What can be done about soldier suicides?
There were two big news stories last week relating to veterans, one concerning suicides, the other concerning jobs. The subjects are not unrelated.
Military suicides rose to record levels in 2012, with as many as 349 (239 confirmed and 110 being investigated as probable). This epidemic, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has rightly called it, is occurring even with the war in Iraq having ended for American troops and the one in Afghanistan winding down. (In fact, the 349 suicides far exceeded the number of combat deaths last year in Afghanistan.)
The suicides included both active and reserve personnel, occurred overseas and at home, during and between deployments, with family members around and not.
The reasons aren’t necessarily related to the stress of combat, but most of the dead soldiers presumably served in at least one of those extremely challenging war zones, and one of those multiple deployments the military has come to rely on. That’s bound to take a psychological toll, and can easily lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Add to that the difficulty of adjusting to a routine military and domestic life after one’s tour is over, or the prospect of civilian life after one’s military career is over (an increasingly likely prospect as the wars end and the force is shrunk), and the problems are exacerbated. Then add such things as failed romantic relationships, alcohol use and guns, and the chances of suicide become that much greater.
The same factors are at play with veterans, who have a higher suicide rate even than active personnel. They also suffer from high unemployment, partly due to the perceptions that they’re unstable and their military skills aren’t transferable to the civilian world.
But veterans can be very good employees. They are mission-oriented, quick learners and team players, which makes them excellent candidates for disaster relief projects. FEMA, and the various agencies it funds, should make it a point to use them.
So should other companies, small as well as large. And one of the largest, Walmart, intends to do just that. Last week’s second big story involving vets was Walmart’s promise to hire 100,000 of them over the next five years.
One last thing troubled veterans need are places to help them make the transition back to civilian life. Places like the retreat that a group called Homeward Bound Adirondacks has been planning for the village of Saranac Lake, where vets and their families can go for some rest, recreation, counseling, medical care, etc., in a beautiful mountain setting. This worthy project has stalled for lack of a $7.2 million commitment over three years the group has sought from the federal government.
A nation that spends hundreds of billions to train soldiers and send them to war should be able to find a few million to bring them home and successfully reintegrate them into society. It must also do more to make sure they get to that point, to keep them from killing themselves before they leave military service.