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The True Cost of Blind Patriotism: Despair and Veteran Suicide

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Why does a veteran take his life every 65 minutes?

Some veterans have always suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though it has not always had that name. Today, PTSD is better understood and treated than it has ever been. Why, then, is suicide so much more prevalent in young men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan when compared with the general population?

One of the most characteristic and debilitating symptoms of PTSD is depression. But there is a qualitative difference between traumatic-stress-induced depression and existential despair. Despair is the fundamental lack of hope and complete inability to see meaning in life. I believe depression is not the distinguishing characteristic of those vets who kill themselves -- there are many depressed people who are not suicidal -- it is despair.

Why are those who have served in America's last two wars so afflicted with this crippling malady?

Veterans of many previous wars suffered the lasting after effects of being embroiled in bloody, terrifying combat. But too many of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are mired in a despair that is rooted in the amorphous nature of these conflicts. A fog has clouded everything about these wars; from their start to their inconclusive endings.

Much effort used to be expended trying to explain that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan would ensure the freedom of future generations of Americans. That was a tenuous proposition when it was first advanced. It seems so utterly implausible now that no one is even trying to defend it. Where does that leave the young man who went through hell in Iraq in the name of liberty for future Americans? What does that say to the young woman who believed her sacrifice in Afghanistan would have an enduring legacy?

No amount of counseling can dispel the gnawing sense that one sacrificed for a bogus cause. From this stems despair -- from a sense that so much of one's life was given for so little purpose. Today's vets do not see themselves as saviors, they cannot identify whom they defeated, they are not certain that they truly liberated anyone, and they fought, at best, a holding action against an ill-defined threat. Progress has been absent.

In Washington, the World War II Memorial is covered with inscriptions of great and noble words offered about those who fought. But the president who started our recent wars only ever offered up two words: "Mission Accomplished." And that was blatantly false. The president who is now trying to bring these wars to an end has offered two different words: "Welcome Home." And all that speaks to is a sense of contentment that these men and women have returned. Nothing meaningful has been said about what they have done, how it has mattered, whether it was of any value to the nation. And that hurts most grievously those who have served most bravely.

We cannot fault a veteran for feeling no sense of accomplishment when there was never any clear goal. We should not fault a civilian for questioning indeterminate objectives, strategy, and tactics. But the military and civilian leadership of the country can and should be heavily criticized for sending the armed forces to fight wars so ill-defined and poorly conceived that they were seen as questionable at best, ignoble at worst.

The percentage of American men and women serving in uniform today is smaller than at any time since the 1920s. Practically, this means that there are markedly fewer today who understand and appreciate what those who serve have endured than in previous generations. The sense of being outnumbered and isolated that comes from this gap in understanding is exacerbated for veterans when the civilian leadership of the nation does not honestly frame the greater purpose for which fighting men and women have gone to war.

Despair is nothing new, and it need not be something unaddressed. Just as there are therapies and treatments for PTSD, there are ways to remedy despair. They start with the communities who support America's veterans and they necessarily must involve the civilian and military leadership of this country. In real and concrete and positive ways these questions must be answered, even if we are uncomfortable with the answer: Why did these men and women fight; what good did they achieve; of what should they rightly be proud; and in what should they confidently place their hope for the future? These affirmations must be addressed to each and every man and woman who has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. These affirmations must be as loud as the calls for war once were; as eventually became the demands to withdraw.

Postscript: I'm a veteran. What should I do?

A healthy mind and a healthy body are inextricably linked. If you're a veteran, join your local Team Red White & Blue chapter and commit yourself to the best form of mental health therapy: physical training. If you're contemplating suicide, avail yourself of resources outside the Veterans Administration like Save A Warrior and Give an Hour. Then join organizations that give you purpose through continued service like The Mission Continues, St. Bernard Project, The 6th Branch, and Team Rubicon. Download the app POS REP which connects you via proximity to veterans in your area. Last, do your part to ensure that this never happens again by helping begin a national conversation about the debilitating effects of perpetual war, the risks of blindly following those who wrap themselves in patriotism, and the costs of long-term national engagements where sacrifices are not shared equitably.