15 April 2012
SUICIDE AMONG VETERANS
Nicholas D. Kristof's NYTimes article A Veteran's Death, the Nation's Shame resonated deeply within me. Kristof writes, "Here's a window into a tragedy within the American military. For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands. An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year ~ more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.
"One reason for veteran suicides (and crimes, which get far more attention) may be post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], along with a related condition, traumatic brain injury .... Estimates of PTSD and traumatic brain injury vary widely, but a ballpark figure is that the problems afflict at least one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. One study found that by their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than one-quarter of soldiers had such mental health problems.
"Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one's risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadrupled the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health."
Many veterans who struggle with PTSD and related issues seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Although the organization has done much to improve service to veterans over the past few years, it is still swamped beyond capacity, with no end in sight. According to Kristof, veterans routinely slip through the cracks, and the treatment system is still struggling. One source pointed out that there are going to be one million new veterans over the next five years. How are those veterans going to cope, when told that they face a waiting list of from six months to five years?
Kristof devotes space to several individual cases, in particular to Ryan Yurchison, who returned from Iraq with PTSD and died after failing to find treatment. There is a video tribute to Ryan embedded in the article.
In my experience, official estimates of the incidence of PTSD wildly underestimate real numbers. Known vaguely as 'shell shock' in World War I, and 'battle fatigue' in World War II, PTSD did not acquire official psychological diagnostic recognition and its current title until the years during and following the Vietnam War ~ my war. My own PTSD wasn't as severe as it was for some vets, but it was real enough. Over the years I've learned to control my environment in order to avoid restimulating sights and sounds, and the panic attacks that follow. This includes isolating myself from all Fourth of July celebrations, with their attendant explosions, flares, and gunfire-like cracks. But sometimes control is not an option. I described my most recent panic attack in a post written last summer ~ an attack which may have contributed to the loss of the relationship I was in at the time. Being denied a normal life is the cost many veterans pay for their sacrifice and service. Taking one's own life is the ultimate cost.
Being called back to serve multiple tours exacerbates the stress for this generation's vets. In Vietnam, after your first tour you only went back voluntarily. Today it is mandatory. In a sense, technology has introduced a different difficulty for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan ~ reliable access to Internet connections and telephone communication means that a soldier today can see and speak with his/her loved ones in real time, which can only heighten the contrast between the 'normalcy' of life at home, and the 'normalcy' of life in a war zone. Those of us in Vietnam had to settle for letters which often reached us weeks after they were sent. We felt terribly isolated, which was its own curse, but it also buffered us from the emotional roller coaster of having a live conversation on Skype with your family, then disconnecting to face The Suck around you.
My heart goes out to veterans of all wars, regardless of which side you fought on. We vets are a special brother/sisterhood, with our own language, our own shared history, our own frame of reference. What a shame that one of the things we share is being ignored by our own country, once we've returned home.