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On March 21, 2013 at around 11 p.m., a tragedy occurred as a U.S. Marine shot and killed two co-workers at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia and then committed suicide. While this instance is a tragedy in itself, it marks an alarming trend among U.S. active-duty soldiers and veterans.
Suicides in the U.S. military have been climbing, reaching a record high in 2012 when 349 soldiers took their own lives, about one every 25 hours. By comparison, 301 U.S. soldiers died in active combat in 2012, marking the third time in four years that the number of military suicides has surpassed the number of deaths in combat of U.S. soldiers. The figures also do not include the 110 “pending” reported suicides that are still under investigation by medical examiners. In veterans, the numbers are far worse: about one veteran every 65 minutes takes his or her own life, according to a new investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs which examined suicide data from 1999 to 2010.
Since this data has been released, a new crisis line and website have been created for veterans contemplating suicide to reach out and access information on various resources for family and friends. Additionally, President Obama signed an executive order in 2012 authorizing the VA to hire and train additional staff, and according to a press release by the VA, the Veteran Crisis Line has already saved approximately 26,000 suicidal veterans thus far. But the 1,600 new clinical staff, 300 new administrative staff, and 800 new peer-to-peer specialists to work on mental health teams that the VA has hired or is in the process of hiring will only treat the symptoms of this crisis, not the cause.
That there are 26,000 veterans that need saving from suicidal thoughts and behaviors should be evidence enough that something is wrong. The cause shouldn’t be too hard to discern either. Yet coverage in the mainstream is severely lacking. An article in Forbes detailed the rise in veteran suicide, questioning why the numbers could be so high but offering no real answers as to why.
“It’s still pretty shocking that veterans make up such a high proportion of suicides in this country. Veterans affairs experts explain this by saying that veterans fall into high-risk groups for suicide, which include being male, having access to guns, and living in a rural area, but those factors don’t seem to come close to accounting for such a high rate.”
And that’s where the author’s analysis ends. Well, the author is certainly correct about one thing. That veterans have higher risk factors associated with suicide – things like maleness, gun ownership, and living in a rural area – is NOT sufficient to explain such high rates of suicide. Yet the author completely ignores all obvious answers to her pondering.
Perhaps we could examine the incredibly long and repeated deployments by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. During World War II, The Christian Science Monitor reports, the average infantryman in the South Pacific spent about 40 days in combat over four years. That’s compared to today when about 107,000 Army soldiers, or 20% of the active-duty force, have been deployed three or more times since 2001. Over 50,000 have done four or more tours. That’s four or more tours of watching your fellow soldiers die, four more tours of being under the constant stresses of war-time of fearing for your own life and the lives of those around you, and four more tours of having to take the lives of others because such is the game of war.
Or perhaps it is our strange and schizophrenic way of rallying behind the troops with our patriotic chants and our “Support our Troops” bumper stickers, yet when our troops come home, we leave them homeless, jobless, penniless, and without healthcare to nurse their physical wounds, and worse yet, their psychological ones. According to the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, an estimated 62,619 veterans were homeless on a single night in 2012. In another study by the Urban Institute, about one in ten veterans lack health insurance, that’s 1.3 million veterans without benefits. Of the lucky veterans that do get treatment by the VA, an estimated 30% have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. In a report released by the VA in 2012, it was revealed that 247,243 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with the disorder. According to an article on the Daily Beast, “Troops who’ve been deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan are more than three times as likely as soldiers with no previous deployments to screen positive for PTSD and major depression, according to a 2010 study published by the American Journal for Public Health.”
Or perhaps, as we have just passed the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, we should consider how this country has been so deeply drenched in wars throughout the world for so many years. Operation Enduring Freedom had its 11th anniversary last October, marking more than a decade of involvement in Afghanistan. It has been close to six years since the U.S. revamped its efforts to fight terror in Somalia; nine since we began our drone campaign in Pakistan. Our War on Drugs in Latin America has been waged for decades in a seemingly ever-expanding initiative and costing the United States billions upon billions of dollars. And those are just the wars most people know about. Our special operations forces work in an estimated 120 countries around the world, including throughout Central Africa, across Latin America, and in the Philippines. Our global hegemonic empire works in about 60% of the world’s nations.
With that in mind, how could anyone be surprised at our high rate of suicide among our active-duty soldiers and our veterans who are forced to fight in deployment after deployment, in wars spanning the globe meant only to increase our dominance and global sovereignty, and who come home to joblessness, homelessness, and no one to help them with their internal and external wounds. The wrong questions are being asked in this country. The question is not, how can we better help our wounded vets and soldiers combat depression and suicide? The question is: how can we cut ourselves off from our incessant need for war and conflict and global domination to stop this terrifying trend of murders and suicides. This country has an addiction to war and violence. That is the source of our problem. It is time we changed the conversation.
Alyssa Rohricht maintains Crash Culture and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.