With military suicides at an all-time high, we need to ask what we can do better.
Imagine being a soldier. Fighting war is the way of life. Death, destruction, and mayhem are everyday occurrences. Killing people you don’t know, because you are ordered to, for reasons you don’t understand. Living life on pure adrenaline, never quite sure if today is the day you watch a friend die. Knowing that even if it is, you can’t grieve, you must keep fighting, you must keep shooting. Watching brothers-in-arms lose limbs or suffer irreversible injuries. Hearing silence shattered by bullets and bombs, the anguished screams of people with whom you share an unbreakable bond, or even worse, innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of situations out of their control.
Then imagine what it must be like to have to reintegrate into civilian society. Having to live an everyday, ‘normal’ life, when, for months, normality has consisted of a permanent adrenaline rush, of seeing sights most people can’t possibly comprehend. To go from watching people die in agony, sometimes at your own hands, to doing the weekly supermarket run and playing catch with your children in the back garden.
The effect on the human psyche of undergoing such a massive paradigm shift is very hard to comprehend. It is unsurprising to learn that many service members return from war with mental illness, and are unable to adapt. Out of the 1.7 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Rand Corporation suggests that an estimated 600,000 suffer from mental health conditions. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say that 11-20% of these service members experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), compared with 7-8% of the general population. Sadly, a study by Veterans for America discovered that soldiers are often expected to wait up to a month for psychological treatment, such is the demand for these services.
Due to how overwhelming the need for support is, many never receive the treatment they need. On average, 18 veterans and one active-duty service member a DAY reach a point where they feel unable to go on, and take their own lives. In 2012, 182 active soldiers died through suicide, with another 110 reported suicides that are still under investigation. In contrast, 176 soldiers were killed in combat. More soldiers took the decision to end their own life than those that had no choice.
The after-effects of army-borne mental health problems reach much further than suicide. Every single night, over 300,000 US war veterans find refuge in a homeless shelter or on the streets. Over the course of a year, the number of veterans who suffer homelessness is between 529,000 and 840,000 – 26% of the homeless population. 45% of these homeless veterans suffer from PTSD or another mental illness.
As ability to recognise and diagnose mental illness increases, excuse for these situations being allowed to happen decreases. If you risk your life serving your country, the very least you should receive is appropriate medical treatment, support and guidance, both in the midst of war and in the aftermath. It is shameful that up to 840,000 veterans risk everything for America, yet America cannot even provide them a basic home upon their return. It is disgraceful that 18 veterans a day take their own life; yet, if they seek help, they have to wait up to a month for an appointment.
There will be people reading this now saying the soldiers knew what they were signing up for. Yet, unless you have been in a war, nothing can possibly prepare you for the experience. The teenagers signing up for service can’t possibly comprehend what is to come; for most, their knowledge of war is based on Hollywood films and Call of Duty videogames, with their tendencies to glorify war. They aren’t mature enough emotionally to deal with the fact they aren’t killing ‘the bad guys’, but that they will have to take the lives of other human beings.
I have never served in the army; the thought of it is terrifying, and I strongly disagree with war. I steadfastly refuse to take the life of another human, whatever their perceived transgressions. However, I can accept that, sometimes, war is sadly inevitable. In those instances, armies need people to fight. However, when the persons’ fight is over, those that risked everything for their country need to receive support to return to a normal life, however long it takes and however much it costs. They’ve earned it.
The Iraq/Afghanistan war was floated on the idea of protecting America. Now it is time for America to protect those that fought for her.
This article originally appeared at Andrew-Lawes.com.