During Memorial Day, calls to suicide hotlines reportedly “surge” from veterans who find themselves overcome with war-time memories, or riddled with survivors’ guilt as they think of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms. This year, there is increased likelihood that some veterans will experience acute struggles on Memorial Day due to isolation, and constraints on cemetery visitations and social gatherings resulting from the coronavirus response.
On Memorial Day, Americans are called to reflect on their gratitude for the fallen heroes who gave their lives in service to this great country. This year, we should also consider how we can forge connections with veterans who might feel particularly affected due to social distancing.
Effects of Isolation
In 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) found that veteran suicide rates were about 1.5 times higher than suicide rates in the civilian population, with about 20 active duty and National Guard or Reserve veterans committing suicide each day. The sense of isolation some veterans feel when they reintegrate into society may play a role in this devastating phenomenon. As one Marine veteran who wishes to remain anonymous told me, “For veterans, [isolation is] like gasoline on a fire.”
Recognizing that veteran suicide is a serious issue, the VA maintains a page with resources for veterans in critical need of support. Other groups, such as the National Veterans Foundation, run crisis hotlines to support veterans struggling with thoughts of suicide. Still, the problem persists.
Ruined routines and isolation from fellowship have been difficult for some veterans during the pandemic. As of March 24, the VA confirmed that its Veterans Crisis Line had experienced a 12 percent increase in call volume. Mental health appointments conducted over the phone with VA doctors rose from 40,000 appointments in February to 154,000 in March. Appointments by video likewise increased from 20,000 in February to 34,000 in March. The VA also reported an almost 200 percent increase in group therapy appointments conducted online between February and March.
In the midst of the pandemic, the VA has launched LifeAid, a suicide-prevention program that aims to assist struggling veterans and first responders by creating a stigma-free conversation about suicide, and providing those who need assistance with resources and support. While resources like these are an essential component of outreach, increased connection between veteran and civilian communities can also play a role in ensuring veterans are supported, particularly during this unique Memorial Day.
Marking Memorial Day
Army veteran Scott Thomas is finding ways to honor the memory of his close friend and fellow veteran Brian Smith, who took his life in February 2013 after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The business Thomas founded, Freedom Hill Coffee Roasters, partners with Mission 22, an organization that provides treatment programs for veterans, assists with memorials, and brings national awareness to veteran suicide.
This Memorial Day, to honor the fallen and reach out to fellow veterans, Thomas’ business will promote Mission 22 and share the stories of veterans who “lost their lives in combat and afterward due to PTSD” on its social media platforms. Thomas says civilians can also play a role in supporting veterans “who might be struggling during this Memorial Day.”
First, he recommends civilians “reach out to the veterans in their lives … and just ask how they’re doing, especially in light of [the pandemic].” Those who have an especially close bond with a veteran friend or loved one can do even more.
Many veterans “who have lost comrades during combat or afterward literally think of them every day, sometimes multiple times a day,” Thomas explains. The “burden of grief” is a lot to carry alone. He recommends that civilians ask the veterans they know about their fallen friends, and offer to help remember them during Memorial Day.
“For a veteran to know their friends and family … are also thinking of their lost comrades and honoring their memory … can be very powerful,” Thomas says.
Sacrifices Shaped our Country
Americans can also honor the memories of our fallen heroes by visiting PoppyinMemory.com. Created by the USAA as an online companion to its Poppy Wall of Honor, the site allows participants to dedicate virtual poppies to fallen military heroes, and educates visitors about the military conflicts in which 645,000 American service members have given their lives.
American veterans’ contributions to our society since its founding are manifold. Our great country would not be a haven of liberty without the legions of men and women who bravely fought under her banner, and were willing to sacrifice their lives in her name. Some veterans carry a hefty burden in the aftermath of their service. Isolation and interruption of ritual may render that load especially crushing.
As our country struggles against economic recession and pandemic, and faces a world that is by no means free of adversaries, we will look to the heroes of our past and present to show us the way forward. Especially in such a difficult and lonely time, Americans need our veterans to continue fighting, to ensure their companions’ sacrifices are honored, and to remind those of us who never bore the cost that our freedom has never been free.
This year, civilians and veterans alike must courageously support one another as we remember those who gave their lives so we might experience liberty. As Annette Wynne writes in “Memorial Day”:
Full service needs a greater toll –
That we who live give heart and soul
To keep the land they died to save,
And be ourselves, in turn, the brave.