The numbers are sobering, but we can do something about them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report says nearly 6,200 veterans took their own lives in 2017 – and more than 6,000 took their lives every year from 2008 to 2017.
“In 2017, the suicide rate for Veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-Veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex,” says the report.
And as with civilians, suicide rates are increasing among veterans.
“Among U.S. adults, the average number of suicides per day rose from 86.6 in 2005 to 124.4 in 2017,” says the report. “These numbers included 15.9 Veteran suicides per day in 2005 and 16.8 in 2017.”
The awfulness of warfare is unimaginable to those who’ve never experienced it. That’s why war should be an absolute last resort – and why thousands of men and women who served are burdened by what they experienced.
Iraq War veteran Danny O’Neel, a speaker on suicide prevention, PTSD and mental health for the Independence Fund, explains his experience in a USA Today column.
“War inflicts permanent psychic scars on survivors,” he writes. “Scrubbing a friend’s flesh out of a Bradley reconnaissance vehicle, packing up the cold clothes of a new dad to ship home to his family, pulling tortured corpses out of a water treatment facility – the trauma from these experiences is deep and lasting.”
Veterans who have seen such horrors may suffer from “moral injury,” which psychiatrist Jonathan Shay identified in veterans in his 1994 book “Achilles in Vietnam.”
Rita Nakashima Brock of the Shay Moral Injury Center and Ann Kansfield, a New York City Fire Department chaplain, explain the concept in USA Today.
“Moral injury is the result of violating core moral foundations by causing or witnessing serious harm or failing to save others,” they write. “It can also occur by being exposed to a great evil, like a terrorist attack, that shakes our foundation. Losing moral grounding challenges people’s identity and meaning systems when they condemn themselves for doing the wrong or inadequate thing, even if there was nothing they could have done.”
Moral injuries burden veterans with immense guilt. Without proper help for the depression that guilt may bring, they may see suicide as their only option – when it surely is not.
And too many veterans think that seeking such help is a sign of weakness – which it surely is not.
If you’re a veteran having such thoughts, contact the Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255, then press 1 for a VA staff member. Veterans, active-duty military and their families can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Like or dislike President Trump, in March he issued an executive order, the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS). It requires government agencies to collect better research; establish better, more aggressive prevention methods; and collaborate with local-level organizations to get veterans the services they need.
Each of us can help, too. We can volunteer time or give money to a local organization that works tirelessly to prevent veteran suicides.
Next Monday is Veterans Day. That’s a great time to honor our veterans – by doing our small part to tackle the growing issue of veteran suicides.
Tom Purcell is a nationally syndicated Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist.
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