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.