What can be done about soldier suicides?

Sunday, January 20, 2013
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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.

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January 21, 2013
8:32 a.m.
biwemple says...

This country's laws should require that if we go to war, we re-institute the draft (without any non-medical exemptions) for the duration of that war. We should make sure that this entire nation shares in this burden if we make the decision to go to war instead of less than 1% of the population. It would certainly bring about a quick end because it would be so politically unpopular. It's ridiculous we send such a small number of our kids over for multiple deployments while most of our society sacrifices nothing to help end these wars.

January 21, 2013
10:25 a.m.
tonijean613 says...

biwimple - TOTALLY AGREE ! But I would like to add- Many (not all) join the military out of desperation and lack of any other option out of poverty.

January 21, 2013
1:49 p.m.
robbump says...

another AGREE with biwemple. When one looks at the 2 WW's we went through, the civilian world was asked to help too: conservation, paper drives, saving resources, war bonds ... etc. Everyone shared in the war effort. Even during VietNam, due to the draft there was a sharing of the "dirty work". Today, the only ones that truly shoulder the burden are the service-people and their families, many of them over and over again. Time for all to sacrifice.

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