The headlines and news stories detailing the many suicides among U.S. military and veterans have galvanized our attention over the past few years. While the gut-wrenching truth is that far too many service members are surviving combat only to die by suicide, for most, the post-combat experience is a story of resilience and survival, not despair and suicide.
For the family members, friends, and fellow service members who have lost fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, and buddies to suicide, indeed, their chapter of this story is wholly tragic, and I acknowledge that in every way.
For this moment, though, I would like to focus your attention on the vast majority of service members and veterans who face myriad struggles during and after their service, and though they may grapple with thoughts of suicide and desires to escape their current pain, they do not take their lives. Instead, they find the strength or support they need to overcome the darkness and survive. How do they do it?
There are many paths that can lead a struggling veteran to life, not suicide. Some of those paths are lined with support from coworkers, friends, neighbors, and family. Some paths go through the Military/Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, press 1). A call to this free, confidential, 24/7 service, whether made by the person in distress or someone who cares about him or her, assures a connection to an understanding and compassionate trained counselor. The Crisis Line is backed up by a plethora of Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs health, mental health, and substance abuse services, as well as dedicated suicide prevention coordinators at every VA health facility in the nation.
For many veterans, the path to hope and life is paved by their own resilience, life-skills, adaptability, and resolve- characteristics they may have acquired during their military service.
Why are so many service members and veterans struggling with the invisible wounds of war or from service-related stresses? There are many reasons, to be sure, but here are some we should keep in mind.
Many of the qualities that help a combatant stay alive in war - being constantly on alert (hyper vigilance), wakefulness (difficulty sleeping), quick reactions to perceived threats (being on edge) and emotional distance from others to avoid the pain of loss- are the most common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When the deployment is over, these qualities can be detrimental to a service member's mental health and wellbeing. They interfere with normal functioning on many levels, including performance at work and all kinds of human relationships, especially in the context of the family.
Even if a serviceman or woman never deployed to a warzone, they may have been exposed to traumatizing images or information, or they may have been working long and stressful hours stateside in support of operations overseas. Working under these conditions for an extended period can negatively affect even the most resilient veterans.
Then, there is loss of military employment, real or threatened. The services have already begun to restructure to a much smaller force size, and in the next few years, the downsizing may accelerate. While thousands of veterans have already returned home after their final deployment, tens of thousands more service members are about to hang up their uniforms, many by no choice of their own, and return to civilian life.
Each of us has a role.
The armed services and the VA will be challenged to prepare military members for the changes ahead. There is much they can do, but they cannot possibly do all that is needed. Each of us must play a role in supporting the transition of these service members and their families into the stable and supportive fabric of a civilian community.
What can you do through your family, school, workplace, place of worship, or community?
- Let transitioning veterans know that you understand that military service can be a very stressful experience; let them know you are interested in talking with them or just listening to their challenging stories, whether they occurred while they were in the service or during their transition to civilian life.
- Offer to help veterans with the many challenges of moving and settling into a new community and a new routine. Help them build personal connections and a sense of belonging.
- Offer a veteran a job or help him or her find one. Share a reference or access to your professional networks.
- Provide support to veteran's families. A veteran's return can be stressful for the entire family, including their spouse, parents and children. Offer support to families that provides them the time and opportunity to take care of themselves, spend time together and, if needed, devote the time needed to address any mental health issues that arise.
- Recognize the warning signs for suicide and call the Crisis Line if you suspect a problem. If a service member in your life is struggling with emotional or physical health issues, encourage them to seek the care of a doctor or mental health professional who is familiar with Veterans' issues and will be understanding and supportive.
Keep in mind that for most service members, the transition will be very manageable--maybe not easy, but certainly manageable. As a population, service members are a skilled, talented, resilient group of men and women. They do not need our pity- they deserve our respect. A little support here and there will make all the difference.
By offering a veteran a job, we can strengthen our work force; by helping a military family transition, we can strengthen families and communities; by connecting a struggling service member to mental health services, we can save lives.
Therefore, we need to be careful not to think of veterans as having been "damaged" by their combat exposure or military service. Most do not have PTSD and most, certainly are not at heightened risk for suicide. Yet, for that minority who gets stuck in a downward spiral and is at risk of losing their lives to suicide, each of us has an obligation to support them in finding a pathway that leads them out of despair and towards a long and fulfilling life.
Now is the time to rally around the military veterans who served us in the opening years of the 21st Century, to reduce the stress of reintegrating into civilian life, and to make sure struggling veterans connect with the help and resources they need.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255