Deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are a much publicized affair. The world knows when a helicopter goes down or people die in a firefight, often allowing us to rationalize their sacrifice. It’s the men and women we lose at home who baffle us all. This year you can help prevent the biggest killer of veterans — suicide.
In this first 155 days of 2012, 154 active duty troops have committed suicide. Combat casualties in Afghanistan during that span total about less than half that, according to Pentagon statistics.
Based on figured from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, the 2012 active duty suicide total is up 18 percent compared to the same time period last year. This year’s January to May total is up 25 percent from two years ago.
Since 2008, military suicides have exceeded combat deaths in Afghanistan, despite a new push to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems. Military members often believe that seeking physical or mental help is a sign of weakness and a potential threat to advancement.
The reasons for the massive increase aren’t fully understood. The military believes that an increased burden from wartime demands, on two separate battlefields, could be the major cause. There are reports of increased sexual assaults and other misconduct down range. And alcohol and domestic abuse are occurring more frequently when soldiers return home.
Studies show that lengthy combat tours have begun to take their toll on service members. Many never address post-traumatic stress before reintegrating into family life. Others go home to face family or financial problems. Some are dealing with traumatic brain injuries.
The statistics, while useful, also display an entirely different view. A substantial portion of the suicides are committed by soldiers who have never deployed, leaving researchers with more questions than answers.
It seems that senior military officers aren’t always on the same page with the troops they are leading.
A senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to “act like an adult.” Another high-ranking official, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division, wrote in his own Army blog: “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”
This doesn’t encapsulate every leadership view, but it shows that even members of our military hold certain stigmas when it comes to suicide.
The Armed Services now offer confidential telephone hotlines, more mental health specialists on the battlefield and additional training on stress management. But that doesn’t mean they’re used to the fullest extent.
A big way to combat veteran suicide is to watch out for your battle buddy. Talk to your loved ones. Even if you don’t notice a change in their personality, let them know you are there every day and that you’re always willing to listen. Of all the veterans I’ve talked to, the No. 1 factor in their depression is the absence of having someone to listen to their worries. You don’t have to have all the answers; you just have to be willing to hear what they have to say.
People over at Operation: Zeus know exactly what it’s like to lose friends to suicide and decided to do something about it. They started a nonprofit organization to raise awareness about the issue, and veterans can even join in by making a pact on video. The pact states: “I will not take my own life by my own hand; until I talk to my Battle-buddy first. My mission is to find a mission and to help my Warfighter family.”
While the wording could be a little better, the idea behind it is what matters. Ask for help, be a battle buddy in return, and never take the path of suicide. Regardless of your branch or duty status, let someone know you need help.
In 2012, we need to take a stand against veteran suicide. I challenge you to be a listener and a battle buddy.
Photo thanks to Flickr and The National Guard
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