observers to determine how many individual bodies have
been blown to pieces.