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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.  

Originally posted to Jan Barry on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 02:10 PM PDT.

Also republished by Military Community Members of Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Meanwhile, some consider this to be the equivalent (13+ / 0-)

    of dirty socks on a laundry list.

    •  Obvious reasons for suicides be veterans (11+ / 0-)

      I served as an infantry scout in Korea 60 years ago. I enlisted as an uneducated and naive 17 year old. I spent most of my four years in the army learning weapons skills to kill what we were told was the enemy. No one in my squad voluntarily gave their lives for the USA. They simply lost their lives for a stupid war.

      The point is, that all veterans who survive their time in the military have largely wasted the best years of their lives learning skills that are useless in civilian life. For those veterans who are actually in combat the cheapness in the value of life makes you insensitive to the many smaller incident that are likely to happen in all families.

      Especially the newer veterans are fed propaganda while in high school that pictures service in the military as a glorious adventure that will give them great experiences for all of life.

      When their terms end they are often involuntarily extended. When they finally do get out they find that their military skills are mostly worthless in civilian life. Unemployment and insensitivity in their social relations combined with PTSD leads to many disappointments and finally to suicide.

      War is costly. Peace is priceless!

      by frostbite on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 06:00:51 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Great comment. Expand into diary? (6+ / 0-)
        •  Thanks, but no diary (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I am primarily a one issues person. I am an anti-war activist and sadly that viewpoint is not popular on Kos. My last effort on which I spent at least a day researching and writing was mostly ignored.

          I see diaries that have a minimum of facts or creativity get hundreds of recommends. Even the word "soldier" is going out of style as was seen at the Dem convention. Now anyone who wears a uniform in a "hero." This devalues the life of all of the real heroes that I picked up on the battlefield.

          But, how can we oppose any unjust war when they are being fought only by heroes. The pro-war profiteers have won that battle.

          War is costly. Peace is priceless!

          by frostbite on Sat Sep 08, 2012 at 12:54:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you, Jan Barry.... (14+ / 0-)

    for writing about this painful subject.  

    I lost my son to suicide almost 20 years ago.  No matter what brings it on it devastates families and friends endlessly.

    Major General Dana Pittard should be ashamed of his lack of compassion and short-sighted handling of this problem.

  •  This is what matters (11+ / 0-)

    Making sure that those need help get it.  Nothing worse for people in the depths of depression (I know, been there) than to be told "you are on your own"

    I like "We are there for you" a whole lot better.  That message isn't going to be really true, unless you keep writing diaries like this one.


    Courtesy Kos. Trying to call on the better angels of our nature.

    by Mindful Nature on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 02:42:10 PM PDT

  •  The best way to deal with this problem: (7+ / 0-)
    The Marine Corps is court-martialing a Marine who slit his wrists in Okinawa
    Perfect.  Problem solved.  What. The. Fuck!

    If we as a country cannot bring to bear better solutions, and do so immediately, then we should not be placing our military personnel into situations that cause them to choose suicide.

    Whatever it takes, this has to be dealt with, and woe to any legislator who stands in the way of denying our troops the help they so desperately need and so unquestionably deserve.

    Raise my fucking taxes, I don't care.  Fix this now Congress!  Fix this national shame!

    Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense. Carl Sagan

    by sjburnman on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 03:02:27 PM PDT

  •  Excellent diary. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    accio, BlackSheep1, WakeUpNeo, luckylizard

    Republished to Military Community Members of DKos.

    I published a diary seeking help/advice for a Women Veterans treatment facility I'd like to get started.

    What, sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce. Mark Twain

    by Gordon20024 on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 03:41:17 PM PDT

  •  Wow, thank you for the thorough diary. (4+ / 0-)

    This makes me so sad, thinking about all of the generations of military members that have had to deal with so much trauma and pain.  Very grateful to have such a thoughtful President, committed to being there in word and deed for veterans and active-duty members.  

