22 Vets a Day. True/False? Does It Matter?

Twenty-two.  That’s the number you’ll often see associated with veterans who suicide–twenty-two per day.

I’ve seen a couple of reactions to it.  Some think it means that service members are coming back from deployments messed up and killing themselves in extremely high numbers.  Others dismiss the number, say it gives us a bad name; they point out that most veterans who suicide are older, so we should not think there is a crisis, and we should just tell people how great we veterans are.

Now, yes, we do need to consider carefully the 22/day figure. It comes from a 2012 VA report which extrapolated from partial data from 21 states. The number does not refer to OEF/OIF vets.  It includes veterans of all wars, and about 70% of those who suicide are over 50.  And a 2011 Rand report pointed out that when you adjust for the fact that the military is young and male, the military suicide rate is really not that much different from the general population.  Other studies have shown no correlation between deployment and suicide.  And comparing what we know about veterans to the latest CDC study, there is a correlation between vets and the general population in which suicide has been increasing since 1999, especially among men over 45.

Yes, we need to understand these qualifications of the data.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problem. I say this, because this is not a theoretical issue for me.  It isn’t a matter of data and its interpretation.  When I think of service members and veterans and suicide, I see the faces of those I have known who are no longer with us, and the faces of their families and friends I have seen at the funerals and memorial ceremonies I have led.

In this post, I could focus on numbers.  I’m not going to.  I’m going to reflect on data that’s readily available, and on my own experience.  In my first ten years in the Guard and Reserve (1986-1996), I knew one soldier who suicided.  Since rejoining in 2009, I’ve known four more.  In 2012, I did casualty notifications for two active duty soldiers who died by suicide.   Suicide is now one of the focuses of my ministry in the National Guard, and as a chaplain in the VFW and American Legion. I do suicide interventions on a regular basis, and I teach suicide intervention (ASIST).

What’s going on?  Well, if I can generalize based on my own experience and the research I have read, there are some patterns that connect military suicides with civilian suicides.  There is usually an experience of a loss (relationship, financial, job, whatever).  There is a sense of isolation.  A number of young adults have lower resilience; many come from single parent homes without a male role model.  Many are overwhelmed by the stresses of life. Young soldiers face the issues of other young adults; older veterans face the issues of other older adults.

But let’s not use those numbers and those profiles to obscure the fact that many service members do have issues when they leave the military and when they return from deployment.  Many do have a hard time readjusting.  Many are haunted by images of what they have seen and been subjected to (PTSD) and what they have done or failed to do (moral injury).  And they don’t often talk about these things.

Service members and veterans die by suicide.  And it is a tragedy.  More die by suicide than in combat.  That’s something we need to pay attention to. And we need to be more intentional in addressing it as a society.

The military response is to mandate annual training on suicide prevention.  Some bases have implemented ASIST training for all personnel.  The bottom line is to train service members to be responsive to “warning signs” in their buddies.  But that’s easier for soldiers in barracks on active duty than it is for those in the Guard and Reserves, who are seen by their fellow soldiers a couple days a month.  It’s easier for service members than it is for veterans, large numbers of whom have no connection to a Veteran Service Organization or to the Veterans Administration.

So what can we do?  We need a coordinated effort between the Active Components, Reserve Components, VA, VSOs, and community mental health and faith-based organizations.  We need to train service officers and other VSO leaders in suicide intervention techniques.  We need to coordinate efforts of VSOs so that veterans find it easier to make connections and to access services.

Traditional VSOs like the VFW and the American Legion need to be more proactive in reaching out to younger veterans, going where they are, structuring activities so that they are more inviting and attractive to younger veterans.  They can learn from new organizations like Team Rubicon, Team Red White and Blue, Mission Continues, and so many others.

Churches need to be made aware of the veterans in their midst, and their gifts and needs. They can invite chaplains to preach, and to train clergy on ministry with service members and veterans.

I think we need to convey two messages.  Veterans do have real issues, and need to know the community is there for them.  At the same time, veterans have great gifts, and the community needs to know that veterans are eager to use them for the good of the community.  Talking about one does not cancel out the other.  This is not a “zero-sum game.”

I talk with employers and with churches about the gifts of veterans.  But I’m also going to talk about the issues we face, and the challenges.  Because the solution to those problems is a community that cares and is engaged in the lives of veterans. And the community will engage with us and care about us when they see that we are a living part of it.