We veterans, our active duty comrades, and our families have a serious problem. Suicide. We are killing ourselves at a horrific rate. We owe it to ourselves, those that love us, and America to do more to help those in need before they make an attempt, and for those that survive an attempted suicide, we must help them better than we are now doing.
The facts are unsettling, anguishing, terrible. For those who have read my memoir Marathon War, you know I found the suicides in my division and later in my Afghanistan command hard to fathom and even harder to stop before they occurred. Its worse now. A recent Brown University Costs of War Project report says that the increasing rates of suicide for both veterans and active duty personnel are outpacing the general population significantly. Their estimate is that 30,177 vets and active duty personnel have died by suicide since 9/11, while 7,057 have died while actually deployed and engaged in the wars.
A Veterans Affairs report from 2020 (National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report) showed that the suicide rate for veterans overall and adjusted for age and sex was 1.5 times that of the general population. And this reporting accounts for only those vets federally activated, and so misses National Guardsmen and reservists not activated. The numbers for female counterparts are even worse.
It’s one thing to talk about the issue, which we are doing more openly – after all, September is Suicide Prevention month and all the services have programs discussing the issue this month. But what should we DO?
As I admitted in Marathon War, while I was in command I did not understand suicide ideation, and that lack of understanding reduced my ability to empathize, which then led me to think about suicide, its causes, and prevention in totally uncreative ways. So what would I recommend now?
First, as most things in life, we must understand the WHY? Why is suicide an option at all? We don’t need more think tank studies: instead, let’s ask the survivors of suicide attempts, listen, then listen more to them and those that love them. This is not a simple contractor- led endeavor with focused groups from the VA. This must be a “getting hands dirty” intense maneuver into the homeless camps, into the VA centers where we have pushed those with multiple indicators (PTSD, substance abuse, depression, divorce, TBI, etc..), into the units where survivors cling to dignity and sufferers try to deal with their future. And – and this is likely most important, talk to the families – the loved ones – of those who have killed themselves and those that have sought to do so. They know things we don’t.
Second, give the survivors and those that thought they might make an attempt a voice, and a mission: help your comrades. Stand up and we will ensure you play a role in this endeavor. Most of all, give them reasons to not quit.
Most likely what we would find from the above work would help us mitigate, and in some cases stop the pain, anger, and loss of control from trauma that feeds suicide ideation. It may help us become more creative before it comes to a suicide attempt, and more supportive after an attempt. I do know for sure that it would demonstrate a level of leadership and concern that we need soonest, before the situation gets even more dire.
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