22 Veterans Will Kill Themselves Today

vet

War veteran believes “There’s probably a tidal wave of suicides coming.”

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The US military is currently suffering from two “plagues,” according to this CNN article. The first is sexual assault. The second is suicide. And we are now beginning to see the devastating link between the two.

The piece tells the story of Air Force veteran Jack Williams, who was raped three times by his drill sergeant almost 50 years ago. He was a young man of 18 when it happened, and 3am is burned in his memory. That’s when the drill sergeant woke Williams, had him stand at attention in his shirt and boxers, then choked him, then raped him. And Williams, ashamed of what others would think and terrified that he might be labeled a homosexual – a label he said, at the time, was like being labeled a child molester – would quietly go back to bed.

Jack was a man excited to represent and serve his country, but he was instead served words like “pansy” and “coward” until he actually begin to believe them. He is now a man on a mission to spread awareness, a man angry that others are no doubt experiencing something similar.

When headlines break on this topic, victimized women are often at the forefront. As the article states:

“Women get most of the attention on this issue because, proportionately, their numbers are much higher. Women make up only about 15% of the active-duty force but account for 47% of sexual assault victims.”

But consider this survey statistic from the Pentagon: 76% of 13,900 male sexual assault victims did not file a complaint. The discussion often ends there. But the trauma remains; the feelings of guilt and shame and pain often stay buried somewhere inside like the chickenpox virus – many won’t suffer from shingles, many will. And the simile doesn’t address the huge percentage of survivors who are pained and struggling but unable to recognize or articulate what they’re feeling.

Jack’s story, and the thousands of men he speaks for, is coupled with yet another startling statistic, this one from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs:

Between 1999 and 2011, across 21 states, an average of 22 veterans killed themselves each day. And this doesn’t include how, as Moni Basu pointed out:

“A homeless person who has no one who can vouch that he or she is a veteran, or others whose families don’t want to divulge a suicide because of the stigma associated with mental illness; they may pressure a state coroner to not list the death as suicide.

“If a veteran intentionally crashes a car or dies of a drug overdose and leaves no note, that death may not be counted as suicide.”

Last month, President Obama said that we “…need to keep improving mental health services because we have to end this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops.” But steps to seriously address this issue will take far more than implementing suicide prevention strategies, funding mental health programs or even creating awareness campaigns. The root here is trauma. Brutal, humiliating, long-lasting trauma. What strategies are in place to cut these roots? The greatest Band-Aid in the world is still no match for the deepest wound.

Brian Kinsella is an Iraq war veteran and the founder of Stop Soldier Suicide. He told CNN that, “There’s probably a tidal wave of suicides coming.” His statement comes as a result of their being nearly 900,000 calls between October 2006 and June 2013 on the Veterans Crisis Line.

Where to from here? How to keep listening? How to keep sharing stories? How to make it so there aren’t so many damn stories to be told in the first place?

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–Photo: las – initally/Flickr

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About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.

Comments

  1. Les Kertay, Ph.D. says:

    So I have to raise a question. I will preface it by saying that I completely agree that sexual assaults such as these occur, occur more frequently than anyone would like to admit, and we should be outraged by them. The story that is in the post about the man brutally raped by his drill sergeant is horrifying. I will also say that the number of suicides cited is also horrifying and needs attention.

    My question is the basis for linking the two. The post cites 13,000+ sexual assaults, with no clear reference to the period of time, but presumably it was more than a year. Also presumably they aren’t all perpetrated by superior officers. But 22 suicides a day is more than 8000 a year. So even if every single sexual assault led to a suicide – which is doubtful – the numbers to me point to a bigger problem. Perhaps the nature of the wars that are being fought, the terrifying elements inherent in facing IEDs, overlong deployments, lack of support, I don’t know. But the problem of what’s happening to the mental health of our soldiers goes beyond the horrors of sexual assault. I think that needs to be said. Sexual assault is horrifying, unconscionable, and is worthy of rage and action; but the problem is bigger, by a factor of many.

    • Daniel Dewey says:

      Yes, I agree. The article mentions two serious issues, and says it will link them, but fails to do so. By doing so it further isolates those considering suicide by taking their reasons out of the conversation. Poor coverage of such a major men’s and military issue. A dead man can’t be a good man.

      Also, these stats need to be compared to the general population to see whether these really are military-specific problems.

  2. The number of active duty and reservists committing suicide in 2012 exceeded the number killed in active duty. Here is a link to the NPR article; http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/14/169364733/u-s-militarys-suicide-rate-surpassed-combat-deaths-in-2012

  3. Mark Sherman says:

    These statistics on suicide among veterans are horrifying. So why not more attention in the media? Could it be that it’s because if the statistics for these suicides match what they are in general, there are far more men killing themselves than women? (Even proportionally speaking – i.e., suicides as a percentage of military personnel of each gender.)

    Suicides among young people, in general, in this country are disproportionately male, and I believe that this is a big reason that this tragedy does not get more media attention. (I truly believe that if young women started killing themselves at the same rate as young men, it would be a front page story.)

    In fact, do you have the gender breakdown for veteran suicides, including as a proportion of each gender serving? Perhaps I’m quite wrong on my assessment here.

  4. Tom Brechlin says:

    I have to say that I was disappointed that the article linked suicides and rape. Yes, there is a correlation but in reality these men who are giving up in large numbers relate to a much larger picture and by focusing on sexual abuse, minimizes the need to address the population as a whole.

    ““Women get most of the attention on this issue because, proportionately, their numbers are much higher. Women make up only about 15% of the active-duty force but account for 47% of sexual assault victims.”

    Okay, then 53% of the assault victims are men. Ummm, 53% appears to be the majority. Proportionately or not there is a problem for men as well. Also keep in mind that men are far less likely to report it so I don’t think there would be much of a stretch to say that it’s a bigger issue for men overall.

    That being said, yet again it appears that as long as women’s health is front and center of issues that the awareness campaigns begin. Men historically died from heart disease yet it wasn’t until there were signs that it was affecting women in great numbers as well, American Heart Association began their “Wear Red for women” campaign. In all the years I’ve had the disease, there was nothing, no national campaign for men.

    High male suicide rates is not a new phenomena and although a light has been shown on it, I see nothing happening with respect to research for or on men. The only thing that’s come to light are mental health issues relating to a number of mass shootings. Had those shooting not been front and center, I guarantee you that there would be no notice of male mental health issues.

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