MiLITARY AND VETERANS SUICIDES: WHY?
Updated: Jul 20, 2018
Back in 2001, and especially in 2003, America went to war in the Middle East with considerable trepidation. At the time, we were led to believe that our young soldiers would be facing chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. Those “Support Our Troops” yellow ribbon stickers were everywhere on the rear of vehicles, and there were signs in windows, buttons on lapels; the message was everywhere. In retrospect, this was a curious reaction.
Since the early 70s the military had waged a successful PR campaign to convince the American people that they (we) had let our returning Vietnam veterans down and failed them. Supposedly, when American Vietnam veterans came home they were shunned and disrespected by the American people, even spit upon, and the vets became disaffected and even (OMG!) afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If we sent Americans to war again, the story insisted, the American people must support them. It was a completely unfounded myth, but as a result Americans “supported” the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with unprecedented zeal.
Personally, I was never really clear about just what those “Support Our Troops” stickers were asking us to do. As our nation rushed to war with Iraq I did speeches urging restraint, as we knew our troops were not at all equipped to deal with chemical or biological warfare. When the war began, our soldiers had to ask their loved ones to purchase gas masks and flak jackets from the local Army-Navy store and mail them to the war zones. I began to approach the drivers of those cars with the yellow ribbon stickers, knock on the window and ask them just what they were suggesting I do to support our troops. I was usually not greeted warmly.
The wars have ground on for ten agonizing years. Today we know that more Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have died at their own hand than died from enemy fire! And, for every death, at least five members of the armed forces were hospitalized for attempting suicide. Military and veteran suicides are occurring at a rate that exceeds all of America’s previous experience. Before 2001, the Army rarely suffered 10 suicides per 100,000 soldiers per year. In 2011 it was 20.2 per 100,000. The Marines currently lose 19.5 per 100,000. A year 2007 study by CBS found that the rate among male veterans age 20 to 24 was more than 40 per 100,000. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide, and for young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk. To make matters worse, the services are experiencing an epidemic of MST, or Military Sexual Trauma. Today, according to well-researched studies, one out of three females who join our armed services will be raped by a fellow American soldier within her first two years of service! About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men seen in VA Hospitals respond “yes” when screened for MST. These and many other symptoms are collectively called PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Clearly, PTSD has reached epidemic proportions in today’s military and veterans populations.
Why? What went wrong? And what can be done to reverse these horrible trends?
In a May 28, 2012 article Newsweek pointed out that “the Department of Veterans Affairs and the military shy away from placing blame directly on the psychological and social costs of killing during combat.” It is, of course, the business the military are in, and business has been very good the past ten years. Today our Federal government spends 60 cents out of every dollar on military activities! That amounted to $1,165,907,000,000 in 2011, and it will likely be more in 2012, and again in 2013. Critics say the present administration is “weak on defense”, despite the fact that our expenditure is greater than the military budgets of the next 15 or 17 countries combined, depending upon which study you read. It is not for lack of resources that our military has become suicidal. I suggest that the “psychological and social costs of killing during combat” is an outstanding example of the all-American art of word management. Someone crafted those words, made them public, and now the subject is closed to discussion. We, the American people, have received the memo. What more do we want?
General William Tecumseh Sherman observed, looking back on the Civil War, that “War is Hell”. Earlier, he had warned, “It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing!” Today, with America’s military-industrial complex racing out of control, no American General would dare to utter those words. Somehow we have allowed our culture to be overwhelmed in an orgy of militarism. Gone are the post-Vietnam sensibilities of Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues at M*A*S*H. The photos from Abu Ghraib prison were only the start. Today our soldiers pose for photos while urinating on enemy corpses, or gathered around a flag with Nazi SS insignia, or using limbs and body parts “traumatically amputated” as comic props. Qurans have been burned, and our military officers have been “trained” to regard all Muslims as the enemy, and to seek opportunities to devastate the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For the most part, this type of behavior isn’t conceived as a strategy in the Oval Office, in the House and Senate, nor at the Pentagon. In order to fight a war effectively, the experts tell us, it is necessary to “train” the troops to see the enemy as less than human. A good soldier cannot hesitate to kill. But Vietnam and all the wars and conflicts since have been guerilla wars, and our troops can’t tell the enemy from the civilians they are supposed to protect. Mistakes happen. If we listen to the returning vets who are speaking out, we learn that the moral environment in today’s military encourages atrocities via a policy of “get them before they get you”. We heard the same advice in Vietnam, and the results were often the same. In today’s world, that is the nature of war.
