Military Suicides: Part 1

Today marks the first in a new series of posts about an appalling reality in our culture: the heart-breaking frequency with which United States military personnel are taking their own lives.  What I have to say about this topic will be serious and challenging; the number of recent service member and veteran suicides and suicide attempts should be absolutely unacceptable to every American.  I plan to not only share facts and statistics with you, but also to enlighten you about the underlying causes of this tragic epidemic from my over forty years of experience helping people resolve emotional trauma.

I recognize that this is a heavy subject.  Please stay with me on this one.  I’m going to primarily focus on suicides among combat troops of Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF).  I firmly believe this topic must be addressed.  The men and women serving our country in our armed forces deserve to be heard before they use suicide to blast their way to our attention.

First, let me say that suicide attempts and completions are a symptom.  This ultimate act of self-destruction is a symptom of emotional trauma, or what has come to be called “invisible wounds” in our post-9/11 world.  As symptoms, suicide completions and attempts usually happen only after the development of other symptoms or warning signs, such as depression, reckless behavior, or substance abuse.  I’ll go into this later in more detail.  For now, I want you to understand that to effectively treat the symptom of suicide, we’ll need to comprehensibly address and heal our military’s invisible wounds.

The suicide statistics for veterans are truly alarming.  I’m going to start with data from a Department of Veterans Affairs study completed in 2010.  In his article for the Army Times, staff writer Rick Maze reported the following:

  • 18 veterans of all wars and conflicts commit suicide every day (that’s one suicide every 80 minutes)
  • 950 veterans in treatment with the VA attempt suicide every month (that’s 31 suicide attempts per day)
  • 98 veterans of OIF and OEF committed suicide between October 2008 and September 2009 (that’s one suicide every four days)
  • 1,868 OIF/OEF veterans attempted suicide during that same time period (that’s five attempts every day)

Let me tell you why I think these numbers don’t fully represent the magnitude of our veteran suicide problems.

First, this study is limited to information about veteran suicides that the VA knows about.  These statistics cover veterans receiving some type of treatment within the VA system combined with statistics the VA has been able to collect from other sources about veterans outside the system.  The VA’s internal data may be accurate, but many veterans outside the system can “fly under the radar” and their suicides and suicide attempts may not be measureable in any truly precise way.  For this reason, I would bet the VA numbers are low.

Second, I firmly believe that many suicides don’t end up looking like suicides or being reported as suicides.  An example of this that’s been in the news lately is the phenomenon of “suicide by cop”.  In suicide by cop, an individual acts in such a way as to present a flagrant danger to himself or others, in an effort to be shot and killed by peace officers.  Police responding to a scene of domestic violence, or burglary, or assault may find themselves face-to-face with a veteran desperate to end his suffering but unable to complete the act of taking his own life.  The veteran acts in an aggressive, threatening way to the officers, who necessarily shoot in defense of themselves and/or innocent bystanders.

Another example of disguised suicides and suicide attempts are deaths from reckless behavior.  A veteran feeling there’s “no way out” climbs on his motorcycle and speeds past control into a fatal crash on a winding country road.  Another veteran combines prescription medication with alcohol and no one really knows whether he slipped away by mistake or design.  Many incidents like these are masked suicides and not all of them will find their way into our statistics and awareness.

I’ve treated many OIF/OEF veterans and I’ve seen that they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.  When I ask the veterans I’ve been able to help how I can find and reach out to other hurting veterans in the community, they all say, “They don’t want to be found.”  This tells me the magnitude of our veteran suicide problem is probably significantly greater than we know, even with the most careful and conscientious reporting efforts.

What we do know is alarming enough.  Next week, in Part 2 of this series, I’ll present the results of another, recent military suicide report by the Center for a New American Security.