What do you do when even war heroes can’t take it any more?
A year after surviving a fierce battle in Afghanistan, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. He was shocked that it didn’t fire, the highly decorated Marine wrote in a soon-to-be-released memoir, Into the Fire.
“That right there was rock bottom,” Meyer, 24, said at a friend’s home in New Jersey in a recent interview with Military Times. Meyer said he pieced his life back together with treatment for post-traumatic stress and decided to write and talk about his despairing grab for a gun he kept in his pickup truck.
Had he died of a self-inflicted gun shot one dark night in Kentucky, Meyer would have joined the long grim line of suicides among military veterans and active duty troops. The suicide rate among active duty troops is roughly one death per day, with a big jump in July in the Army, according to military reports. Meanwhile, military veterans have been committing suicide at a furious clip of about 18 per day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
How to stop an epidemic of suicides has baffled military and VA leaders. Now everyone from former soldiers to President Obama is weighing in on a tragedy that for a long time was seldom talked about in public.
The total number of U.S. military deaths by suicide since 2001 is now more than 2,600—eclipsing the roughly 2,000 military fatalities in Afghanistan, Time magazine recently noted in a front page special report. Of 4,486 US military deaths in Iraq, how many were self-inflicted was not determined by Time, but it is a substantial portion, as military suicides started climbing during the height of the war there.
Another sign of the scope of this tragedy is that the “VA’s crisis line has fielded more than 600,000 calls from suicidal veterans, active-duty troops or their family members in the last five years, with the numbers steadily increasing each year,” Stars and Stripes reported in June. “While agency officials tout the figures as a success, they also show the inner anguish tormenting many of those in the military community.”
Despite a growing network of hotlines and post-traumatic stress counseling programs, instituted in response to concerns that many soldiers have done multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the root cause of suicides by soldiers and veterans is still unclear, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said at a national suicide prevention conference in June.
. “’Resiliency’ programs such as Battlemind, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness and similar initiatives have their supporters, but to date, these programs have not had a clear impact on the problem,” Bret A. Moore, a psychologist who served in Iraq, wrote in a recent Military Times column. Moore asked veterans to write in with suggestions on what to do.
“The answer is simple: There is simply not enough support for troops suffering with depression,” Moore wrote in the current issue of Military Times, summarizing some of the emails he received from veterans. Another big piece of the problem is how troops are treated by people in command and by fellow soldiers.
The Marine Corps is court-martialing a Marine who slit his wrists in Okinawa—a punitive action that hasn’t put a damper on the rising rate of suicides, which more than doubled in the Army since 2003 and is heading upward in all armed services this year.
Nor was the appalling rate of military suicides reversed by a blistering message from Major General Dana Pittard, a commander at Ft. Bliss, Texas, who wrote “on his official blog that he was ‘personally fed up’ with ‘absolutely selfish’ troops who kill themselves, leaving him and others to ‘clean up their mess,’” Time reported.
That sort of blundering yet traditional flogging of the troops was countered by an even blunter statement by retired Army Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie: “In nearly every one of the active-duty soldier suicide cases I saw, there was an incident of humiliation or embarrassment before the actual death,” Ritchie told Military Times in August. “The services need to look at how that’s handled.”
Meanwhile, the suicide rate for veterans is several times higher than for active duty troops. The VA’s estimate of 18 suicides by veterans each day is based on data from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Violent Death Reporting System, which receives input from 18 states including New Jersey.
“Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health,” The New York Times reported in April.
But little has been done to sort out why suicide has swept through the ranks of young soldiers, seasoned veterans in their late 20s and 30s, and virtually the entire Vietnam war generation.
In Nevada, a recent state study found, the highest rates among 373 veteran suicides in 2008-2010 were among males in their 20s and early 30s. Yet, a much smaller number of female veterans committed suicide “at more than triple the overall rate for females statewide and nearly six times the national rate for females,” KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reported in March. “Nevada male veterans had a suicide rate 62 percent higher than the statewide rate for males and 152 percent higher than the national rate for males.”
In New Jersey, male veterans killed themselves at a rate more than twice that of the overall suicide rate in 2008-2010, the most recently available data shows. Of these, 57 percent were aged 45-74--predominantly the Vietnam war generation. Only 4 of New Jersey’s 253 veteran suicides were females. Male veterans aged 20-34 accounted for 20 of this grim total—yet died at a rate more than twice that of other male suicides statewide—according to data compiled by the state Department of Health’s NJ Violent Death Reporting System.
The dramatically lower number of suicides by younger veterans may reflect the fact that New Jersey established a veteran-to-veteran help hotline six years ago. Yet that hotline program does not seem to have put a dent in suicides by Vietnam veterans.
Nevada’s report on veterans’ suicides in that state suggests it may be due in part to the region’s high unemployment. It also calls attention to the effect of military service: “Some become stronger with self-discipline, goal orientation, and confidence. Some are left with the confusion and aftermath of experiencing personal violence and abuse at the hands of their fellow unit members. Others return home with wounded bodies and minds that impact the rest of their lives.”
Among the worrisome welter of suicide statistics is that the majority who killed themselves while on active duty were not in combat. This suggests that something in military culture is a big part of the problem, regardless of where one serves. As the Nevada report on veteran suicides states: “Individuals in uniform yet not deployed into actual war zones may experience continuous training for performing a wartime mission, longer assignments to other hot regions, delayed discharges, emotional turmoil of friends who are injured or killed, and guilt for ‘not being there to help.’”
Wartime military culture also drums into soldiers that the solution to seemingly intractable problems is to shoot or blow something up and kill somebody. Indeed, the most frequent form of self-destruction by veterans is shooting themselves, the Nevada and New Jersey reports show.
Frustrated by the pace of official actions, some soldiers, veterans and family members have been sharing their own stories in public meetings and to the news media and working on climbing out of black holes of despair through writing about disturbing experiences in the military and since coming home.
Dakota Meyer told Military Times that he was “wracked with guilt for months after the ambush [that he survived] and still struggles with it. … In fact, he attempted suicide in September 2010, he acknowledged in his book.” For his actions in the blistering battle in Afghanistan, Meyer was presented the Medal of Honor a year later in a ceremony at the White House.
Meyer said he is doing better since seeking out treatment for post-traumatic stress. He wrote about the suicide attempt in his memoir, he added, in order “to show the realities of war and what he had faced,” Military Times reported.
Shortly after Dakota Meyer’s story appeared in the news media, President Obama signed an executive order directing the VA, Department of Defense and other federal agencies to expand suicide prevention programs.
Government officials should listen to veterans for workable solutions. Former Marine Lance Cpl. Warren Glas knows one thing that works. He pulled his weapon out of his mouth after losing buddies in combat, he recently told Military Times, because he suddenly “remembered his platoon sergeant talking about when he decided to seek help for PTSD.”
“People like my platoon sergeant actually talking, telling about their experiences and how it’s OK … that’s what helped,” Glas said.