On Tuesday night, CBS News announced the devastating results of a five-month investigation into the incidence of suicide among American war veterans. Until the CBS folks did their own count using existing state death records (that no one had bothered to gather together and analyze), little information existed about how many suicides among veterans there were nationwide.
The numbers CBS found are extremely disturbing. In 2005, 6256 veterans killed themselves—an average of 120 suicides each week. Furthermore, the CBS researchers found that veterans age 20-24 had the highest suicide rate of any age group. These, of course, are the Iraq and Afghani war kids. Whereas other veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide than the non-veteran populace. The new, young vets were three or four times more likely.
The examples CBS used to illustrate the problem, for me as a mother, were nearly unbearable to watch.
Twenty-three-year-old Marine Reservist Jeff Lucey hanged himself with a garden hose in the cellar of this parents’ home – where his father, Kevin, found him.
“There’s a crisis going on and people are just turning the other way,” Kevin Lucey said.
Kim and Mike Bowman’s son Tim was an Army reservist who patrolled one of the most dangerous places in Baghdad, known as Airport Road.
“His eyes when he came back were just dead. The light wasn’t there anymore,” Kim Bowman said.
Eight months later, on Thanksgiving Day, Tim shot himself. He was 23.
Diana Henderson’s son, Derek, served three tours of duty in Iraq. He died jumping off a bridge at 27.
Meanwhile, in related story reported in this morning’s LA Times, a new study was released on Wednesday showing that post-war emotional stress and depression caused by combat in Iraq often don’t appear until months after a soldier has returned home.
Overall, about 20 percent of active-duty soldiers and more than 40 percent of National Guardsmen and reservists were referred for care or had sought care on their own, a military team reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Psychologists hope that catching incipient problems early and getting soldiers into treatment will prevent the type of long-term mental health problems that afflicted many soldiers who fought in Vietnam, said Dr. Charles S. Milliken of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, who led the study.
Yes, but are we really catching things early—or at all?
The story excerpted below ran in the Texas Observer this summer. It’s a portrait of three different service people who have come back from Iraq, and it It suggests we aren’t doing quite so swimmingly at the Walter Reed guy would have us believe.
…The military says that they’re giving exit counseling and reintegration. What they’re calling reentry counseling, in my experience, was, “Don’t drink and drive. Pay your bills on time. Don’t beat your spouse. Don’t kick your dog.” All of these things that once you’ve reached a certain age, you’re supposed to know. None of it is, “If you have discomfort with dealing with crowds, if you don’t feel comfortable with your spouse, if you can’t sleep in a bed, if you don’t want to drive down the road because you think everything is a bomb, here’s what to do.” No psychological or de-stress counseling is involved in this reintegration to garrison. And that’s just if you’re staying in the Army. If you’re leaving the Army, you get, “Here’s how to write a resume.”
They don’t prepare you to leave. Hell, they didn’t prepare me to be there. I was going into people’s houses trying to tell the wife and kids as we’re segregating them out from the men that we’re the good guys. But they’re crying because one of their kids got killed because he was up there sleeping on the roof when we decided to bust into their house. I mean that’s crazy. But we’re the good guys. Now I have to deal with that for the next 20 or 30 years. I have a 3-year-old. I deal with that every day.
I think we are going to end up like after Vietnam if we’re not careful. The Vietnam guys were treated really horribly, and whether they came back and quietly went back to their lives or not, they were all stereotyped in a criminal negative. And I’m afraid if we as a society don’t learn what we didn’t do for those guys, we’re going to have that in spades. We don’t have low-end kind of industry jobs for them like working in the auto plant, so they’re not going to be supporting their families. And they’re going to be angry. They’re going to feel like they’re owed. Do we get everybody counseling as soon as they get out, mandatory 90-day counseling? I don’t know how. But there isn’t enough money in this country right now to make some of these guys feel like what they went through was worthwhile.
We have no comprehension of the psychological cost of this war. I know kids in Iraq who killed themselves. I know kids that got killed. OK, that’s apparently the price of doing business. But multiply me by 2 million. If I’m fairly high-functioning, what about the ones that aren’t? They’re going back to small-town America, and their families aren’t going to know what to do with them. It’s like, what do we do with Johnny now?
Photo by: David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News (and thanks to WLA commenter LA Resident for helping out with the photo credit)