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Veteran Suicide: The Truth Behind The Numbers

A 20-passenger minibus full of local veterans crashed today, killing all – Imagine hearing that on the news every day. The public would demand to know why the buses have crashed, who is at fault, and how we fix it. When it comes to veteran suicide, we lack a definitive answer to these questions, so we continue to explore, question, and wonder what the hell is going on.

Programming

Military and civilians are wired differently, and the U.S. Government accomplished this purposefully. It takes a mindset most of us cannot even imagine doing the things expected of our service members, especially in wartime. Joining the military involves an indoctrination process. Marine Adam Gornall explains in his article, How I Deprogrammed From The Military, that to take a person and transform them into someone who will be “fit and ready to engage with the enemy,” they must “undergo a systematic reprogramming of the mind.”

Once a person enters the military, they attend basic training, essentially collective programming of the mind and body. In a study published in the European Journal of Psychology, researcher Phillippa Lally found on average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic – 66 days, to be exact. Basic training across service branches ranges from 8 weeks to 13 weeks. Coincidence? If you are someone, a civilian someone, and you have a veteran in your life, whether it be a friend, family member, or spouse, you have likely heard the canned response to any military-related inquiry, “You wouldn’t understand.”

The truth is, civilians won’t understand; they could never understand. Civilians lack the programming to understand. In author Kayt Sukel’s article for the Dana Foundation, How Military Service Changes the Brain, Sukel references findings from the 2017 Neuroscience press conference chaired by Colonel Deborah Whitmer, commander at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where studies are focused on military service affects on brain health. Kayt writes, “Soldiers may experience a variety of different blast exposures during their service, both in combat and during training.” In addition, Alaa Kamnaksh, a researcher at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Denes Agoston’s laboratory, says that most soldiers are exposed to five to twenty blasts on average – just during training.

Service members have been programmed and exposed to potential brain injury when they have completed basic training. In an article titled, Psychological Effects of Military Training, Banyan Treatment Centers argues, “…the psychological effects of military training alter the personality, emotional stability, and social function of the individual”. Banyan says, “The military can either change your perspective and morality in a positive way, granting you the opportunities to handle a situation in numerous efforts, or negatively impact your mentality, which may alter your personality to display vulnerability, aggression, and paranoia.” Do these opinions argue that civilians are okay and military folks are all screwed up? No, civilians have their issues to overcome. However, there is no denying the military experience is unique, challenging, and difficult to detach from.

Research led by Washington University in St. Louis suggests that military service, even without combat, has a subtle lingering effect on a person’s (sic) personality. Joshua J. Jackson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, shares, “it’s (military service) one of the few situations in life where an individual’s daily actions and expectations are completely controlled by someone else. From the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night, someone is actively working to break down anything individual about you and build something in its place.”

Transitioning

Now imagine it is over. Everything you have been programmed to do, think, and feel is gone. The incredible mind shock of reintegration into civilian society is exacerbated by the loss of community and social support of like-minded people. I’ve spoken recently to three veterans and asked them the same question, “How did you feel when you left the military?”.

Two of these veterans were officers with a rank of LTC or higher, and one was an enlisted soldier. All three of these veterans had served over 20 years in the military. The two officers described the transition to civilian life as “easy” and “uneventful” because they retired in the same town they lived and took contractor or GS (Government Employee) jobs which allowed them to remain in the same military environment. One described the transition as “going to the same job in different clothes.” In contrast, the enlisted soldier left the military, moved to a new state lacking a support structure, entered a new marriage, and found out the career he had planned for would not work out. “This,” he says, “took a toll and left me in a dark place where I found myself contemplating suicide.” Having been isolated with no sense of identity, purpose, or community, he found himself in a real battle for his life. These feelings of isolation and disassociation are core issues related to veteran suicide.

