Since 2008, more than 60,000 U.S. veterans have taken their own lives, with more than half of those deaths via firearms.
When soldiers return home from war, many may feel that the worst is over: they made it back alive, and are now free to live lives free of the mortal risks of combat.
The reality, however, is much more complicated and alarming: more U.S. veterans have committed suicide between 2008 and 2017 than died during the entire Vietnam War. According to the defense news site Military.com, these alarming rates were shared earlier this fall in a report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The U.S. suffered around 58,000 fatalities over the course of the Vietnam War — which lasted from 1955 to 1975 — and these deaths made it one of the most culturally affecting wars of the post-WWII era. That conflict has now taken a back-seat to the ongoing crisis of U.S. veteran suicides, which has now claimed the lives of more than 60,000 U.S. veterans.
This utterly confounding statistic serves as a stark reminder that a focus on mental health for those returning from combat may be far more critical than treatment from physical injuries.
While the total number of veterans declined by 18 percent over the decade after 2008, the fact remains that more than 6,000 veterans committed suicide each and every year during that same timeframe.
The VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report also revealed that in more than half of veteran suicides, a firearm. Guns were the suicide method for 70.7 percent of male veterans in 2017, compared to 43.2 percent of female veterans that same year.
While the VA’s report didn’t account for how beneficial or effective its various mental health and outreach programs have been during the 10-year period there is clearly a critical need that is not being met as the rate of veteran suicide continues to increase with each and every passing year. According to Stars and Stripes, 6,139 veterans killed themselves in 2017, an increase of two percent over veteran suicides the previous year — and a total increase of six percent since 2008
The report also found that there’s an unnerving number of suicides among former National Guard and Reserve members. These veterans were never activated, as the military describes it, and thus have no access to VA services. Within this group, there were 919 suicides in 2017, a rate of 2.5 suicides per day.
In total, around 12.4 percent of all military suicides in 2017 came from this group. It was also the first year that the suicide rate for veterans reached 1.5 times the rates for non-veteran adults.
Unfortunately, the accompanying statement underlined just how complex of an epidemic this really is. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie essentially stated that the department is simply incapable of addressing the issue — that it needs help from the private sector to properly tackle it.
“VA is working to prevent suicide among all veterans, whether they are enrolled in VA health care or not,” he said.
“That’s why the department has adopted a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention, using bundled strategies that cut across various sectors — faith communities, employers, schools and health care organizations, for example — to reach veterans where they live and thrive.”
This new approach aims “to reach all veterans, even those who do not and may never come to us for care,” said Wilkie.
“We cannot do this alone,” added Dr. Richard Stone, the executive heading the Veterans Health Administration. “We call on our community partners to join us in this effort.”
The fact that the VA — which is exclusively focused on the physical and mental health of U.S. veterans — is struggling to fulfill its mandate should be alarming to every single citizen. One would think taxpayer money — a lot of which is allocated to the military budget — would help.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case as of yet. The Government Accountability Office reported in December 2018 that the VA left almost $5 million of its suicide prevention outreach budget unused, with social media posts, public service announcements, billboards, and advertisements all declining in 2017 and 2018 — though this trend is reportedly starting to head in the right direction in 2019.
Psychologist and leader of the National Center for Veterans Studies, Craig Bryan, explained that organizing these statistics into informative datasets could make budget allocations more effective — which would be a great start.
“The benefit of separating out subgroups is that it can help us identify higher-risk subgroups of the whole, which may be able to help us determine where and how to best focus resources,” he said.
According to Dr. Stone, meanwhile, the only current, viable approach is a concerted effort on behalf of every single institution that can help to do whatever they can.
“We will only be successful at preventing suicide if we break this work into actionable, manageable steps.”
After learning about the veterans’ suicide crisis that has claimed more U.S. soldiers’ lives than the Vietnam War, take a look at 22 portraits of U.S. veterans after a decade of war in the Middle East. Then, learn about the Vietnam veteran who died covered in ant bites at a Veterans Affairs hospital.