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Suicide Rates Show Veterans’ Biggest War Can Happen In Their Minds


The war isn’t over just because a soldier comes home. In some cases, that is when a new battle begins.

Memorial Day is a special date set aside specifically to honor those who have died while serving our great nation. Since July 4, 1776, every generation has been called upon to fight for America’s freedom and liberty, with many lives lost, because the price of freedom is great.

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was created on May 30 to honor those who died preserving the Union during the Civil War, and was marked by decorating soldiers’ graves. Eventually, the last Monday in May was declared a federal holiday to pay respects to all Americans who lost their lives during any of the country’s wars. Subsequently, more than one million soldiers have died on the battlefield and are recognized on Memorial Day.

Unfortunately, that statistic doesn’t come close to recognizing or paying tribute to the service members who lost their lives on a battlefield thousands of miles away from a war zone. Beginning in 2012, the United States saw a trend that shocked military and civilian leadership: that year, the number of active-duty soldiers who committed suicide exceeded the number of their peers who died in a war zone. Or, as The Guardian reported at the time, “More of America’s serving soldiers died at their own hands than in pursuit of the enemy.”

Thus, on Memorial Day, commemorating the men and women who have kept us safe and enabled our ways of life, by expressing our deepest gratitude and unparalleled respect, has great meaning and importance. But the memorial decorations, parades, cookouts, and family time set aside in their reverence falls short of recognizing the true loss of life that war brings. Without using the past as a lens for looking at the present and to the future, we will continue to fall short in protecting military lives when they return to the personal battlefields at home.

The Vet Suicide Numbers Are Staggering

We’ve all heard the current Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics. More than 20 veterans commit suicide each day, a number, on average, 22 times greater than the civilian population. In fact, veterans’ suicides account for 18-20 percent of suicide deaths in the country, while they make up only about 8.5 percent of the adult population.

That is just what is recorded and shared with the public. However, despite growing attention to the topic, this is not a new trend. While the Vietnam Memorial has the names of 58,315 Americans who died overseas, the wall does not document any names of the estimated 50,000-150,000 Vietnam vets who died from suicide in the years after returning home.

According to the Mayo Clinic, between 2004 to 2008 the Army suicide rate increased 80 percent. While the Army numbers are staggering, all branches of the armed forces have faced continued challenges for taking care of the service members who survive war.

Despite efforts by the Department of Defense, the VA, and the Pentagon, the numbers aren’t decreasing. These persistent troubles are primarily blamed on the lack of access to mental health services. In fact, only 50 percent of returning veterans who need mental health treatment will receive services, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Despite continual verbal commitments from military and political leaders, every state in the U.S. shows higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress (PTS) in veterans than in the civilian population. The suicide rate is higher for veterans than non-veterans in every single state by at least 1.5 times, and in many states like Arizona, veterans’ suicide rates in 2016 were four times that of the civilian population (a 391 percent difference).

Vets Often Experience Overwhelming Grief and Shame

Although contrary to civilian assumptions, traumatic events that occurred during service overseas is not what appears to produce the most psychological damage. Instead, research indicates feelings of shame or guilt trigger the emotional, mental, and physical reactions that lead to suicide. This is guilt about what soldiers did to others and shame of not being able to save the lives of those around them. These issues have led to a particularly high rate of self-inflicted death among female veterans. Shockingly, the suicide rate for female veterans is 250 percent higher than that for female non-vets.

The other major cause appears to be lingering effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI). According to the New England Journal of Medicine, in 2008 military members who experienced a TBI were more than twice as likely to suffer from PTS later on than were service members who did not suffer a TBI. At least 20 percent of the veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from either PTS or major depression, according to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.

So this Memorial Day, as we remember those who lost their lives in war, let’s also work to ensure a better understanding of the difficult mental and physical health issues that have taken the lives of those who make it back to the United States. We do not want to add their memorials to the growing list of service men and women who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom, especially when we have the power to help them win the war within.

Since December 2000, in an effort to help Americans remember the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” asks that at 3 p.m. local time all Americans pause for a moment of silence in remembrance and respect.

If you or someone you love is at risk, please reach out to any or all of the following resources:

  • To reach a 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and “Press 1” to reach highly skilled responders trained in suicide prevention and crisis intervention.
  • Visit the DoD/VA Suicide Outreach: Resources for Suicide Prevention website.
  • Send a text message to 838255.
  • The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) runs a resource center that provides information and resources about psychological health, PTSD, and TBI. The center can be contacted 24/7 by phone at 866-966-1020 and e-mail, or you can go to the DCoE Outreach Center Live Chat.