American soldiers are killing themselves in record numbers. Janet Lial, lead suicide prevention coordinator for the Veterans Administration for Nevada, Northern California and Hawaii, attributes this to the war in Afghanistan that is making unprecedented use of citizen soldiers who are required to leave their families and jobs for lengthy, frequent deployments, with little time to rest in between.
June was the worst month ever, with 32 confirmed or suspected U.S. Army suicides, including 21 among active-duty troops and 11 among National Guard or Army Reserves on active duty. Ten of those who killed themselves had been deployed two to four times. Seven soldiers killed themselves while in combat.
This is despite renewed efforts by the military to change the long-held notion that psychological stress is a weakness.
Besides active-duty soldiers, “no one really knows how many veterans die by suicide,” said Dr. Janet Kemp, the national mental health director for suicide prevention in the Veterans Administration (VA).
But the VA does know that the rate of veteran suicide is increasing and that veterans kill themselves at approximately twice the rate of other Americans. Kemp said the best estimate is that veterans are killing themselves at the rate of one every 80 minutes.
But the VA obtains its information from VA offices, such as the one in Redding, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. So the number of veteran suicides could be far higher because many veteran suicides are not reported to the VA.
“Veterans” are or were soldiers who are not on active duty, and, therefore, not working for the Department of Defense.
Efforts are being made to get the states to obtain that information and provide it to the VA, Kemp said.
Veterans kill themselves for many of the same reasons that people in the general population do, primarily “hopelessness,” Kemp said. However, veterans are unique in that they have had exposure to combat and trauma. The number of tours may be related to the likelihood of suicide, due to the “increased opportunity for exposure to traumatic situations,” she said.
Further, younger veterans deal with both “relationship issues” and substance abuse when they return.
There is no breakdown concerning the age groups of veteran suicides. However, Kemp said there are more Vietnam-era veterans killing themselves than other war veterans. That follows the general finding that older, middle-aged men kill themselves more frequently than men in other age groups.
They are going through “normal life transitions,” she said. But, she added, “A lot of them have had problems that were never dealt with, including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and substance abuse. We didn’t do it right for Vietnam veterans.”
She said that the VA is trying to take better care of the veterans of the current war. So far, fewer veterans with traumatic injuries are killing themselves because they are in active treatment, she said. “We are going to have to watch them closely. We have a long road ahead of us.”
Lial said the VA became concerned about the issue in 2004 and started the Veterans Suicide Prevention Line in 2007. They later changed the name to Veterans Crisis Line because neither soldiers, nor anyone else, wants to talk about suicide.
According to figures provided by the VA, more than 132,000 calls have been made to the VA Crisis Line thus far in 2012. Since the line was initiated, there have been more than 626,000 calls. Although the hotline is billed as confidential, law enforcement may be notified if the caller is in “imminent danger,” Kemp said.
“In many communities, the only service available is law enforcement,” she said.
Hotline operators try to get the callers to explore available resources. “We stay on the line with them,” Kemp said. She added that “there are hundreds of thousands of people who call, and we never know who they are.”
Callers are divided into three groups: “emergency callers,” “urgent callers who can get themselves to help or are people we can help,” and “routine callers who want referrals. We help them find someone.” Routine callers are the largest group. “They have a safety plan, and we are part of that,” Kemp said.
Congress has approved funding for 1,600 additional mental health counselors. Lial said there are nine VA medical facilities in her area, including the one in Redding, which is seeking to hire one person. Besides hiring more personnel, the VA is training all staff members to be on the lookout for suicidal indicators among the people they serve.
The VA has also made it easier to submit post-traumatic stress claims. And, in what Lial called an “unprecedented” move, the VA is teaming up with the Department of Defense to help veterans make a “seamless” transition from military to civilian life.
Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.