This week’s column is one I don’t want to think about, much less write. However, it’s vital that this alarming trend receive as much thought and exposure as possible, so consider this: Today, as you head off to work, hug your kids, exchange texts and run some errands, 22 American veterans who honorably served our country will end their own lives. This will happen again tomorrow, and the day after that, and will continue to happen until something changes.
In the past 10 years over 60,000 American veterans have committed suicide. This is more American fatalities than we suffered during the entire Vietnam War. Sadly, the killing does not end the moment the rifles are silenced and the battlefields abandoned. Mental wounds can fester for decades and often end up being just as deadly as a sniper round.
In recent years there has been an alarming spike in suicides for both American veteran and civilian populations, but the rate for suicide among veterans is 15 times greater than for civilians. The rate is even higher among combat veterans.
Experts agree there is no “all-encompassing” explanation for this trend. Maybe so, but we need to take a closer look at what happens when we take an 18-year-old and turn them into a highly skilled and motivated weapon. Then we send them into the horrific reality of combat where their job is to kill people and, in the process, watch their buddies get blown to shreds. A plane ride and a few days later they suddenly find themselves thrust back into civilian life with little more than a “thank you for your service.” What exactly did we expect would happen to them?
If we want to significantly reduce suicides, the military needs to do a much better job helping these damaged veterans transition back into civilian life. Combat veterans should get comprehensive, mandatory evaluations and counseling prior to discharge and be better educated about the risk factors and warning signs leading up to suicide.
The good news is that the Veteran’s Administration has instituted several, new programs in the past few years to provide mental health treatment and suicide prevention. The bad news is most veterans are not aware of these programs or choose not to participate. Of the 22 veteran suicides every day, only six of those have been cared for by the VA in some way and only a fraction of those have been part of their mental health programs.
I am no expert, but my guess is that the final straw for most who take their own lives is the loss of the “last glimmer of hope.” This is where you and I come in. Hope is the best prescription for despair. Hope can be found in a simple hug, taking the time to listen and a thousand other ways. Our job is keeping that last glimmer of hope alive while getting them to seek professional help. We veterans are, by nature, stubborn, so don’t give up.
If you are in crisis or know someone who might be, free and confidential support is available 24/7. Here’s the number - 800-273-8255. Many of your fellow veterans have been there and understand what you are going through. Know you are not alone and there is hope for a better tomorrow. Make the call now!
Matt Russell is a USMC Vietnam combat veteran and Commander of the Boone County DAV. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent the position of this newspaper, the Disabled American Veterans or any other organization.