November 10, 2012

Wars Come Home: A Suicide Every Day Among Vets

If anything makes the case against today’s wars and puts the lie to campaign ads about fighting for freedom or caring for veterans, it’s the overwhelming number of suicides among active-duty and returning vets. General Sherman said, “War is hell,” but war can make a hell of peacetime, too.

Suicide among soldiers should make everyone shudder—not just people thinking of military service—and cause recruitment to collapse. The Huffington Post reported on Oct. 4 that “One U.S. troop member commits suicide each day.” The New York Times called the incidence “a rate of nearly one each day this year.”

Young people stuck in unemployment lines and desperately eyeing the recruiter’s office should be warned that suicide kills more soldiers than combat either in Afghanistan or Iraq. “For every soldier killed in war this year, about 25 veterans now take their own lives,” Nicholas Kristof reported in the Times, Aug. 12. [1]

Last April Kristof wrote, “An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in
Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year—more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.”[2]

Among active-duty soldiers, CBS News said on Sept. 26 that in the first seven months of 2012, the Army recorded 116 suicides. In 2009, suicides in the military rose to 285 active-duty personnel and 24 Reservists. On Oct. 8, the New York Times said that this year “the numbers are on track to outpace the 2009 figures, with about 270 active-duty soldiers, half of them from the Army, having killed themselves as of last month.”

Under the headline “Record high suicide rate prompts Army-wide initiative,” the
Baltimore Sun found, “The number of suicides each year has nearly doubled since 2005...” According to the Times, “There were 123 suicides from January to early June in 2010, and 133 during that period in 2009…”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one explanation for the shocking rate self-destruction among our veterans. Kristof noted that a study in The American Journal of Public Health found that for men ages 17 to 24, “being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide.”[3]
Georgetown University philosophy professor Nancy Sherman told the Times, “This trauma manifests itself as moral injuries that endure long after” a tour of duty. “The most pervasive of these moral injuries is PTSD. Numerous studies have found a link between veteran PTSD, survivor’s guilt and increased risk of suicide,” she says.

Another factor in the shocking rise in suicides could be the mass prescription of psychiatric drugs to returning military personnel. Investigative journalist Kelly Patricia O’Meara examined the Pentagon’s statistics for the mental health watchdog Citizens Commission on Human Rights. Writing for, Jeannie Stokowski-Bisanti notes that O’Meara found:

1) A 150 percent increase in military suicides from 2001 to 2009 and a 76 percent increase in psychiatric drug prescriptions over the same time period; 2) The Pentagon’s admission that nearly one-third of suicides in the military occurred among vets who had never seen combat duty; 3) The mass prescribing to soldiers of Seroquel, a powerful anti-psychotic drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for “schizophrenia” and “bipolar disorder,” and how in just the last year, the military wrote more than 54,000 Seroquel prescriptions off-label for “disorders” not even approved by the FDA; and 4) The FDA’s medication guide for Seroquel, which lists one of Seroquel’s “serious side effects” as “risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.”

Left unexamined in most news reports on the subject is the endless heartbreak and anguish of the survivors. Don Olsen, in his memoir “A Butterfly Sleeps on the
Temple Bell” (Cross Roads Press, 2003), made an attempt to describe some of the agony he experienced after a son’s suicide:

 … it starts to end when there is a suicide. After that, everything is different. No one is left untouched when there is a suicide in the family. Everything changes. I seem to go on, but I’m not sure of anything. There is an uneasy sense that all along I have been traveling without direction. I feel suspended in time and adrift in this huge loss we have suffered. The loss is made worse by the awareness that we knew it was a possibility. …
His choice was death, and we must respect that choice, but we do not have to agree with it, even though we are fully aware of the despair and loneliness and mental terror that led to his decision.
Albert Camus wrote that there is but one fundamental question: is life worth living or not?
It is. It is good to be alive, but sometimes there is anguish that is more than a person should ever have to bear.

> John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in
Wisconsin.  This article is reprinted from the Reader Weekly newspaper.

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