by Joey King
I have been researching the issue of veteran suicide for about 6 years. My interest started during a Veterans Day parade in Nashville. I was marching as a member of Veterans For Peace. We march every year in the Veterans Day parade because we represent an island of peace in a sea of militarism.
Rather than march, one of our members printed handouts and passed them out to onlookers along the parade route. The flyer said that 18 veterans a day commit suicide. The thought that 18 veterans commit suicide every day shocked me. These were the military’s own numbers, not the propaganda of some peace organization. Veterans are the largest, identifiable sub-group of suicides in the U.S. Alcoholics do not kill themselves at this rate nor do drug addicts or prostitutes.
Sadly, the number soon jumped from 18 to 22 veterans per day who kill themselves. It has been stuck there ever since. Far more military personnel loose their lives by their own hands than by the hands of the enemy and it has been that way for years.
I have tried to “unpack” this number.Several sources tell us that about one current military person kills him or herself and approximately 21 veterans die at their own hands each day.
Two types of veteran deaths do not end up in the suicide statistics: overdoes and accidents. If a veteran overdoses because he or she uses drugs to cope with PTSD, he or she is not considered a suicide. Also, if someone gets drunk and gets on a motorcycle then dies in an “accident,” it’s not counted. To be fair, there is a good reason for this under-reporting at least for active duty personnel. Most service members have a $400,000 life insurance policy. If the service member’s death is ruled a suicide, the widow/widower gets nothing. For this reason I am sure medical examiners go out of their way to rule these deaths as anything other than suicide. It is understandable; indeed, it is humane.
But then, a few months ago I was thrown a “curve ball.” A friend of mine in Veterans For Peace is interested in veteran suicide as well. I sent him an article, and he replied that a huge percentage of military suicides are people who have not deployed to a combat zone. That statement did not sound right, so I tried to verify it.
I have an Army buddy from my cadet days who is a general now. I asked him about suicides among those who have not been in combat. He said, “… suicide rates for soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan more than doubled beginning during the late 2004 time frame and extending through the extreme high tempo of two simultaneous war zones to more than 30-per-100K. The trend among those who never deployed nearly tripled tobetween 25- and 30-per 100K…Much of the reserve component, more precisely theARNG (Army National Guard), took some big hits in suicide…”
The doubling of combat veteran suicide rates did not surprise me; but the tripling of non-deployed veterans suicide has me (an apparently the military) scratching our collective heads.
The next person I contacted is a friend who currently serves as a VA Chaplin. I picked her brain on the high rate of suicide among those who were not in combat. She asked her fellow Chaplains and found out that, indeed, there is an epidemic level of suicides, especially within the ranks of the reserve component.
So, I was able to verify (at least to a degree) that lots of non-combat veterans kill themselves. For some reason this epidemic is pronounced in the reserve components.
I am a non-combat veteran. My active duty service was during peacetime from 1984-87. It was after the Grenada invasion of Oct 1983 and before the Panama invasion in Dec 1989. I am very lucky, but am I at a higher suicide risk than my friends who deployed to Panama and the first Gulf War?
That being said, my service was tougher than most peacetime veterans. I graduated from US Army Ranger School in the summer of 1985. I served as a platoon leader of a rifle platoon, a mortar platoon, and a company executive officer in an airborne (paratrooper) unit. I was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant. It was a mentally tough peace time assignment. The training tempo was high. Just to give you an example, I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy for 14 months. Of that time, I was deployed on training missions throughout Eurpoe for 7 months. I was on 2-hour recall for 3 months of the 7 months that I wasn’t deployed.
In my case, this tempo led to an increase in alcohol consumption. I have not had a drink in 20 years. I am not sure if I was an alcoholic, but I was certainly headed that way.
To this day, I have recurring nightmares. About every six months, I dream that I am back in the Army. I wake up swinging my fists wildly or chocking an imaginary opponent. At the suggestion of a friend, I started asking non-combat vets if they have similar dreams, almost all do. I do not mean to imply that my occasional nightmares compare with PTSD, but there is something twisted in my brain. I’ve been pacifist, vegetarian, yogi, and Buddhist for over a decade, yet the nightmares of my military training 30 years ago still lurk in my sub-conscious. It is just there. Like trying to rid a paint-roller of paint, I may never be able, to get it out. I can not imagine hurting another living being in my conscious mind, but violence is stuck in my sub-consciousness, and manifests in my dreams. All veterans are broken in one way or another.
Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock wrote a very convincing article called “Moral Injury” in July 2012. In this piece, she identifies moral injury as the phenomenon that happens in situations like basic training. All cultures teach that killing is wrong, yet in basic training, military personnel are taught to reflexively kill without feeling. This can lead to problems, like alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, and suicide.
I will take to my grave the belief that my favorite uncle suffered from moral injury as a result of his service during the first Gulf War. His last National Guard unit was a fueling company that was in direct support of the 18th Airborne Corps, which includes the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. The 82nd and 101st are usually the first to go into battle, so his company was called up very early in the buildup to war in the fall of 1990. When he was activated, he was a heavy smoker and alcoholic in his early 50’s. Most of his time overseas was spent on a hospital ship at the US Naval base in Bharain dealing with a variety of smoking and drinking-related illnesses. The National Guard sent him home by Christmas Eve, a few weeks before the shooting started.
His drinking became much worse as soon as he got home. I believe it was due to a combination of survivor’s guilt (because he did not finish the tour with his Guard buddies), moral injury, and a genetic pre-disposition. Eventually, the Social Security Administration gave him a pension due to his mental issues. At times we thought he was suicidal. Drinking was his method of slow-motion suicide, no doubt.
As the suicide epidemic among active duty and veterans becomes better understood, it is obvious that the Pentagon must redevelop its basic training. The methods of training that have been devised have simply surpassed the human mind’s capability to handle it. Of course, it all points to a deeper issue of violence within our culture. In the short term, I think peace activists can use this data as a valuable tool when we talk with young people who are thinking about joining the military. After all, who would want my nightmares?
As I was finishing the first draft of this piece, two disturbing bits of news came my way:
In September, the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs released statistics that the number of veteran suicides increased from 197 in 2012 to 214 in 2013. That is an increase of 17 (or 8.63%). That is definetly a trend in the wrong direction. They are trying to unpack those numbers to see how many of these were combat veterans and how many are not.
Finally, we learned of the suicide of peace activist Jacob George from Arkansas late this summer. He was a member of Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against The War. He served 3 tours in Afghanistan as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
I am also active with the School of the Americas watch (www.soaw.org) movement. We are trying to close the US “school” at Fort Benning which trains Latin American military leaders who go back home an do assorted nasty things to their own populations. In this movement, we have adopted a Latin American tradition. When the name of a deceased person is mentioned, we say in unison, “presente,” which means the dead are still present in our minds. So Jacob George, “presente.” I miss you buddy; your spirit, your music, and your insights. He certainly believed that moral injury was the cause of his problems.
Ever since I heard of his suicide, I have been wearing a dogtag with the VA’s toll free number on it (800-273-8255 ext 1). Jacob was a VA patient. He was going to a mental health specialist, but that is obviously was not enough. If you know a veteran in trouble, give them this number. It might save a life.