Iraq war veteran Matthew Jarrett pedaled his bicycle into the new year on a freezing Texas highway, in a coast-to-coast quest to spur more public action about the epidemic of suicide among military veterans.
“Twenty-two veterans commit suicide daily,” Jarrett told a news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman in late December. “That makes me feel disturbed and uncomfortable and we need to be doing something about it.”
The Texas newspaper noted that “A Department of Veterans Affairs study found that about 8,000 veterans killed themselves in 2010, an average of 22 veterans per day. A separate review by the Austin American-Statesman in 2012 identified 266 Texas veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who died after coming home; 1 in 6 died from suicide.”
On his Facebook page, “Vet Ride for Life,” which chronicles his ride from California to Florida, Jarrett posted a New Year’s greeting that concluded: “I've read some reports that Military Veteran suicides might be higher than current statistics. Hopefully we can each do a part to try to shift the paradigm in a more favorable direction.”
As we celebrate the Labor Day holiday, Americans should thank our lucky stars that we’re still around. America as we know it nearly ended in October 1962. That’s when the US military squared off against Soviet forces in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Long before President Obama proclaimed a “red line” in Syria, President John F. Kennedy drew one around Cuba. In the end, World War III was narrowly averted by back door diplomacy.
The Soviet Union is no longer around, but Russia inherited its nuclear weapons. And Russia’s leaders back Syria’s government, which Obama is threatening to “punish” with a military attack. Getting into a proxy war with Russia in the Middle East could well revive the most dangerous times of the Cold War nuclear age.
That the Obama Administration is set on waging war in yet another nation, amid national celebrations of the 1963 March on Washington, is beyond bizarre. It is a betrayal of everything Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow peaceful demonstrators stood for 50 years ago and since.
On Wednesday, speaking to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, President Obama invoked much of Dr. King’s stance on civil rights, but pointedly ignored the major theme—nonviolence—of his life.
I missed the historic March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in August 1963. I was on military missions in Vietnam that summer. So I went this year with friends and neighbors to the 50th anniversary march celebration that filled much of the Mall in Washington on Saturday.
Douglas Kinnard fought in three wars, retired as a brigadier general and began studying dissent. That was in 1970, when the high-flying West Pointer turned down a promotion after his second tour in Vietnam and returned to college to study for a Ph.D at Princeton. Like many other colleges, the Ivy League campus in New Jersey was in turmoil as students and faculty passionately protested the expansion of the war in Vietnam into Cambodia.
Kinnard, who had harbored private doubts about the war while in uniform, said in an interview years later: “I think that the people who demonstrated against the war … frankly, I think they did the country a great service.”
In the seaside city of Da Nang, Vietnam, a clean-up is underway to remove dioxin-contaminated soil at a former U.S. military air base. Some 8,500 miles to the east, another clean-up is underway to remove dioxin hot spots along the Passaic River in Newark, NJ and upstream, where tides and floods have washed the worrisome stuff into a county park and into mudflats along a popular stretch of water where high school rowers race and families often relax along the banks and fish.
Long after the Vietnam War ended, the toxic trail left by dioxin-laced Agent Orange stretches from Newark, where herbicides were manufactured for the military in a way that created a long-lasting contaminant, to Southeast Asia—where millions of gallons of the supersized plant-killer were sprayed on jungles, mangrove swamps, military bases and airfield perimeters during a decade of war starting in 1962.
Fifty years ago, I turned 20 in Saigon, a very drunk and slap happy soldier in the service of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam. We were making war, when we weren’t doing Happy Hours in every bar from Soc Trang to Da Nang, under slick counter-insurgency slogans like “Winning Hearts and Minds,” “Operation Ranch Hand” and “Only You Can Prevent a Forest” (motto of the US Air Force missions that were spraying the countryside with herbicides).
O, we were so damn clever and full of ourselves. Nowadays, Vietnam veterans feel lucky to live to retirement age and not be stricken by cancer, heart disease or some other damn malady from exposure to Agent Orange and other military follies.
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.
We are the ones you sent to fight a war
You didn’t know a thing about.
Those of us who lived
Have tried to tell you what went wrong…
(from “A Relative Thing”)
The expanding bookshelf of works by W.D. Ehrhart—20 books, at last count—started with a ticked off Marine who barely survived a rocket blast in the Battle of Hue in 1968.
One of America’s biggest hidden tragedies is suicide. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was a virtually forbidden topic. When I began working as a news reporter in the 1970s, I bumped into a tradition in journalism that suicides were not reported. When a Vietnam veteran in a small town I covered as a community news reporter killed himself, I didn’t know what to do with the information.
Now the lid has burst off an explosive human rights and public health issue.
PBS Newshour ran an unusual program the other night, providing an insightful look at the Combat Paper Project that I’ve been working with for some time. “Finally tonight, transforming the wardrobe of war into art,” PBS Newshour anchor Gwen Ifill said in introducing this report aired on April 30.
Across America, a special gift is arriving at numerous homes this week. This gift is a new book by Warrior Writers titled After Action Review: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans of the Global War on Terror.
What makes this book decidedly different from so many other gifts this holiday season is three-fold: its handcrafted artistry by young men and women who turned sleepless nights and troubled days into making art with hands that for too long held war weapons; its funding by dozens of supporters who collectively chipped in thousands of dollars to pay for the printing and postage; and its timing—published just as the war in Iraq was officially declared over and the last US military units departed that war-savaged land.