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MSRC co-director Dr. Peter Gutierrez was among those interviewed for the article.
About 18 veterans kill themselves each day. Thousands from the current wars have already done so. In fact, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by their own hand is now estimated to be greater than the number (6,460) who have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eleven years of war in two operating theaters have taken a severe toll on America’s military. An estimated 2.3 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 800,000 of those service members have been deployed multiple times.
Pull up your local newspaper online and search “veteran suicide,” and you’re likely to come up with at least one link to a story. Based on data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, Mark Kaplan of Portland State University asserts that male veterans have a twofold increase in death by suicide over their civilian counterparts and that female veterans are three times as likely to kill themselves as their civilian counterparts. Veterans are 60 percent more likely to use a firearm in an attempted suicide than civilians, and firearms are the most effective way of taking one’s own life.
So why are these young veterans killing themselves at such high rates?
In 1992 I was in danger of becoming such a statistic, just released from the Marines after four years of service and combat action in Kuwait during the Gulf War. I know the suicidal temptation that can accompany the isolation and loneliness veterans experience after the high of combat and the brotherhood of arms fade in the rearview mirror. I skulked around college campuses with a watch cap pulled tight to my ears, looking for a threat, knowing that when it appeared, I could extinguish it. I took a swing-shift warehouse job that required very little human interaction. I became a writer, which also required very little human interaction. It took nearly two decades to find my way free of the morass.
While there is no one reason for any person’s suicide, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the military shy away from placing blame directly on the psychological and social costs of killing during combat.
No one within the VA will use the word “epidemic” when talking about suicide, but it can’t be denied that the rate of suicide among current-war veterans is drawing attention and concern. Before these current wars, the rigorous training and intense discipline of military service were considered a defense against suicide.
Even Peter Gutierrez of the Denver VA, codirector of the Military Suicide Research Consortium, concedes this fact. “The stresses of multiple deployments and the amount of time that troops have to reset between deployment probably is more a unique factor,” Gutierrez says. “It’s not necessarily increasing risk of suicide, but it is certainly having an impact ... Perhaps the protective influence of training is no longer enough. But we don’t have the data to back that up.”
Researchers and practitioners are unwilling to overtly connect the trauma of combat with suicidal tendencies. But why? They assert there is no evidence to support this link. However, when you teach a kid how to kill and send him to combat a few times, he will come home mightily changed, with a dependence on weaponry and a tendency to treat violence as a perfectly acceptable way of solving a problem.
What we do know is that something has clearly changed. “Up until the last 10 years, being in the military, including serving in combat, seemed to be a protective factor against suicide,” says Gutierrez. “[But now] in certain cohorts of active-duty personnel, the suicide rates are actually higher than in their civilian counterparts.”