120 War Vets Commit Suicide Each
by Penny Coleman
www.alternet.org, November 26,
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 day.
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 wafers.
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
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.
The contradiction 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
Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam
veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book,
Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons
of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is Flashback.
Global Secrets and Lies