I was at the airport the other day to drop someone off for holiday travel. Amidst the hustle and bustle, I noticed lots of military personnel, making their way home for the holidays. It made me feel good, knowing that my son would also be home in a few days to spend Christmas with us.
As fate would have it, the NPR program I was listening to turned to the shocking rates of suicide among our nation’s active duty military and veterans, noting that holidays can be especially difficult for them and their families. The painful reality is that many of these brave young men and women suffer losses not only on the battlefield, but also from suicide. The poet Robert Binyon poignantly said, “They shall not grow old” in memorializing those who have died in war. Surely he did not intend this to be said of veterans as well.
I must admit, I really had no idea this was such a crisis. So when I got home, I did some research and what I found was profoundly disturbing.
When young men and women leave to serve in the military, they can’t be completely aware of what they’re about to experience. For many it’s their first time away (sometimes far away) from home. Many end up being deployed into conflict or crisis zones around the world. The hyper-stress and pace of their lives becomes their new normal. Many return home suffering the very real effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other types of trauma-related neurological issues. Some suspect instability from multiple deployments and the loss of purpose many feel when re-entering civilian life are also unique stressors.
The data are sobering and the answers are not yet discovered. Nationally, the suicide rate from 2005 to 2016 among all adults rose by nearly 21 percent, indicating prevention efforts face challenges beyond military factors. More Americans now take their own lives than die in car crashes. The increase has been particularly pronounced among. Among veterans, the rate was up 26 percent over that same span. Today the suicide rate for veterans and active duty is around 50 percent higher than for their civilian counterparts. While they make up only 8.5 percent of the adult population, they account for 18 percent of suicide deaths.
Acknowledging the sacrifice of our troops, as a nation, we welcome the returning warriors as heroes, making it all the more difficult to understand why more isn’t being done to address this epidemic. More than 20 veterans take their lives each day, far exceeding the total of those killed in battle each year. Were this reported on the nightly news, as battle casualties are, it would have heartbreaking immediacy for us all.
I suspect few who’ve served in combat would argue with Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s summation of the brutality and human tragedy of battle when he said, “War is hell.” What’s now clear is that coming home is hell too. For far too many men and women in uniform, coming home for the holidays is hard and living their best life is no cakewalk. Let’s face it, homelessness, addiction and suicide rates are all unacceptably high for those who’ve given so much. We need to demand answers and speak up for them now, while we still can. Because no one need speak for the dead.