The Numbers

The Veteran Administration has made preventing suicide among all veterans a top priority. The 2022 National Veterans Suicide Prevention Annual Report shows a decrease in veteran suicide in 2020 for the second year in a row and that fewer veterans died by suicide in 2020 than in any year since 2006. Is there a correlation to the COVID pandemic of 2020, when everything from colds and flu to back pain was blamed on the pandemic? I say this because in a contradictory story published that very same month and just days before the Veterans Administration report, Leo Shane III’s article in Military Times reports veterans’ suicide rate may be double federal estimates. The article points out the discrepancy exists because of undercounting related to drug overdose deaths and service record errors. Does anybody know the actual number of veterans we lose to suicide? Shane states, “…officials from America’s Warrior Partnership, in a joint study with the University of Alabama and Duke University, reviewed census death data from 2014 to 2018 for eight states and found thousands of cases of suspected or confirmed suicides not included in federal calculations.” He goes on to point out, “if those figures were to be repeated across the other states, it would push the veteran’s suicide rate from 17 individuals a day (the official estimate released by the Department of Veterans Affairs last year) to 44 veterans per day.

Most of us have heard “22 a Day,” which represents the loss of 22 veterans per day to suicide. According to Wes O’Donnell, managing editor at InMilitary.com and a veteran, “The problem is that the number 22 is built on a false narrative.” He explains, “…this number is based on a Veteran Affairs report in 2012 using numbers reported from only 21 States from 1999 through 2011, representing only 40% of the U.S. Population.” Wes states, “The other states, including those with massive veteran communities, like California and Texas, don’t report suicides to the VA.” Wes says, “…we should be using the number “22” as a starting point or bare minimum.”

Veteran Suicide What Are We Doing About It?

This article does not contain a solution to veteran suicide. It does, however, propose a new kind of community involvement that allows us to come together (civilian and military) to save the lives of our neighbors. Mission Daybreak, a program of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, is searching for grassroots involvement and problem-solving. The VA has created a $20 Million grand challenge through Mission Daybreak to reduce Veteran Suicide. The VA called on innovators to develop suicide prevention solutions that could meet the diverse needs of veterans. The Goal: transform how our nation addresses suicide by engaging veterans, community-based organizations, health tech companies, startups, and universities that are not traditionally engaged in suicide prevention.

The community (not clinical) involvement of the actual service members who are struggling with suicide is a crucial component in identifying the problems that lead to suicide. Mission Daybreak awarded $250,000 to 30 finalists and $100,000 to 10 ‘Promise Award’ recipients for a total of 8.5 million in funding in the challenge’s Phase 1. Phase 2 will award 3 million dollars to two first-place winners, with three second-place winners receiving 1 million and five third-place winners receiving $500,000 each. Identity, purpose, and camaraderie are significant influences on veteran suicide. With good intentions, some popular veteran and civilian groups create segregation. We need to grow Community Connectedness which can foster interactions with friends, family, neighbors, peer groups, and community organizations, suggest the Rural Health Information Hub.

The RHIhub lists initiatives to reach connectedness as support groups, community-wide events, mentoring, and buddy programs. Initiatives can include expanding volunteer opportunities to increase social interaction and instill a sense of purpose, worth, and accomplishment while giving back to the community.

For veteran identity and purpose, a community must provide opportunity and inclusion. Employers must learn to align military experience with their job requirements (see our story on Oplign & Vetlign). For camaraderie, no matter how much community we give veterans, they still need a place they call their own. VFWs and American Legions have historically been that place, but with post-9/11 veterans, there may be a need for a more modern and inclusive place for families.

No matter what, it is a process to build collaboration and a sense of community for our veterans. We can start by joining forces with all the incredible organizations working toward these goals. VAN has found you can name a veteran need, and there is likely an organization out there that can help. What’s best is these organizations offer alternatives to clinics and hospitals. They provide a real opportunity for friendship, support, and the camaraderie needed to battle feelings of isolation and disassociation. Our mission at VAN is to bring together a network of these organizations that can work together, support each other, and reach a larger population of veterans with different interests, hobbies, and ideals.

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