It’s the nature of war, America! Despite the corporate culture that profits from the bloodletting and hides behind the moniker “defense industry”, and despite the immense military community that views wars as periods of increased opportunity for promotions and decorations, households all over America know the truth. It’s the war. Our young people are coming home changed, traumatized. And if we are going to solve the problem, we need to stand up and shout, “It’s not their fault! It’s the war!”
On Memorial Day of 2012, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper reported that Rutgers University has been granted $2.4 million to fund a study “to pre-determine soldiers who might be biologically pre-disposed to commit suicide due to a genetic inability to cope with intense stress.” The study will also attempt to determine if the stresses of combat can change a soldier’s genetic makeup. As a Vietnam veteran and a friend to many veterans, I find this appalling. Are vast numbers of our soldiers “biologically pre-disposed” to act out in thoughtless photos, atrocious acts of cruelty, or violence so pervasive they turn it upon themselves? Or does America need to admit that it is the environment of death and destruction, and the fear and self-loathing that environment breeds, which is inescapable and completely understandable? When they return home from that environment, is it any wonder our veterans have problems readjusting?
Clearly, the carnage is upsetting to the American kid next door. He is but cannon fodder, obviously considered expendable. On the ground in Vietnam we said the fallen were “wasted”. Today’s soldiers are coming home even more damaged, and even more cynical. Our military will not seriously address suicide, PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma, or any of the other social problems resulting from war, because they cannot admit that war is a bad thing. They call the victims “collateral damage”, more word management. We call them husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, loved ones. Next door neighbors, the high school football hero or the kid who used to deliver our newspaper. They are coming home wounded, and they are not getting the help they need. The VA gives them sedatives, drugging them down so they won’t do harm. No longer employable, they become frustrated and angry. Unable to fight the system that betrayed them, too many take their bitterness out on themselves. It’s the war, and the pro-war environment that needs to be addressed. Our veterans are victims, and they deserve our help, not blame. It doesn’t take a multi-million- dollar university study; one need only read the history of the world to learn that nations who have embraced militarism have all ultimately failed from within. Despite the corporate profits, the medals and the career advancements, the costs of war are always too high.
What if Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a “disorder” at all? Looking back at the weapons used in Vietnam 44 years ago, the methods and strategies responsible for that tragedy, and the attitudes and mores of our leaders at that time, as a Vietnam veteran I can only imagine the “progress” that has occurred in the interim, and the unimaginable horrors our brave soldiers have encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are clear indications that today’s wars are at least as cruel and horrific as what we witnessed. In 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War gathered near Washington, D.C. and testified to atrocities they had witnessed or committed. They have courageously and steadfastly continued to describe the realities of modern American warfare, and to cry out for realistic treatment of their scarred and wounded comrades, but of course the mainstream media has paid them little mind. Still, today we have the internet, and the truth is more available than it was during the Vietnam debacle. Today whistleblower Bradley Manning is on trial for releasing the truth to Wikileaks in hopes the American people would realize what is going on in our name and object. He faces life in prison for “aiding and abetting the enemy”, and one can only conclude that an American people armed with the truth is “the enemy”.