    •  Also First Lady Michelle Obama, and both Bidens. (5+ / 0-)

      Unlike those at the RNC who barely mentioned anything about our active duty Service Members and Veterans, our Democratic leaders have all demonstrated genuine concern and support:

      "For their service and sacrifice, warm words of thanks from a grateful nation are more than warranted, but they aren't nearly enough. We also owe our veterans the care they were promised and the benefits that they have earned. We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America. It's a commitment that begins at enlistment, and it must never end. But we know that for too long, we've fallen short of meeting that commitment. Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need. Too many veterans don't receive the support that they've earned. Too many who once wore our nation's uniform now sleep in our nation's streets."

      -President Barack Obama, March 19, 2009


      Joining Forces

      •  Yes! The whole team. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        WakeUpNeo, Gordon20024

        A very good quote, and a philosophy born out with consistent focus over the almost-four years.  

        Romney has amply demonstrated his lack of concern in this area - part of the long "laundry list" of issues that he's not worried about, or doesn't find important.

  •  I edited the tags to separate them with commas (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    luckylizard, Gordon20024

    I hope I did not not overstep, but I took a guess that you would want people to find it by searching just "Iraq" or "suicide" and just spaced out on the commas after writing such a kick ass diary.

    "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars" --Casey Kasem

    by netop on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 08:27:11 PM PDT

  •  Shared responsibility (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gordon20024, Ginny in CO, accio

    One among those tasked with attempting to deal with our military suicide epidemic was the U.S. Army's former Vice Chief of Staff, General Peter W. Chiarelli. A story at the Washington Post includes comments on his experience while at the Pentagon:

    Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, gives closing words of advocacy

    Chiarelli now heads the NFP organization One Mind for Research, and shared these interesting comments about the responsibilities of defense contractors, in an article published in National Defense:

    Chiarelli believes that he has a strong case to make for why the nation’s top corporations — and especially Pentagon contractors — should step up and provide the bulk of the $100 million he needs to get this project moving. Suppliers of military equipment are “one of the groups that I think should help us,” says Chiarelli. “I’m not saying they are responsible” for troops being injured, he adds. “However, many of them made a heck of a lot of money over the past 10 years … and have a moral obligation to assist these soldiers and make sure we do everything we can to take care of them.”

    A hundred million dollars is a lot of money by most standards, but Chiarelli knows first hand what the Army spent on war equipment over the past decade, which is in the hundreds of billions, not millions. Major defense firms these days don’t talk much about all the money they made from the wars, Chiarelli says. “All they’re talking about is how worried they are about sequestration. But the last 10 years weren’t too bad. … We would like to get some sustained commitment from the defense companies.”

    Read full article here:

    Former War Commander Fighting For Funds to Combat Brain Injuries

    I wonder what the Diarist and other Kossacks think about the General's expressed views?

  •  Sounds like a good start (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    on medical research of how to better treat PTS and TBI. I would add that much more needs to be done on the prevention side...

  •  I had to think about this a while. (0+ / 0-)

    Friends of mine lost their son to suicide on Thanksgiving day a few years back [it always seems like yesterday].

    Suicide - or attempted suicide - should not be a crime either in the military or out of it. It should be treated as a mental break.

    I don't have any preventitve answers because, I believe, there is no panacea. It's as complex as the human mind. I do know that managing post-traumatic syndrome [that is NOT a disorder - again that is the complex human mind slowly unpacking the traumatic event and processing what it can manage at that moment] is possible. It requires the victum to talk about his/her experiences with those who shared similar experiences [every single person experiencing PTS tells me that no mental health person without combat experience is helpful].

    I have urged the Veteran's Health Administration require that all about-to-be-hired mental health personnel be veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq. Only about 10% of the veterans with PTS require the help of a psychiatrist, but all of them require more than once a month treatment. The longer we ignor that fact, the more veterans will commit suicide.

    Bring those still in Afghanistan home NOW . . . It's long past time.

    by llbear on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 11:23:54 AM PDT

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