08/21/2012 04:29 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Time for Plain Talk About Rising Rates of Suicide in the Military

The calls keep coming. They come in at all times of the day and night to the National Veterans Foundation crisis hotline, and to my personal cell phone. They come from active-duty vets in the field, from vets trying to transition back into civilian life, and from news media who want to know the reasons for the increasing incidence of suicide among veterans so that they can explain it to a mystified public.

Let's make this simple. War is the theater of man's inhumanity to man. The face of war is the face of a dying child, an anguished mother, a trusted and dying comrade-in-arms. It's bound up in physical and emotional injury, indelible. And after that comes the isolation that results from carrying those images back to a society that doesn't get it, that doesn't want to hear about it, not really. So the veteran shoulders the weight alone.

We need to come clean about this. What we're calling mental illness in veterans is really a normal human response to the trauma of war. Period. I suppose it's easier for those of us comfortably out of harm's way to compartmentalize the combat vet's experience, to want to dodge hearing about it. We don't want those pictures in our heads, either. So we say that those who bear the dark weight of war are "mentally ill," which let us off the hook a little by allowing the medical establishment to administer powerful psychotropic drugs.

This might be the first war where psychiatric drugs are used in the field to keep soldiers in combat. Often, a combination of these powerful drugs is prescribed. We haven't seen this before. Doesn't that strike us as maybe a little inhumane? Why aren't we questioning this practice? And how can we expect men and women who've been repeatedly traumatized to return to civilian society unmarked by their experiences, by what they've seen and been a part of?

Played out in our courts, on our streets, in living rooms and kitchens where families gather is the evidence that the emotional wounds of war don't heal with drugs. Isn't it time we tried something else? And if so, what's out there for us to use to heal our warriors?

The simplest answer might surprise you: Be willing to listen. Shoulder your part of the load by being available to sit quietly and just hear the stories veterans are carrying inside. Look directly into the face of suffering and acknowledge that what the vet is experiencing is a normal, deeply human response. Let's start there. After that, let's look at the array of non-pharmaceutical therapies. Art, meditation, massage, exercise, breath work, and volunteering have all been shown to offer avenues to healing.

It's not a disease, folks. Despair and isolation, epidemic in the military, can and does lead to suicide. That's why the rates are rising. What's in the power of every person in this country is the ability to counter the isolation that combat veterans feel by just listening. Compassion is what's called for. There are no side effects, no limit to the dosage, and no cost. No special training required. You can't make a mistake by listening. Just sit there and be willing to receive. The weight, shared, might just become bearable.