I am a Vietnam veteran, and I cannot escape my memories of the genocidal (“The only good Gook is a dead Gook”) training we received, nor the barbarity and cruelty we witnessed. That war, like the present ones, was born of lies and misrepresentations, and prolonged far too long while the military establishment garnered its ribbons and promotions, and the “defense” contractors wallowed in obscene profits. In the years since the Vietnam tragedy, we have seen our country abandon its moral foundations. Our brave young soldiers join the military, often because it is the only employment available to them, for all the best reasons. However, when they see modern combat, the horrible effects of modern weapons, and the brutality encouraged by today’s American way of waging war, many are mentally and emotionally scarred for life. In most of these cases, PTSD is not a post-traumatic stress “disorder” at all. PTSD is an outpouring of the soldier’s intrinsic humanity, of his or her respect for other human beings, and distress at the “collateral damage”, or atrocities that our country is unleashing upon the innocent peasants and poor who get in the way of the carnage. It is outrage at the actions of our leaders, from the politicians on high down to the officers and NCOs who cause so much suffering. PTSD is anger and disgust in reaction to the many unnecessary wounds and deaths our troops are experiencing as a result of our military’s very systematic disregard for the lives and welfare of Americans, Iraqis, and Afghanis. Our veterans soon realize that all of humanity are potential targets if this bloodletting is carried on to its natural conclusion.
One local veteran recently told his mother, “I cannot tell you what I’ve seen. I cannot tell anyone what is in my head. It is too horrible. I don’t want you to know that it exists. It does not belong here in this world, your world. I went away to another world, and I came home carrying baggage that will be with me the rest of my life.” We must accept that the “Army of One” recruiting slogan is terribly appropriate; that our troops are feeling so alone and desperate that they are killing themselves in unprecedented numbers. We must demand change in our military and hold its leaders accountable. To drive a patriotic soldier to suicide must sometimes constitute dereliction of duty by the victim’s superior, and that person must be held accountable. We need to free Bradley Manning (who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize), and imprison a few of the incompetent, arrogant, warmongering, deadly architects of this latest American tragedy. If that campaign leads to the halls of Congress or to the CEO offices of the “defense” contractor corporations, or their lobbyists, so be it! It would be good for our country to discuss morality again.
The simple fact is, war is horrible beyond description. It is morally repugnant. PTSD is simply moral outrage, quite naturally and predictably. In World War I, the British treated PTSD, or “shell shock”, by placing red-hot irons against the soldier’s tongue until he was “cured” and agreed to go back to combat. Today, by disguising and misrepresenting the truth, and by blaming the soldier for his reaction to the horrors of war, our treatments are no less inhumane. Today, too many soldiers and veterans fear that they will experience persecution or retribution after reporting their problems. We owe them an avenue to express their pain. Clearly, increasing numbers of soldiers and veterans, our loved ones, sons and daughters, next door neighbors, are so distressed they see suicide as the only avenue to escape. We must not question their judgment. It is poignant testimony about what our nation has become. We need to question war, and militarism. We need to accept that there are, indeed, psychological and social costs to killing, combat, torture, and rape. We need to question our military, and their conduct during war and peace. We need to question our weapons, and the horrors they inflict. We need to oppose the re-election of our gridlocked, dogmatic, utterly ineffective Congress and demand better.
We need to realize that there is a very active, powerful segment of our society that hopes to profit from keeping us involved in perpetual wars. They believe they are entitled more ribbons and medals, to promotions, to the awarding of “defense” contracts, and they know these things will come harder if our wars are discontinued. They don’t worry much about military and veteran suicides. We need to cut our military to a fraction of its current size, and we need to reconfigure our economy to bring back the manufacturing of peacetime goods, the everyday objects that everyone uses. We need to make “defense” contracts barely profitable. Let the corporations that manufacture the killing machines do so out of patriotism. Our national budget is needed elsewhere.
We need to welcome our veterans home, not with parades and bumper stickers, but with counseling programs and local clinics where they can find understanding and realistic, effective help. After Vietnam, there were neighborhood Vet Centers where veterans could get together and talk, share experiences with others who understood, and help each other. It was a hugely successful and effective program, but it was largely abandoned. We could divert just a few paltry billion dollars from the “defense” budget and build something similar, but more accessible and better funded. We owe our veterans this type of support. We don’t need Rutgers University to spend millions of dollars looking into their genetic makeup. We need to look at the horrible memories in their heads and ask honest questions about why those images are there.
We need to question war as an institution. It’s the war! It is all war! Our veterans are not to blame. For too long, our country has been traveling a cruel and unforgiving road. War has not been good for us. The realities are clear to our veterans. They have seen the truths first-hand, and many cannot live with those horrors. What a sad, sad shame.