Tuesday, April 28, 2015

U.S. Military Veteran Suicides: Problems Yet To Come

Dale Matson

“When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide, then you have a serious problem.” –Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

Where do these numbers come from? They come from the Veteran’s Administration Report of 2012. . These numbers do not include Texas and California statistics.

As a Vietnam era veteran (stationed in Fairbanks Alaska), it grieves me deeply that these men have perished in such great numbers. As a retired psychologist, I am well aware that suicides are underreported events also, so the true number is even greater. I would briefly like to discuss why I believe these numbers are significantly higher than the general population and my concerns about the future.

Certainly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a major factor with returning combat veterans. Symptoms can include flashbacks, depression, anxiety and drug abuse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics indicates that about twelve percent of combat veterans suffer from PTSD.
Although the current statistics on Vietnam combat veterans is higher at fifteen percent, it is possible that more time has passed for symptoms to surface and/or be acknowledged.

When the numbers are evaluated, an underlying predisposition to PTSD is cited as one factor. However, I think this is less the case for someone who would volunteer to go in harms way. It would be interesting to see the breakdown of those who suffered from PTSD in Vietnam who were volunteers versus those who were drafted and served in combat.

One aspect to modern war going back to Vietnam was the higher survival rate of casualties because of them being med evacuated compared to previous wars. These “wounded warriors” came home missing limbs and suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a higher percentage of the returning veterans. They were both maimed on the outside and damaged on the inside.

I believe the civilian attitude toward our military has varied over the years. Even those opposed to the several modern conflicts still support the troops that fight in these conflicts. I think this was in part because of President Reagan support for veterans and the overwhelming victory in Operation Desert Storm. General Norman Schwarzkopf who served in Viet Nam was determined to reverse the public perception that our military was inept.

Ask most Vietnam era veterans and we will say that we were increasingly disliked as the war progressed. We were portrayed in films and TV as mentally disturbed and dishonorable. We were not looked upon as returning WWII heroes. Many Vietnam era veterans including me left their military service off their resume when applying for jobs. The civilian attitude seems to be shifting back toward disrespect for the military.

Additionally, there is the same morale and malaise problem setting in with the modern troops that happened in the later years of the Vietnam war. There is the same problem with mission creep and confusion about the outcome today as in Vietnam. 

Another factor that I see as an issue worth paying attention to is the fact that we have always had a professional military but we have not had so many volunteer soldiers recycled into a combat zone so often. The Navy Seal Robert O'Neill retired after serving only sixteen of 20 years needed for a pension. He claimed that after so many missions, he was worn out. He noted that the number of missions should be factored into the 20-year requirement to reduce it. The multiple mission volunteer soldiers are beginning to leave and retire. There is no doubt that PTSD will be an increasing problem not properly dealt with. As the saying goes, “Pay me now or pay me later”.   


1 comment:

  1. I have thought about this more and believe that the DOD should make certain that all veterans who have served in combat roles would have the option to obtain a marketable skill befores leaving active duty. Work and re-engagement in the life of the community would help diminish this terrible tragedy.