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.”
On the West Coast, Jake Clark, a California National Guard vet, marked the new year emphasizing the urgency of addressing this issue with life-saving actions, such as he has sought to help provide in the Save a Warrior program at Big Heart Ranch in Malibu.
"This is a holocaust in slow motion," Clark said to a reporter for Military.com News. "Over the next ten years, the Department of Veteran Affairs estimates more than 150,000 vets will kill themselves."
That’s a projection he made from a 2013 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs that upwardly revised previous annual estimates based on death reports provided by 21 states. And that’s just a partial account, he noted. "Two of the largest states in the nation -- California and Texas -- do not report their suicide numbers," Clark added.
"You've got guys offing themselves via cop-assisted suicide. You've got guys drinking themselves to death, overdosing. There's so much that doesn't get classified as suicide," he continued. "The actual numbers aren't even close."
Clark knows the dangerous undertow of suicide first-hand. “I thought about committing suicide every day for 13 years," after serving in the Balkans conflict in Kosovo, he said. Then, as he told Military.com, he discovered “transcendental meditation, and it transformed his life.
‘Something happened two weeks after I started meditating,’ he said. ‘The idea of killing myself was gone. It was replaced with this idea of trying to build something. I knew what I needed to do was try and get this in front of other returning veterans."In 2012, Clark founded Save A Warrior, a mindful-living program he calls "war detox."
On the East Coast, Chris Antal, a New York National Guard chaplain who served in Afghanistan, works with Soldiers Heart, a program with similar goals based in Troy, NY. “We promote post-traumatic growth,” Antal told an audience in December at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, New Jersey. The Hudson Valley-based program’s workshops and retreats are available to “veterans, family members, service members and the community,” he said.
On both coasts and across the broad expanse of the US, other groups of veterans—including the Combat Paper and Warrior Writers projects—have been reaching out with a variety of healing programs utilizing the arts and hands-on exercises in transforming from hunkering down, feeling besieged, to helping others.
This perspective was incorporated into a writing prompt at a workshop at Under the Hood Café in Killeen, Texas, a veterans-run refuge for soldiers at Ft. Hood, which has experienced a number of military suicides. As noted in a 2012 article in War Times, the prompt was a quote from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
"Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again."Many vets flinch at being asked to embrace “peace, love and understanding,” to cite the 1970s song made famous by Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews and others. But they get the concept of reaching out to help others, so that vets-to-vets projects have blossomed across the country, and not just in peacenik circles. Recent Combat Paper and Warrior Writers workshops in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia that I’ve participated in attracted active-duty soldiers.
While the military and the VA have launched program after program to address post-traumatic stress disorder—many of which are well organized—in an effort to stem rising rates of suicide by soldiers and veterans, many vets have concluded that traditional military culture is fueling this epidemic.
“The PTSD label is misplaced,” says Antal, a Unitarian minister whose tour as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan was cut short by commanders furious over his sharing on the Internet a prayer that cited what he saw as brutal actions in the war. “What leads veterans to kill themselves is not PTSD…it’s moral injury…a betrayal of what’s right,” he said.
Antal cited research and writings by Jonathan Shea, a psychiatrist at a VA clinic in Boston, who was featured last summer in a National Public Radio report on moral injury.
One of Shea’s colleagues, Brett Litz, said a recent study found that “when you sort Marines’ responses to establish their main wound, only about one-third of Marines actually have PTSD or anxiety from a traumatic, often life threatening event. Another one-third focus on loss, often the death of a close friend. And the final one-third describe a moral injury.
“Litz says of these three groups, Marines with a moral injury appear most at risk for hurting themselves,” noted the WBUR report.
While military leaders recoil at the accusation of moral injury, they have begun to target what they call “toxic command climate.” Here’s what a news investigation found when it looked at this notion last year: “Relationship issues, financial problems and substance abuse have long been known to trigger suicides, but in recent years a new term has crept into the military suicide lexicon: ‘toxic leadership.’…
“Hostile, indifferent or inadequate leadership was noted as a factor in seven of the 17 Fort Campbell suicide investigation reports reviewed by The Leaf-Chronicle and news partner WSMV-TV, Channel 4 in Nashville,” the Tennessee newspaper reported.
In 2009, the Houston Chronicle investigated a cluster of suicides by Army recruiters and reported this jaw-dropper:
“Recruiting is one of the most high pressure jobs in the military, and that pressure ratcheted to insidious extremes at the Houston station. The Army investigation found evidence of a toxic command climate that resulted in poor morale, long work hours and unpredictable schedules that put excessive pressure on recruiters' families and personal relationships. In one instance, a recruiter who failed to make his monthly quota was pressured by superiors to admit he was a failure and wanted to quit. A week later, he committed suicide.”