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"Honor Fallen Brethren of Suicides, Too"
They also served valiantly, but took their own lives after difficult returns from war.
May 22, 2014
Each year, our nation commemorates Memorial Day to honor those who we lost in combat. These courageous men and women paid the highest price to be called Americans.
In the veteran community, there is another group we mourn. These men and women, too, served valiantly alongside us. Like our other fallen brethren, they are no longer here to observe the moments of silence and the barbeque get-togethers. The difference between these men and women and the ones who are traditionally remembered on Memorial Day is that they did not die at the hands of an enemy, but at their own.
Since 2001, the number of suicides among active duty troops has more than doubled. In the Army alone, suicides have tripled. In fact, suicide has become thesecond most common cause of death in the military.
This is not just a phenomenon for those still actively serving. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 22 veterans take their own lives each day, though these numbers might be significantly underestimated because they are based on incomplete data from fewer than half of the states.
No single symptom
While there is not one cause to point to for this acceleration in the suicide rate, one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, a recent study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that mental health disorders such as PTSD are the leading cause of hospitalizations among active-duty forces, and that those who have been hospitalized have a "greatly elevated" suicide risk.
For veterans, it isn't only the numbers that are depressing, it's the lives behind the numbers.
One of them was my buddy Brian Collins. Brian was my former roommate at Valley Forge Military Academy. He was an extraordinary leader. He was the guy to lift your spirits when you needed it. He was the fifth highest ranking cadet on campus, and he went on to West Point and became an infantry officer.
Brian served three tours overseas — two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He came home and was very happily married. One day, though, a mutual friend gave me a call as I was walking out of a movie theater with my wife. Brian had taken his own life.
For Brian's family and for the families of the thousands of other veterans and active duty troops who commit suicide, the pain of their deaths will continue to reverberate, magnified by bureaucratic rules and regulations. Despite their loved ones' meritorious service, their families may not be entitled to military death benefits. While they can be buried in military ceremonies, the VA may not pay for it. And they are not entitled tomilitary honors unless the VA determines their suicide was caused by direct combat issues.
VA scandal reverberates
Exacerbating matters is the scandal in which a number of local VA hospitals have been charged with delaying patient care and falsifying records to cover up the delays. Already, at least 40 patients have died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA. Now, former VA workers are coming forward with accusations that delays lead to some suicides.
To its credit, the VA does have the Veterans Crisis Line, connecting veterans and their families with responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat or text. But using this service is the final cry for help.
Indeed, many veterans have likely tried to get counseling and other intervention services but were stalled or even stonewalled by the bureaucratic VA hospital system.
The problems with the system stretch back decades. We can no longer allow its complexities to be an excuse for not fixing it.
Far too many Americans still look at Memorial Day as a "day off." For me, and millions of other vets, it is a day to remember not only those who died in combat, but also those who fell victim to the reality that even though they made it back from war, it did not mean their fighting was over.
For many, the uncertainty of reintegration is real, and our country needs to account for it.
Wes Moore, an Army combat veteran, is executive producer and host of the PBS documentary series Coming Back With Wes Moore. His first book, The Other Wes Moore, was a best-seller.