A study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the beginning of February attracted a great deal of attention and concern. The VA announced the rate of veteran suicides in the United States at 22 per day, an increase of 22 percent over the previous estimate of 18 suicides a day. This newest measure, in a decade of disgraces exuding from 11+ years of wars overseas, came from the VA looking at data with a slightly greater focus and increasing the number of states contributing data, by three, from 18 to 21 (yes, in 2013 we are currently only assembling data on veterans suicides from barely 2/5 of the country). Many veterans advocates believe this estimation to be an underestimate of the true number of daily veteran suicides due to the incomplete data assembled by the VA, the difficulties in standardizing data collection on veterans across the country, and the reality that less than 40 percent of our nation's veterans, and even less of our Afghan and Iraq war veterans, are registered and tracked by the VA. Still, with a veterans population that accounts for 7 percent of the U.S. population, but over 22 percent percent of suicides in the U.S., it is clearly not an overstatement to use the term epidemic or to note that this is one of multiple policy, economic and moral reasons why warfare over the last 60 years has been, and will continue to be, a fool's option for the United States.
Last October, the Virginia Department of Health published a well-researched and quite frightening study. Entitled "Military Related Suicide in Virginia 2003-2010", the report found, along the lines of other studies, suicide rates two to three times higher for veterans and service members than for their civilian peers. However, by doing some basic arithmetic and cross referencing the information provided by the Department of Defense on Virginia residents, aged 18 to 39, killed in Afghanistan and Iraq during the same time period, we find that twice as many veterans and service members residing in Virginia, in that 18 to 39 year age range, died by their own hand as opposed to being killed overseas. 314 veterans and service members killed themselves in Virginia, while 168 Virginia residents were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003-2010. The implication of this is, of course, that our young men and women are doing a better job killing themselves than the actions of any foreign enemy (Similarly, the biggest killer of American soldiers in 2012 was not the Afghan insurgency, but rather suicide: 182 suicides in the U.S. Army compared to 176 soldiers killed in Afghanistan).
Naturally, such a comparison is not academic or scientific, it is not an apples to apples relationship, but the numbers are very telling and suggestive of the mortal and moral costs of our Nation's wars. Costs that have failed to be truly and honestly quantified by the U.S. government and, certainly, costs that failed to be discussed in either of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 or in the escalation of U.S. troop commitments to the Iraq War in 2007 and the Afghan War in 2009. Moreover, these are costs that were not discussed by either presidential candidate in the 2012 election, except for the expected and inconsequential bromides towards military service, or amongst most House and Senate candidates in the congressional races.
Besides honestly and frankly discussing such costs, there are certain actions that can be taken to not just address the current epidemic, but alleviate such a probable crisis occasioned by a future conflict, which sadly seems so inevitable in an American foreign policy driven by the Manichean world view of our domestic politics:
-- The VA system should allow veterans to go to outside providers for help or to utilize the Department of Defense's massive health care program, Tricare. Despite opposition from the VA and its organizational allies, such as demonstrated by the Veterans for Foreign Wars to legislation offered by Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, such an idea has extreme merit. The VA has seen its patient load increase by 40 percent from 2006. In my case, after moving to North Carolina, I had to wait four months to see a mental health care provider and five months to see a primary care physician. My trip each way to the medical center is an hour, I cannot even begin to estimate how many other providers are within an hour drive of me in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill medical community. Such wait and travel time is not atypical and opening up the VA system to outside providers is a necessary first move to address a relatively straightforward supply and demand or resource distribution problem.
-- The VA is pursuing the addition of nearly 2,000 mental health care providers and specialists to treat the nearly 30 percent of Afghan, Iraq and Vietnam veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental maladies. However, with a nearly 12 percent unemployment rate for Afghan and Iraq veterans, hiring veterans into the ranks of the VA and training them as mental health providers would provide greater mid and long-term benefits. While such a program would put only a modest dent in the estimated quarter of a million Afghan and Iraq veterans looking for work, it would allow some veterans the opportunity to continue to serve their country and assist their fellow veterans. I can assure you there would be no shortage of volunteers for such a program. The added benefit of bringing veterans into the mental health workforce of the VA is that veterans are much more comfortable and willing to talk to "one of their own" than to someone who the veteran feels cannot relate or understand the unique experiences of war fighters. My own experiences bear testament to this. The therapist who convinced me to stop drinking, pursue therapy, change my lifestyle, i.e. the man who saved my life, is a veteran with PTSD issues of his own. If he were not a former Navy Corpsman, if I did not think he could relate or truly cared, if he did not share that he went through the same mental terrors I was facing, than I would not have trusted him and I have no doubt my life would not have extended past a few more years. Again, mine is not an unusual situation. The VA was created to deal with the unique circumstances of veterans' experiences; that notion and intent should be taken into account in the VA's hiring and training system in order to better serve and be more open to the veteran community.
-- With the consequences of best case only planning for both the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the escalation of the Afghan War in 2009 in fairly clear evidence, a review of our national security planning procedures and processes is necessary. Paul Wolfowitz's infamous assertion that the Iraq War would pay for itself is one of the grander and more tragic punch lines of the last decade of American War. Direct costs of the Afghan and Iraq War, all borrowed of course, are nearing 1.5 trillion dollars. The defense budget, inflated by war-time passion and sense of purpose, as well as good old fashioned profiteering, has seen a 40 percent increase in its baseline, or non-Afghan and Iraq war related expenditures, since 2000. Of a lesser-known and publicized value, the cost of care for the veterans of these wars, as conditions and injuries, both physical and mental, metastasize, is estimated to reach at least 1 trillion dollars. Surely, such a cost, and one that seems a constant in warfare, should be considered before committing and engaging in any future conflict, both in the political rhetoric arguing for and against war, and in the planning and preparations of our government for its pursuit.
Taken together these three actions will provide short, mid and long-term effects on the suicide epidemic infecting America's veterans. Of course, these steps only treat the symptoms rather than the root cause of the epidemic. What we are witnessing, through the countless acts of suicide each day by veterans, is the consequences of 60 years of American foreign and military policy that have been fathered and sustained by the desire of the two American political parties to appear tougher or as tough as the other political party without regard to the bloody, uncontrollable and horrid nature, conduct and outcome of war. I have no doubt Washington, D.C. will long be dominated by those "hard-nose realists," the type whom David Halberstam so eloquently eviscerated in The Best and the Brightest decades ago, but who still continue to dominate America's political and media elite, despite a gross and ungodly catalogue of failure.
The true measure of our society and the mark of who we are, not just as compassionate citizens but as responsible decision makers, is how we will choose to honor and remember those young men and women who have returned from overseas wars of our choosing broken, changed and sick. We are finally starting to account for those who, after service to their country, decide to leave this world and their loved ones by their own hands, because the guilt, sadness and horror of the wars is inescapable. If the State of Virginia is right, and if we are truly honest and morally courageous as a nation, than defining suicide, as an indisputable consequence of war, is a step we must take.
If we were to build a memorial to the Afghan and Iraq Wars today, over 6,500 names of those killed would be enshrined. What is so very shameful not to face is the many thousands upon thousands who have killed themselves after coming home and not counting or including them in remembrances and memorials. Will we cling to old narratives and falsehoods about the honor and glory of war or will we finally admit the bitter, dirty and brutal truth: the Afghan and Iraq Wars did not kill 6,500 Americans, but rather 13,000 or 20,000....
The Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255. Please call if you or a loved one needs help.