Data reveals dark side to military service

Recently, the Department of Veteran Affairs reported that young veterans just out of service and receiving government health care committed suicide at nearly three times the rate of active-duty troops.

The Army, more than any other service branch, has struggled with suicides among active-duty soldiers during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – and the risk continues after these soldiers return to civilian life.

Veterans aged 18-24 in the VA’s health program killed themselves at a rate of 46-per-100,000 in 2009 and nearly 80-per-100,000 in 2011, the latest year of data available. Non-veterans of the same age had a suicide rate during 2009 and 2010, of about 20-per-100,000. Up-to-date statistics for both vets and non-vets are not yet available.

That means veterans, despite getting some VA care, were killing themselves at more than twice the rate as their non-veteran contemporaries. What in God’s name is going on?

I admit that the data is complicated. Many of the suicides were getting VA services, but not VA mental health therapy. If the VA can induce more vets to get mental health therapy, we can save more of these young men and women.

The VA should move heaven and God’s green earth – and raise holy hell with Congress to obtain the funding and staffing to do just that.

A positive sign in the data, according to some, is that suicide rates for male veterans of all ages (not just the young vets) whom the VA diagnose and treat for mental health problems have fallen steadily over the 10 years from 2001 to 2011, in contrast to suicide patterns among non-veteran males. The same is not true, however, for female veterans, whose suicide rates have not improved and remain higher than non-veteran women.

Online chat connections with veterans through the VA’s suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255) have increased from several hundred in 2009 to nearly 55,000 in 2013. That is dramatic progress and the VA should energetically continue such services.

But I have another take on this spike in young veteran suicides. For the most part we have taken healthy young men and women out of wholesome homes and trained them to kill.

And sometimes they do. Frequently, they also see their friends and buddies killed. They feel guilty that they have survived and their friends haven’t. What does this do to their young psyches? What would it do to yours and mine? It would cause havoc with anyone’s mental stability. No wonder these young vets have nightmares. No wonder some of them are tortured to the point where some take their lives. As General Sherman said during our Civil War, “War is hell.”

We should hold these men and women in high regard, And as I have said, the Veterans Administration should continue their efforts and do whatever it takes to help these tortured young men and women.

If this column seems pacifist, Quaker-like and anti-military, so be it. In an imperfect world, however, I readily admit, we need a military, but the price is exceedingly high: the deteriorating mental health and self-destruction of too many young veterans.

Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga. His columns once appeared regularly in the OBSERVER. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of his previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website