11/19/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

22 a Day

Almost every hour of the day and night a veteran somewhere commits suicide.  22 per day. That’s over 8,000 a year since 2009. The count is now over thirty thousand.  That’s about the population of Mason City, Iowa; Nacogdoches, TX; or Fort Pierce, Florida.  The entire city.

These are vets from all wars, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Gulf War and all the way back to Vietnam, Korea and WWII.  22 a day. How could we have failed so many for so long? What makes us keep on failing them? 

Suicide is not a snap decision.  There’s always trauma behind it, untended wounds. Always a period of fragmentation, then disintegration. That crisis intervention call?  That’s the last step of a long and painful journey. Our focus on that last step has allowed us to stagnate in a feeling of powerlessness: the problem is too large, too advanced to stop. 

We need to shift our focus from intervention to prevention. That means addressing the problem in the combat zone, during out-processing, in the first few weeks of civilian life, during the first year.  If necessary, and this is frequently the case, until the trauma heals.  There’s a tested model for this. New Hampshire’s National Guard has a program that reaches out to service members a year before they’re deployed, and works with them for a year after they return from combat.  The number of suicides out of 2315 Guardsmen?  Zero.

The crisis hotline at the National Veterans Foundation gets calls from the combat zone.  Soldier to soldier, the number is passed among units.  Here, call these guys. We’re a live voice on the other end of the phone, a chance to talk to another vet who’s been there, who understands.  Our program has worked since its inception in the 70’s and 80’s.

What if we could increase the number of those calls?  What if we could develop a safety net to provide support well before hopelessness and despair set in?   New Hampshire’s program has been running for seven years.  Zero suicides. That speaks for itself.

Here at the NVF we want to be the first call a vet makes instead of the last. Part of the solution is making sure they know we’re here, and part is making soldiers comfortable reaching out for help, making it OK for them to tell the truth about what they’re experiencing.  That’s the vet-to-vet part. Then we need to connect them with the support and treatment they need, the benefits they’ve earned.  The sooner, the better.