Tags: Afghanistan, Iraq, Native American culture, PTSD, suicide, veteran, Veteran's Affairs, war
So says a report released a couple weeks ago.
It bears repeating:
In 2010, and again in 2011: More US soldiers died from committing suicide than died in combat.
And that’s according to official reports, numbers that the Army itself tracks and then [if prodded] releases to the public. Are they renowned for their excellent body-counting abilities, their unflinching and honest reporting of the true costs of war? No, not even a little bit. *
[Oh, and on that note – check out this clever vocabulary replacement policy the Army has employed to mask the number of people wounded in combat.]
Yes, as it turns out the Department of Veteran’s Affairs went to trial in 2010 for (among other things**) deliberately hiding rates of suicide amongst soldiers and veterans. Internal emails from Dr. Ira Katz, Deputy Chief of Patient Care Services for the VA’s Mental Health Division, contain some juicy tidbits not meant for public eyes:
From: Katz, Ira R.
To: Chasen, Ev [top media advisor for the VA]
Subject: FW: Not for the CBS News Interview Request
Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?
(from a set of emails made public here)
Oooh. That doesn’t sound good, Dr. Katz. Especially since you told CBS reporters in November of 2009 that “there is no epidemic of suicide in VA,” and that their statistics, remarkably similar to the ones quoted in the email above, were “not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the [suicide] rate.”
The courts ruled in the veterans’ favor.
Suicide rates aren’t the only thing going up
Mental health diagnoses in the military population (especially that of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]) and usage of psychotropic drugs are, too. The New York Times reported on the sometimes disastrous effects of overmedicating active duty and returned veterans thusly diagnosed. Part of the problem may be the current view of PTSD as a mental illness, when it is perhaps better understood as an injury to the autonomic nervous system. More information on that here.***
One article I was reading this morning suggested making acupuncture more widely available to active duty troops. They call it “battlefield acupuncture.”****
Yeah, sure, ok.
But how about NOT HAVING A WAR IN THE FIRST PLACE?
That’s apparently not an option. I guess the engine of our economy, the military-industrial complex (which now certainly includes pharma) cannot run on fumes alone; we need this war. Like an internal combustion engine needs fossil fuels to burn? Yes.
And let’s not hear any nonsense about alternatives.
More nonsense about alternatives
One commenter’s perspective on the military suicides issue really resonated with me:
Native American cultures used a ritual of honor, respect, and spiritual cleansing to help their warriors return to “normal” life. Our society could sorely use a similar process.
– commenter from news article “More US soldiers died from committing suicide than died in combat”
On the road trip I took last summer, I had the opportunity to witness at least part of this ritual — in North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold (3 Affiliated Tribes) Reservation, at their annual Pow Wow.
A young woman had returned from 2 tours of duty, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. On the first night of the Pow Wow (the giveaway night), a large part of the ceremony centered around her. She was asked to stand in the middle of the sacred ceremonial dance space, wearing her full military attire. She was given a strikingly beautiful, handmade bonnet of eagle feathers. It reached almost to the ground! She was honoured with specially composed songs and tributes from relatives and friends. Her body was wrapped in 8 or 10 homemade quilts of beautiful colors.
At the close of the ceremony, a box was placed in front of her, and all who watched were asked to step forward and place something of value (money, basically) in the box. To help her as she adjusted to being home. To support her and her family. They would then press her hand gently, kiss her cheek, or perhaps touch her feet. Signs of respect and love were heaped upon her.
Over and over the emcee emphasized the fact that “in our culture, we honor our warriors, we honor our veterans. We welcome them home with open arms.”*****
It was a powerful and moving ceremony. I truly felt the whole community’s support for this brave young woman; I hope that she felt it, too. Contrast this with most returning veterans’ feelings of utter isolation, and perhaps even shame and despair.
The contrast is somewhat apparent in the data on veteran suicide, too. National data for veteran suicide by ethnicity was not available, but this analysis of veteran suicide data from 2008-2010 in Nevada shows (in that state at least) suicide rates amongst returning White veterans were almost 5 times higher than those of Native American vets. Native Americans, as an ethnic group, had the second lowest suicide rate of those surveyed (the “Asian” ethnic group had the lowest).
We as a culture have so much to learn.
* Here’s an older reference on that, too, specific to US casualties… Doubtless the trend continues.
