By David Lias
Observing Veterans Day has always been a bittersweet experience for me.
It’s a time to think of those who have proudly served and defended our country in the military. It’s a time of sadness, as one reflects on the ultimate sacrifices so many have made as our nation strives to preserve its freedom.
It’s also a day tinged with hope, as certainly there’s an overwhelming appreciation for the domestic tranquility we enjoy, and the expectation that our country, which has lost so much over the past decade while fighting two wars overseas, will, if all goes as planned, be able to stand down soon.
Most international troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. U.S. and Afghan officials have been negotiating how many American troops will remain after the deadline, with several officials suggesting that a few thousand will stay behind to train and advise Afghan security forces.
Naturally, I’ve bookmarked 2014 as a pretty good year for our nation. Not all of our troops will be coming home, it appears, but next year certainly is shaping up as a time of promise – a time when the U.S. will experience a new degree of peace.
Turns out, however, that many of our troops are still at war – and the casualties are tragic and too high in numbers.
It’s a war that likely will continue long after our nation officially experiences the “peacetime” that’s supposed to arrive in 2014.
Cynthia Aden, Clay County veterans service officer spoke briefly at Monday’s Veterans Day service in Vermillion, and dropped a bombshell.
“We are losing more service members to suicide than have been killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. So, if you know of someone who may need assistance, please encourage him or her to seek help through the Veterans Administration …
“We need to keep our veterans and military members safe,” she said.
An article titled “America’s Vets: More Jobs, More Help, More Suicides” published by The Fiscal Times on Nov. 11 goes into more detail.
The article notes that President Obama spoke of an “epidemic” of military related suicides during a speech last summer to the Disabled American Veterans Conventions. The suicide rate among active military personnel nearly doubled over the past decade, from 10.3 per 100,000 in 2002 to 18 per 100,000 in 2012, according to The New York Times. Moreover, veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of civilians, according to a Carnegie Knight-News 21 analysis. An estimated 8,000 veterans die by suicide each year, or an average of 22 per day, according to a 2012 VA study.
That rate has remained “consistently high” since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began 12 years ago, according to Veterans’ Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL). Miller said that during that same period, the VA has increased its budget by 39 percent and its staffing by 41 percent.
The population of veterans over 50 – more than two-thirds of all veterans – is swelling with aging baby boomers, the Huffington Post noted recently. “Mostly men, they are considered more at-risk of suicide because they tend to be socially isolated; they struggle with physical or mental deterioration; and they possess easy familiarity with firearms,” according to the report.
Some experts warn that the trend among veterans across age groups will get even worse despite aggressive campaigns by government agencies and private advocacy groups to combat it. David Rudd, a mental health expert who specializes in veterans’ problems, testified before Congress earlier this year that 80 percent of veterans who attempted suicide and survived had received mental health care from the VA one month earlier. He said that underscored the problem that many must wait an average of 50 days before they can gain access to VA treatment.
One can’t help but reminisce about the quandary our troops were in about a decade ago. They were sent to war without adequate armor, and many soldiers simply purchased the armor themselves, despite assurances from the military that the gear would be in hand before they’re in harm’s way.
It was a topic briefly brought up during the heat of South Dakota’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2004, when John Thune and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, both of South Dakota, appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“We’re holding bake sales for body armor,” Daschle said at one point during the two men’s heated discussions that centered on the war in Iraq at that time.
Public awareness of the armor shortage prodded the government into action. I’m not sure, however, that simple awareness will lead to a solution to the growing problem of veterans’ suicides.
This is not a hopeless situation. Susan Blumenthal, MD, in an article published by The Huffington Post in the fall of 2012, pointed out a litany of steps that either are or need to be implemented to help stem this problem.
Among her recommendations: More research on the risk factors for suicide in the military and for evaluating new approaches to prevention and intervention. Recently, a Defense Department panel heard testimony from family members of soldiers who had committed suicide during their military service. Their message: A comprehensive action plan to prevent suicide among service members and veterans is urgently needed to illuminate the specific risk factors and to develop effective interventions to address this public health problem, now and into the future.
Clearly, it is an unacceptable disservice to those who have courageously served this country for them to suffer so. This nation has prided itself on treating its military and veterans with respect and care.
President John F. Kennedy, a man this nation currently is remembering as the anniversary of his tragic death approaches, once said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
It is time for all of us, as a nation, to commit ourselves to a new war against this deadly trend. We must invest the resources, develop innovative partnerships, and take the actions necessary across all sectors of society to prevent this silent wound of war and tragic loss of life among America’s service men and women.