One of America's soldiers takes his own life every 36 hours, according to a frightening new report by the Center for a New American Security that came out last month. It concludes that military suicides challenge the concept of an all-volunteer fighting force because parents, mentors and guidance counselors would discourage such a dangerous career path.
The Army has reported an ever-increasing number of suicides that peaked in July 2011 with the deaths of 33 active and reserve component soldiers that were listed as suicides. Marine Corps suicides increased from 2006 to 2009, dipping slightly last year, while Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard suicide rates have been lower and more stable.
The Veterans Administration estimates that one of America's vets takes his own life every 80 minutes. But the VA's estimate that 18 vets a day kill themselves is based on limited data from the 16 states that report veteran status in their death data; that suicide rate is then extrapolated to the nation as a whole. So better data is critical to knowing exactly how many veterans end their own lives prematurely. Still, it's a plausible estimate, given that the Center for a New American Security also reports that only 1 percent of all Americans have served in the military, but former service members make up 20 percent of the nation's suicides.
Why is this happening?
In this blog, we've talked about the "wounded souls," the former soldiers plagued by guilt, shame and fear for what they have done (or failed to do) in combat; those emotional wounds can be a key reason for suicide.
The Center for a New American Security takes it a step further. It suggests that a sense of belonging, a feeling of usefulness, and an aversion to death and pain have traditionally protected individuals from suicide. But now, it says, military service weakens all three of those "protections." Soldiers bond to other members of their fighting unit more closely than they have ever done, but that unit is frequently altered when it returns stateside ... and that unity is shattered when a soldier is discharged. When a vet tries to find a civilian job as meaningful as saving the world, he feels useless ... and that feeling is strengthened if he's shuffling papers or unemployed. Finally, combat experience gives soldiers a closer knowledge of death and an increased tolerance for pain ... which can make suicide a less frightening alternative.
All those things happened to a young soldier in the Montana National Guard named Chris Dana.
Dana was a kid straight out of high school when he joined the Guard and was sent to Iraq with Montana's 163rd Infantry Battalion. His unit saw some tough fighting, but after he got back home to Helena in October 2005 he didn't talk about what he had done. Shortly after the 163rd returned, Dana's company was disbanded and he was ordered to drill with another company from Butte. Since he didn't know those guys and had a growing aversion to drills (a classic sign of post-traumatic stress disorder), he quit attending drills. After a number of threats, the Guard got rid of him with a less-than-honorable discharge and told him that he'd never be able to find a better job as a result. That hit home because Dana was just barely scraping by with a job at Target.
Dana's stepbrother Matt Kuntz, now executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was appalled by the situation. "A lot of people who have been our best soldiers and done our best work are getting real bad discharges," he said at the time. "He quit going to drills. He was so badly injured that he couldn't deal with the military anymore." Kuntz couldn't understand why the Guard didn't try to help his stepbrother. "Instead of going out and seeing him in a non-threatening way, they made his life a living hell," he said.
A week after he was booted out of the Guard, Dana put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
That suicide, however, had a remarkable effect. It changed the way Montana - and ultimately the nation - treated returning combat vets. We'll look at those reforms in the next several blogs. For a fuller account, however, see my book Faces of Combat: PTSD & TBI at www.facesofcombat.us.