**Those “other things” included deliberate and unnecessary delays in the provision of mental health care and in the adjudication of service-connected death and disability compensation claims by the VA. The court ruled in favor of the veterans, stating that this was a violation of “veterans’ due process rights to receive the care and benefits they are guaranteed by statute for harms and injuries sustained while serving our country.” Full opinion available here; a very good read.
*** The PTSD label may be the new “hysteria” – a diagnostic catchall category in mental health that is really describing brain injury or pathology.
**** Which nobody seems to find ironic. Ho-hum.
*****More information on the Native American attitude towards veterans here.
Tags: Carmelo Valone, dehumanization, homeless, Kelly Thomas, police brutality, schizophrenia, Talk of the Nation
Have you heard the story of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man diagnosed with “schizophrenia” who was beaten to death by 4 policemen last July in Orange County, California?
It’s reemerged as a topic of discussion recently because of an Op-Ed piece published in the Los Angeles Time by a psychiatric survivor named Carmelo Valone. Entitled “My Kelly Thomas Moment,” the author makes no bones about it: this could have been him.
I had my Kelly Thomas moment on a hot summer night in Boston in 1995…The Boston police officers who responded that night weren’t exactly boy scouts when they restrained me, but I did live to see another day. Because of that, I’ve had the chance to improve, something Thomas didn’t get….
It would be easy to conclude that Thomas was homeless by choice because he refused to take medication to treat a range of symptoms that had been diagnosed as schizophrenia. But things are more complex than that. I myself have never been truly homeless, but I have refused mental healthcare on many occasions, often when I was at my most vulnerable… I am today a functional part of this dysfunctional world we call Los Angeles, and it has been quite a while since I needed any form of inpatient treatment. But there have been times — and this is not an easy thing to admit — when mental illness took over my life.
– Carmelo Valone, in “My Kelly Thomas Moment”
Fact of the matter is— when it comes to alternative experiences of reality, or “mental health challenges” (if you’d like to call them that), psychosis, mania, extreme emotional states; fact of the matter is, it could be any of us.
As a society we long to place the mentally ill in some kind of category separate from the rest of human existence, so that we can chant blindly to ourselves “this would never happen to me, this would never happen to me.” Folks, that’s dehumanization; and aside from being a terrible way to handle the blessing that is human difference! individuality!, it also leads to all sorts of behaviors that are absolutely unacceptable. Like forced electroshock.
Like beating a man to death in the street.
Back to the testimony of psychiatric survivor Carmelo Valone.
Valone was interviewed briefly by Neil Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” yesterday. I highly recommend you check it out. He expressed himself admirably, even in the face of some very negative opposition (check out the caller – a psychiatrist – at 11 minutes in… YIKES!). Through it all, he maintained a position that I applaud: namely, that the behavior of a person like Kelly Thomas or himself comes primarily from not being heard, from being stigmatized and isolated by his label, from being made hopeless by the lack of compassion from his fellow men, from being dehumanized.
Some stand-out moments:
VALONE: […] I almost – I almost want to say that these police officers were the mentally ill ones, and Kelly Thomas was the sane one in the situation. I mean, they tasered him. They smashed him with the taser, buttons, the flashlights. They broke his throat. I mean, it’s horrifying. I mean, I had nightmares about it for months, and I feel very badly for his family.
CONAN: Of course, the police officers have something to say on their side, as well. They felt threatened by someone who is out of control.
VALONE: He had no weapons though, you know? He had no weapons. He wasn’t posing any sort of threat from what the witnesses say.
– From Valone’s interview on “Talk of the Nation”
VALONE: […] I didn’t become violent because I stopped taking my medication. I was violent because I was frustrated because no one was listening to me, OK? This is a problem I’d heard, time and time again, because I have friends that are in the psychiatry field – a number of them. And people seem to equate not taking the medication with violence.
– From “Talk of the Nation”
Who’s on Trial?
2 of the 4 officers involved in the death of Kelly Thomas will stand trial, one for second-degree murder and the other for involuntary manslaughter. But let’s not pass it all off on them. WE – as a society of humans – need to examine ourselves. Why are the homeless so maligned? Why are the mentally ill shunted off to the side, neither to be seen or heard as they struggle to speak about their experiences?
Let’s all take a close look at the myriad ways dehumanization darkens our coexistence. With warmth and a little loving kindness, perhaps we can shed some light on the reasons why, 15 years ago, Carmelo Valone wandered the streets of Boston, hopeless and without a voice; why Kelly Thomas walks the streets no more; and why so many of us can, heads held high, walk right past the suffering of our fellow human beings without a glance.