Well before the April 2 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, which claimed the lives of four soldiers — including Spc. Ivan Lopez, who killed himself after shooting three others — and wounded 16, the specter of soldiers and veterans killing themselves had alarmed academics, U.S. military leaders and government officials.
President Barack Obama said the nation needs to “end this epidemic of suicides among our veterans and troops.”
Since 2001, more than 3,000 Army soldiers, Marines, Air Force and Navy men and women, which doesn’t include National Guard and reserve troops not on active duty, have committed suicide. The worst year was 2012, when 349 service members killed themselves — twice the number as a decade before, and more than all the Americans (295) who died that same year in Afghanistan.
Veterans fared even worse. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs reports that every day 22 vets end their own lives — and that only includes data from 21 states, with Texas, Illinois and California not included. Moreover, suicides by homeless vets or those who intentionally die by note-less car crashes and drug overdoses aren’t counted.
A study published last month by the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) underscored the problem for the most recent vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The suicide rate for Iraq and Afghanistan vets had roughly doubled from the rate before 9/11, with more than 30 suicides per 100,000 from 2004 to 2009.
Why are soldiers and veterans killing themselves at a higher rate than civilians?
The generic reply is these mostly young men and women have witnessed firsthand the bloody reality of combat, and these life-changing experiences have led to their own self-demise. And an all-volunteer armed forces means that until recently one or two percent of Americans have borne the brunt of fighting two wars simultaneously. That means longer and multiple — as many as seven or eight — deployments.
But the massive NIMH study also found that the number of suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan vets had actually trebled for service members who weren’t deployed, never mind having been in combat. No explanation for this anomaly was given.
The Army, however, has found that a higher rate of suicide is associated with being a white man of junior enlisted rank with a recent demotion.
“Predictors of Army suicides were largely similar to those reported elsewhere for civilians, although some predictors distinct to Army service emerged that deserve more in-depth analysis,” a report on The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members stated in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. “The existence of a time trend in suicide among never-deployed soldiers argues indirectly against the view that exposure to combat-related trauma is the exclusive cause of the increase in Army suicides.”
“Any one variable in isolation doesn’t explain things,” Craig Bryan of the National Center for Veteran Studies at the University of Utah told the New York Times last year. “But the interaction of all of them do. That’s what makes it very difficult to solve the problem. And that’s why we haven’t made advances.”
rnFeeling ‘no hope’
Marriage and family therapist Mark Mitchell agrees that there’s no single reason for the higher suicide rates among modern day service members and veterans. The adjunct professor of addiction studies and the Center for Religion and Spirituality at Loyola Marymount University has counseled vets and their families since the end of the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, with his caseload growing during the last five years.
“Suicide among members of the military and veterans is a big problem,” he told The Tidings. “And the military really has rushed to intervene as quick as possible — to try to do something. But the programs are not working as well as they’d like them to be. So it’s very problematic, there’s no doubt about it.”
Mitchell believes the psychological condition of “flooding” happens in most cases, where an individual’s crowded negative thought patterns become that person’s reality. He says the troubled soul isn’t able to be “mindful” or get distance from these thoughts and feelings.
In short, the hurting service member can’t calm himself down or doesn’t have a relative, friend or counselor who can help. Add that to the military’s warrior culture, which demands taking direct action to solve problems, and the end result is too often suicide.
The cognitive behavior approach the military has adopted to promote mental health in its ranks is good, Mitchell says, but doesn’t ask the right fundamental coping questions: “As difficult as things are, do you know why things aren’t worse for you? As difficult as things are, do you know why you haven’t committed suicide?”
Simply by asking these queries, reminds the hurting soldier what he or she can do to prevent things from snowballing, he notes.
Among veterans having suicide ideation, Mitchell has found one basic issue. “The general reason is a feeling of no hope,” he explained. “For some of them, it’s no hope for peace of mind, and then no hope of an economic future.”
He recalls a commanding officer coming to him years ago, desperate for help. After doing a “lot of killing” in the line of duty, he believed there wasn’t any hope that he would ever find “peace of mind” again. The therapist’s approach was to zero in on even five minutes out of the day when the CO felt better and then to “exercise and train” that mental muscle.
Coming home and not finding work, of course, isn’t so easily remedied in today’s so-called “jobless” economic recovery with an unemployment rate of still 8 percent.
“I think the biggest thing that is missing is when these folks get out of the military, where are they going to find work?” he observed. “Especially with men. When men don’t have something to do, they create trouble — whether it’s juvenile delinquents or people my age or retirees. We’re ‘human-doers’ in addition to being human beings.
“And with the wind-down of the war in Afghanistan, 45,000 more soldiers will be coming home by the end of this year. Where are they going to find jobs? That’s an issue that worries me a lot.”
Loyola Marymount University is offering the pilot extension course “Healing the Soul: Veterans and their Families,” May 31, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. It will examine the best practices to help veterans and family members heal their spiritual and behavioral wounds. Designed for ministerial, mental health and veteran-related professionals, tuition is $95. Information: (310) 338-2799, [email protected] or http://extension.lmu.edu/crs.