[News] 120 War Vets Commit Suicide Each Week

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 26 16:54:46 EST 2007

120 War Vets Commit Suicide Each Week

By Penny Coleman, AlterNet
Posted on November 26, 2007


Earlier this year, using the clout that only 
major broadcast networks seem capable of 
mustering, CBS News contacted the governments of 
all 50 states requesting their official records 
of death by suicide going back 12 years. They 
heard back from 45 of the 50. From the mountains 
of gathered information, they sifted out the 
suicides of those Americans who had served in the 
armed forces. What they discovered is that in 
2005 alone -- and remember, this is just in 45 
states -- there were at least 6,256 veteran 
suicides, 120 every week for a year and an average of 17 every day.

As the widow of a Vietnam vet who killed himself 
after coming home, and as the author of a book 
for which I interviewed dozens of other women who 
had also lost husbands (or sons or fathers) to 
PTSD and suicide in the aftermath of the war in 
Vietnam, I am deeply grateful to CBS for 
undertaking this long overdue investigation. I am 
also heartbroken that the numbers are so 
astonishingly high and tentatively optimistic 
that perhaps now that there are hard numbers to 
attest to the magnitude of the problem, it will 
finally be taken seriously. I say tentatively 
because this is an administration that melts hard 
numbers on their tongues like communion wafers.

Since these new wars began, and in spite of a 
continuous flood of alarming reports, the 
Department of Defense has managed to keep what 
has clearly become an epidemic of death beneath 
the radar of public awareness by systematically 
concealing statistics about soldier suicides. 
They have done everything from burying them on 
official casualty lists in a category they call 
"accidental noncombat deaths" to outright lying 
to the parents of dead soldiers. And the 
Department of Veterans Affairs has rubber-stamped 
their disinformation, continuing to insist that 
their studies indicate that soldiers are killing 
themselves, not because of their combat 
experiences, but because they have "personal problems."

Active-duty soldiers, however, are only part of 
the story. One of the well-known characteristics 
of post-traumatic stress injuries is that the 
onset of symptoms is often delayed, sometimes for 
decades. Veterans of World War II, Korea and 
Vietnam are still taking their own lives because 
new PTSD symptoms have been triggered, or old 
ones retriggered, by stories and images from 
these new wars. Their deaths, like the deaths of 
more recent veterans, are written up in hometown 
newspapers; they are locally mourned, but 
officially ignored. The VA doesn't track or count 
them. It never has. Both the VA and the Pentagon 
deny that the problem exists and sanctimoniously 
point to a lack of evidence they have refused to gather.

They have managed this smoke and mirrors trick 
for decades in large part because suicide makes 
people so uncomfortable. It has often been called 
"that most secret death" because no one wants to 
talk about it. Over time, in different parts of 
the world, attitudes have fluctuated between the 
belief that the act is a sin, a right, a crime, a 
romantic gesture, an act of consummate bravery or 
a symptom of mental illness. It has never, 
however, been an emotionally neutral issue. In 
the United States, the rationalism of our legal 
system has acknowledged for 300 years that the 
act is almost always symptomatic of a mental 
illness. For those same 300 years, organized 
religions have stubbornly maintained that it's a 
sin. In fact, the very worst sin. The one that is 
never forgiven because it's too late to say you're sorry.

The contradiction between religious doctrine and 
secular law has left suicide in some kind of 
nether space in which the fundamentals of our 
systems of justice and belief are disrupted. A 
terrible crime has been committed, a murder, and 
yet there can be no restitution, no punishment. 
As sin or as mental illness, the origins of 
suicide live in the mind, illusive, invisible, 
associated with the mysterious, the secretive and 
the undisciplined, a kind of omnipresent Orange 
Alert. Beware the abnormal. Beware the Other.

For years now, this administration has been 
blasting us with high-decibel, righteous 
posturing about suicide bombers, those subhuman 
dastards who do the unthinkable, using their own 
bodies as lethal weapons. "Those people, they 
aren't like us; they don't value life the way we 
do," runs the familiar xenophobic subtext: And 
sometimes the text isn't even sub-: "Many 
terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and 
children on the streets of Baghdad are followers 
of the same murderous ideology that took the 
lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington 
and Pennsylvania," proclaimed W, glibly 
conflating Sept. 11, the invasion of Iraq, Islam, 
fanatic fundamentalism and human bombs.

Bush has also expressed the opinion that suicide 
bombers are motivated by despair, neglect and 
poverty. The demographic statistics on suicide 
bombers suggest that this isn't the necessarily 
the case. Most of the Sept. 11 terrorists came 
from comfortable middle- to upper-middle-class 
families and were well-educated. Ironically, 
despair, neglect and poverty may be far more 
significant factors in the deaths of American 
soldiers and veterans who are taking their own lives.

Consider the 25 percent of enlistees and the 50 
percent of reservists who have come back from the 
war with serious mental health issues. Despair 
seems an entirely appropriate response to the 
realization that the nightmares and flashbacks 
may never go away, that your ability to function 
in society and to manage relationships, work 
schedules or crowds will never be reliable. How 
not to despair if your prognosis is: Suck it up, soldier. This may never stop!

Neglect? The VA's current backlog is 800,000 
cases. Aside from the appalling conditions in 
many VA hospitals, in 2004, the last year for 
which statistics are available, almost 6 million 
veterans and their families were without any 
healthcare at all. Most of them are working 
people -- too poor to afford private coverage, 
but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or 
means-tested VA care. Soldiers and veterans need 
help now, the help isn't there, and the 
conversations about what needs to be done are only just now beginning.

Poverty? The symptoms of post-traumatic stress 
injuries or traumatic brain injuries often make 
getting and keeping a job an insurmountable 
challenge. The New York Times reported last week 
that though veterans make up only 11 percent of 
the adult population, they make up 26 percent of 
the homeless. If that doesn't translate into 
despair, neglect and poverty, well, I'm not sure 
the distinction is one worth quibbling about.

There is a particularly terrible irony in the 
relationship between suicide bombers and the 
suicides of American soldiers and veterans. With 
the possible exception of some few sadists and 
psychopaths, Americans don't enlist in the 
military because they want to kill civilians. And 
they don't sign up with the expectation of 
killing themselves. How incredibly sad that so 
many end up dying of remorse for having performed 
acts that so disturb their sense of moral 
selfhood that they sentence themselves to death.

There is something so smugly superior in the way 
we talk about suicide bombers and the cultures 
that produce them. But here is an unsettling 
thought. In 2005, 6,256 American veterans took 
their own lives. That same year, there were about 
130 documented deaths of suicide bombers in 
Iraq.* Do the math. That's a ratio of 50-to-1. So 
who is it that is most effectively creating a 
culture of suicide and martyrdom? If George Bush 
is right, that it is despair, neglect and poverty 
that drive people to such acts, then isn't it 
worth pointing out that we are doing a far better job?

*I say "about" because in the aftermath of a 
suicide bombing, it is often very difficult for 
observers to determine how many individual bodies have been blown to pieces.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran 
who took his own life after coming home. Her 
latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress 
Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was 
released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is Flashback.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/68713/

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