I’m tired of it. I’m so damn tired of receiving phone calls and emails from family members devastated by the suicide of their loved one. Sons. Daughters. Husbands. I’m tired of it because I was almost one of those suicides. As a wounded warrior myself and someone who used to believe everyone’s life would be better without me in it, I take this issue personally.
The most recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs reveals that veterans are taking their own lives at a rate of 22 each day, or 1 suicide every 65 minutes — a 20 percent increase from 2007. Even more gruesome, last year we saw more suicides than combat deaths (349 to 295, according to the latest Pentagon figures).
The suicide epidemic among active-duty servicemembers and veterans does not stem from one area alone and there is not one simple fix, pill or type of treatment to address all the complex issues the incredible men and women who either wear or have worn the uniform now face.
Part of the blame lies squarely with the media and its portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It seems the only time this issue is given credence is when the story is sensational enough to garner ratings. Yet close to a half million returning servicemembers struggle every day with the symptoms of combat stress, survivor’s guilt or PTSD. We are not “damaged goods.” We are wounded warriors; human beings experiencing a natural reaction to unnatural situations. Like everyone else we have our ups and downs and strive to live our best life.
Every day we see young men and women with families completing multiple combat tours with very little down time between deployments. When they return home, they are faced with the growing fear, oftentimes driven by media, of how those facing the challenge of PTSD can be detrimental to the workplace and their communities. They struggle not to let their families, friends and battle buddies down when in reality those people are their greatest supporters. Most of us mistakenly believe that confusion, depression and guilt are weaknesses and personal failings.
With 34,000 more men and women getting ready to end their campaign in Afghanistan, the work on the home front to help these warriors in the reintegration process will only become tougher. Yet, we know the current landscape: a complete lack of sufficient mental health care providers in the VA, geographical challenges for warriors not near a VA facility, and an overall system ill-prepared for the number of veterans seeking effective treatment.
As executive vice president for Warrior Relations at Wounded Warrior Project, it is my hope to raise awareness to the multitude of issues these incredible individuals face, in hope that real impact can take place. WWP recently presented its legislative priorities on Capitol Hill, pressing for a collaborative effort by the VA, Department of Defense, House and Senate committees, as well as executive branch departments to ensure wounded warriors successfully transition to civilian life.
We urge the closing of gaps to improved mental health care of warriors and their families while helping to ensure access to optimal, long-term rehabilitative care for severely wounded warriors, and needed support for their caregivers. The VA cannot do this alone and must start to use the available community resources to implement meaningful and effective change.
We are not simply offering solutions — we are also taking action. Over the next six months, WWP will launch five pilot programs, including peer-facilitated support groups, a distinct telephone helpline providing nonclinical, emotional support for wounded warriors and an insurance program that will provide private mental health services.
We know PTSD and other war-related mental health conditions can be treated successfully. It is my hope that we as a nation start to take this seriously — that we stop repeating the mistakes of the past.
I lay blame not on the DOD or the VA, but on all of society. This starts with the leaders of this country and then continues to every single American to become educated about the issues and to not just stand by and wait for another warrior to commit suicide. If you can help a warrior or his or her family, please take the first step.
If you cannot personally help, support those who are and urge our leaders at the local, regional and national levels to put aside parochial interests and take the lead. Help us prevent wounded warriors from falling through the cracks and being forgotten. This is a problem for all of us and together we can help those who served our nation.
John Roberts is executive vice president for Warrior Relations of New York-based Wounded Warrior Project.