A question has been floating around in the media ether for the past few months concerning an "epidemic" in suicides from returning OIF and OEF Veterans. A CBS news study related this statistic,
"In 2005, for example,...there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That's 120 each and every week, in just one year."
If these statistics are indeed true, more service members and veterans have died outside of Iraq and Afghanistan due to suicide, than those who have made the final sacrifice in the combat zone. (I should note that I have no way of verifying CBS's numbers, and there is much controversy on the internet concerning their statistical analysis.)
Numbers and statistics and studies are all well and good for a sound bite or two, but what is the real deal?
-Are suicide numbers in vets increasing?
-Are they higher than the national average?
-Are they escalating for our new veterans?
Answering these questions will paint a picture and point in a direction, but they won't solve the problem. In effect, these questions are nearly meaningless.
Why? ...because ONE suicide is too many! I will repeat and expand for clarification. ONE Veteran from ANY war committing suicide is one too many.
The real questions that must be asked and answered are:
1) How can we identify those Veterans who are at risk?
2) How can we effectively help Veterans at risk?
3) How can we implement help to at-risk Veterans immediately and without bureaucracy?
I don't personally pretend to have all of the answers. Call me Captain Obvious here, but I believe that the answers begin with prevention. The key to this would be a functional attitude change by the military and the public in general concerning mental health. Instead of turning service members with mental health needs into outcasts, they should be seriously and lovingly "ambushed" by the necessary care they require. There should be no stigma attached to saying, "I need help!"
The U.S. Army uses risk assessment at every turn in every operation it conducts. Could it not be the model for suicide risk assessment and prevention for itself and the other military services?
When a Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, or Marine leaves the service after having been baptized by fire during war, shouldn't there be a continued responsibility for that individual who needs continued help? Ostensibly, this is where the VA (Veterans Administration) would step in. Recently the VA was tasked with providing a myriad of suicide services for Veterans, but was not additionally funded for these services.
This lack of funding is akin to going to war without bullets, and highlights the pointlessness of relying on the bureaucratic machine.
The only word that jumps to mind is OUTREACH. I want to believe reduction and elimination of suicide in our Veteran population can only be combated by Veterans of past wars and Veterans of the current wars reaching out to other Veterans in need.
By being an interested ear, by reaching out, by being a symbol and a role model, by actively looking for brother and sister Veterans who need help; by volunteering time and energy and money if necessary both locally and nationally.
It starts with you and it starts with me.
Let's help our Vets who are hurting right now, today.