A War Worth Fighting Here at Home

America, I am angry. You should be angry too. There is an enemy that has been waging the deadliest war against our warriors and it has been winning. More than 4 times as many U.S. post-9/11 veterans have died by suicide than in the entire Global War on Terrorism, War in Iraq, and War in Afghanistan combined over 20 plus years. Let. That. Sink In. Suicide is our military’s number one enemy, and we are not acting like it.

Frankly, as a society, I do not understand how we get so fired up about trivial non-life-threatening issues and fail to tackle the ones that are literally killing some of our best and most honorable citizens. Winning this fight starts with us collectively making a mindset shift — one that I have personally struggled to make and had to be reminded of recently by a fellow veteran.

People do NOT commit suicide. They do NOT kill themselves. They die by suicide. When we place all of the responsibility on the person who is dead, it makes it way too easy for the living to not have to make any changes to how we behave. Death by suicide has many causes and contributing factors, but not a single one of them is “the person was just too weak” or “the person was just too broken.” Some of the strongest people I have had the honor of knowing and serving with have died by suicide and none of us are broken beyond repair. As one of my fellow veterans told me, “We are not broken, we are just bent.” Once we all claim some responsibility for creating the current conditions, then, and only then, can we take the appropriate actions to improve the situation.

Next, we need to recognize that the situation is really bad and getting worse and therefore the current actions are insufficient and ineffective. Like Narcotics Anonymous used to put on their pamphlets, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Recently, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that Congress has required the Pentagon to create an independent committee to review suicide prevention programs and improve them. The SecDef wrote, “One death by suicide is one too many. And suicide rates among our service members are still too high.” While I applaud the independent review and the focus on this issue by the SecDef, simply saying our numbers are “still too high” is misleading as it sounds like we might be making some progress. The reality is we have a crisis level suicide epidemic in our veteran community. The Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office just released a report showing for the U.S. Army, “the rates of suicide deaths among soldiers in 2021 were at their highest since before World War II. The total number of suicide deaths was also the highest seen in 20 years.” So, not only are the numbers still too high — they are the worst rates and absolute deaths we have seen in a very long time and they are rising.

Is there a suicide problem in our society as a whole? Yes, absolutely. Are our servicemen and servicewomen more likely to die by suicide? Yes, absolutely. Veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 have 2.5 times the suicide rate of that of the adjusted general population. Before we blame the rise in veteran suicides all on 20+ years of combat related stress, trauma, and traumatic brain injuries, according to the VA’s own suicide report, we should note non-combat veterans are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide and there is no clear correlation between combat and suicide. The DoD and the VA, for years, have been in denial about rising suicides in the U.S. military. According to the Brown University Cost of War research:

The DoD and others have maintained, apart from 2012, the suicide rates adjusted for age, sex, and population are almost the same between active duty service members and those of the general population. They can no longer argue this since the number of suicides and the rate have become worse in recent years as 2018, 2019, and 2020 [and now 2021] have consecutively marked the worst years of active service member suicide since the previous peak year in 2012. Rates of active component suicides decreased after the 2012 peak, but they have trended on an upward slope since the post-2012 valley. Those rates have now surpassed the 2012 rate and outpace the suicide rate of the public.

We are not doing enough for those who are serving, those who are transitioning out, and those who are still wrestling with the aftershocks and demons of their service. Suicide is a worse and more deadly enemy than any other threat our military faces. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, recently responded to a question about behavioral health staff shortages in our military quipping that every unit has a “behavioral health specialist” in their squad leader. While I get what the General was trying to say in terms of troops taking care of each other, the average servicemember is ill-equipped to provide the professional assessment, therapy, and treatments our troops desperately need. Saying squad leaders will fix the staffing shortages of behavioral health specialists is the combat equivalent of putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

Congressional leaders are fed up with the DoD’s and VA’s inability to stem the rising tide of veteran suicides and are taking notice. Senator John Tester, Chairman of the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, recently pushed DoD leaders on the issue of military suicide:

“I’ve been here for 15 years. We’ve been talking about mental health for 15 years on the VA Committee. These are folks that are coming out of the military and they’re killing themselves…Now I understand that it takes a while for government to do stuff and it’s tough to get the ship turned around. But I will just say this: if mental health is a huge issue, and it is — most of you addressed it in your opening statement — why are we tolerating the mental health screening to take two years to get into the transition?”

What can you do to help? Three simple things:

  1. Spread the word, by sharing this article far and wide, that veteran suicides for post-9/11 veterans is more than 4 times more deadly than the wars we have fought in for the last 20+ years.
  2. Call and/or write your U.S. Senators and U.S. Congressperson for your district and ask them what they are doing to fix this growing problem. If you need to know who they are or how to contact them, then go here: Find Your Members in the U.S. Congress | Congress.gov | Library of Congress
  3. Find a veteran service organization that is focused on mental health and suicide prevention to support with your time, talents, and/or treasure. There are many great ones out there that are making a difference. Ask a veteran which ones they find to be the most effective.

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