The 2000 Yard Stare by Thomas Lea
The Defense Department released the numbers for what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described as “epidemic” of military suicides. The total of 349 active duty personnel includes 182 Soldiers, 48 Marines, 59 Airmen and 60 Sailors. It does not include Coast Guard personnel. The last statistics for that service showed 5 active duty suicides for 2012 as of mid-August, the service had only seen 6 in 2011.
As of November there were 124 Army Reserve and National Guard suicides not on active duty, 6 Naval Reservists. I have not been able to find the data for Air Force Reserve and National Guard or the Marine Corps Reserve. The reserve figures are of drilling reservists not of those in the Individual Ready Reserve (inactive reserve) who do not attend drill but have served their obligated active time and can be recalled to active duty until the end of their service obligation.
The Veterans Administration estimates that nearly 6,500 veterans take their lives yearly. The numbers include veterans of all wars not just those of Iraq and Afghanistan nor are they complete because sometimes death certificates do not record a veteran’s service.
It is growing problem that unfortunately will not get any better anytime soon. Part of the issue is that despite service attempts to change the culture there is still a stigma attached to those that seek mental health care. There are other reasons that factor into the equation, deployments, high operational tempo, lack of enough mental health care providers to meet the demands as well as the effects of combat stress injuries, PTSD,
Traumatic Brain Injury as well as what is now called “moral injury. One definition of Moral Injury “the lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”
Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor twice wrote a moving of those afflicted with what we now call Moral Injury after World War One: “Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. They were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think of nothing but killing and being killed.
The effects are as chilling now as they were in Butler’s day when he wrote:
“These have already been mentally destroyed. These boys don’t even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically they are in good shape but mentally they are gone….There are thousands and thousands of these cases and more and more are coming in all the time…”
I know. I see it every day but I see it in a number of ways. I see it in the faces of the Marines and Sailors going back and forth between Afghanistan, Iraq and now North Africa and also among those in the medical, mental health and chaplain services that care for these men and women.
Provider burnout, including suicide is a problem. Just recently a former Army Psychologist who had served in Iraq during the surge and had been treating veterans in the VA committed suicide. Less than two years ago, this man was the lead author of a article that dealt with burnout and suicide of caregivers. Peter Linnerooth who was awarded the Bronze Star in Iraq committed suicide on January 2nd 2013. His widow, also a mental health professional commented:
“He was really, really suffering…And it didn’t matter that he was a mental health professional, and it didn’t matter that I was a mental health professional. I couldn’t help him, and he couldn’t help himself.”
Linnerooth’s faculty advisor commented: “When he went in and when he came out, it was shockingly different…”
That was a problem then and it is a problem now. The thing is that these active duty 349 men and women, as well as the others I have mentioned where the numbers are not well defined are not just numbers. They are people. Real men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Their deaths at their own hand are more than the combat deaths in Afghanistan this year.
Dr Larry Shellito the Commissioner for Veterans Affairs in Minnesota said something that is dead on:
“Oftentimes, you have to look at the people that surround the people with (PTSD) to make sure they are also OK, because it’s got a multiple impact…It’s not just the individual who suffers, it’s the people who care for him.”
I see it all the time. Butler’s description of the men who served in the trenches that were in veterans hospitals and facilities nearly 20 years after the war ended are as true today as they were then. Ask any caregiver in the service or in the VA system and they will tell you how overwhelming this epidemic is.
It cannot be wished away and assuaged by people simply doing the bumper sticker “I support the troops” thing without looking deeply at what is causing this and investing in the lives of these men and women before their lives are completely destroyed. It also means that politicians and their think tank and media advisors who constantly beat the drums of war, without fully funding it and without caring for those that are sent to fight them must be held accountable by voters.
I know how this is on a real live up close personal basis as a chaplain. I went to Iraq and came back changed. The PTSD, depression, anxiety and hopelessness that I felt were overwhelming. Thankfully I am doing a lot better and I did get the therapy and assistance needed, but it took a while to get it and thankfully at my present command I had people that I worked with help me get the help that I needed. But I have been back almost five years. A lot of that time was spent in the wilderness wondering if there was hope, if I would ever get better and sometimes wondering if God even existed and if he did, did he care. During the whole time I continued to work with and care for others like me. Their injury also impacted me in ways that I could not imagine before I was afflicted.
I care about this issue, because it affects those that I serve as well as their families, communities and those that serve with them. 349 active duty suicides. Think about it. One is too many. 349 is inexcusable and that does not count all those that we cannot count because we don’t know the numbers or the full story.
349: Keep that number in your mind and do something about it.