05/17/2014 06:02 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2014

22 Veteran Suicides a Day: How We Got Here

Not that you’d want to get here, but there might be some usefulness in examining factors that might lead to 22 per day. Memorial Day, when we stop to remember and thank our veterans seems like a good time to look ahead to what we can do to prevent these suicides.

Veterans don’t suddenly erupt in crisis.  There’s a sequence of events that leads to the kind of despair that drives the decision to end life.  We’ve learned from our Lifeline for Vets that alienation and depression are factors, preceded frequently by increased emotional instability and volatility.  Add physical and/or psychological injury that give rise to hyperawareness and sleep problems and you have a scenario for disaster.  Are you getting the hang of this?

Before that there’s the transition to civilian life and its problems of employment and relationships, and before that it’s combat duty and the military.

Picture a descending staircase:

  • A vet starts at the top, in his or her military career that might include combat and some kind of injury.
  •  Next step: separation from the military.  The Department of Defense offers a 5-day transition program with an optional two days added, but it’s available only at certain bases. Put succinctly, it’s too little, too late.  Many vets, especially young ones, eager to get back to their civilian lives find the prospect of another week in the service unappealing.  And those five days right after separation are probably not when a vet can be the most receptive.
  • Cut loose from the structure of the military, veterans reenter the civilian world with little or no knowledge of available resources, both inside and outside of the VA, and no clue how to look for them. 
  • Next step down is employment, meaningful work at best, a full-time job at the minimum. In the military you’re trained for a job, you know what’s expected of you and you do it.  But vets have to change their way of thinking to enter the civilian working world in a recovering economy.  Whether or not a veteran finds employment is a huge factor.
  • Navigating the VA, from routine medical care to rehabilitation from serious physical injury and mental health care, is a regular headline-grabber. Too little, too late might apply here, too.
  • The VA again... problems getting seen for medical care, delays in getting rated for disability, waiting for claims to be paid, getting GI Bill education benefits in place and then paid timely.  The VA system is huge in every aspect except success. Vets react to its facelessness with frustration and increased alienation from society.

There’s a period of about a year where vets try to work through the system, look for work, get into school, rebuild relationships with loved ones and family, and find their place in the community. But if they meet with no success, they keep stumbling down those stairs until they land on the street where the NVF Outreach team finds them in Los Angeles, or they withdraw completely from society, then friends and finally family.  Last, they abandon themselves.

Not a pretty story.  But here’s the thing: the sooner we intercede, the better chance we have for the outcome we want.

The first year out of the military is so critical, and of all the pressing issues, probably the most important one, given that medical issues are not pressing, is employment.  Vets accustomed to working with skill alongside others lose their sense purpose, then identity when they cannot find work.  They need jobs that make it possible for them to support themselves and connect with others and the community. What if we had those transition programs during the last year of service?  What if we established more programs like The Mission Continues? 

Here’s a success story for you. Kristine Hesse, Women’s Veteran Coordinator at the NVF, is a retired U.S. Air Force vet came to us as a fellow with The Mission Continues. This organization pairs veterans transitioning from the military with non-profit organizations in local communities.  Initially a volunteer for our Lifeline for Vets, Kristine finished the internship requirements for her counseling degree while working with the people she knows best: veterans. Today she’s with the NVF full-time, a linchpin in the veteran services community in Los Angeles, carrying on the tradition of service begun in her Air Force career. 

Key to the success of this program is the fact that it starts immediately after separation from the military.  A service member goes from the military to civilian life in the same role of service to country. No transition is seamless, but this is pretty close, and the success of its 26-week fellowships speaks for itself. 

Working with veterans before and during the transition when there’s time to intervene, would reduce the number of crisis calls that end in tragedy. Don’t we owe it to these men and women to start responding in a timeframe where we can make a difference?

If you know a veteran who’s in transition from the military or needs help navigating the VA or locating other resources, pass along our number: 888.777.4443. Our counselors are all vets. We can help.