This month three sailors assigned to the USS George H.W. Bush committed suicide all within a week, two of them on the same day.[i] As of August 1st, 2019 a total of 78 Air Force personnel have taken their lives this year.[ii] In 2018 a total of 541 American service members died by their own hands.[iii] And 6,139 veterans committed suicide in 2017 according to the Veterans Administration.[iv] The aforementioned numbers add up to 6,761 souls we have lost to suicide in just two years, far too many. There are also countless families, friends and teammates left behind to grieve these tragic losses. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have wound down significantly over the past decade, we are failing our veterans and losing a ferocious battle at home – suicide.
THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION
“A federal investigation found last year that the money and effort expended by the VA on suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly in 2017 and 2018, despite it being touted by the past two VA secretaries as their top clinical priority. The Government Accountability Office reported in December  that the VA left nearly $5 million unused in its suicide prevention outreach budget.”[i]
How is it possible a cash-strapped government agency could leave $5 million on the table for suicide prevention? Imagine that money being used for outreach programs and counseling. Imagine the lives that could have been touched and possibly saved by those programs if funded. For example, service dogs for those suffering from PTSD in lieu of opioid prescriptions.
On June 5th, 2019, Representative John Rutherford (R-FL), joined by Representatives Michael Waltz (R-FL), Al Lawson (D-FL) and Gil Cisneros (R-CA), introduced bi-partisan legislation that would require the Veterans Administration to fund grants for service dogs to eligible veterans with PTSD.[ii] The importance of this bill is very simple: the price of obtaining a service dog can range from $5,000 – $12,000 and the cost usually falls entirely on the veteran, most of which do not have the means to afford such an animal.[iii]
However, according to congressional sources familiar with the bill, the proverbial can got kicked down the road and it will not be addressed until fiscal year 2020. Allegedly an ongoing VA study is acting as the log jam for the legislation. However, this is only a partial truth as the study was originally mandated by congress in 2010, only to be halted in 2012 due to “further problems”.[iv] Maybe we should ask VA Secretary Wilkie and his predecessors if veteran suicide was such a priority why has it taken nine years to decide whether or not canines are a suitable method of care for those with PTSD?
THE ACTIVE, RESERVE, & GUARD COMPONENTS
Our active forces are seeing just as bad a scourge as their counterparts who have left the service (Author Note: by “active” I mean all forces still affiliated with the military on active duty, reserve, or national guard status). With 541 suicides in 2017, it has become an epidemic. In 2018 the Marine Corps hit a ten year high with 77 Marines taking their own lives.[i] The Commandant recently had some sobering words about how the Corps needs to address the problem.
“Every Marine and Sailor must work together to be engaged in each other's lives. Just as we talk about physical fitness, marksmanship, training and education. Marines must also be comfortable discussing life's struggles, mental wellness and suicide.” – General David Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps
It is an even more bleak situation in the National Guard. In 2018 the suicide rate among guard troops was 30.6 per 100,000 compared to their non-military/non-veteran, civilian counterparts, which was 14.0 per 100,000 (2017; latest data available), more than double. While the guard is implementing programs to combat these levels, they are still in the pilot phase in only five states and not available to all members.
THE WAY FORWARD
If the military and the VA are letting us down, what can be done? I know it is a stock answer to say “VOTE” or “CALL YOUR CONGRESSMAN”, but it is the truth. If you are one to complain about the problems yet take no action, then you’re just in the way. Get up, get out, and act.
Get involved with non-profit organizations like 22 Until None that have a sole mission in life to combat and end veteran suicide. Donate a dollar or one-hundred dollars. If you can’t afford to donate money, then donate your time and help to raise money for them.
Be aware of the veterans that you know around you – family, friends, or coworkers. Some folks exhibit some pretty telling signs that something may be wrong. Anything from substance abuse, relationship disputes, financial problems, even trouble with the law are all red flags. Be someone they can talk to and lean on for help. You never know, you might save someone’s life one day.
If you or someone you know are in crisis and need someone to talk to, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There is someone there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! The hotline has specialists for veterans and active service members.
P.T. Lynch is a veteran of U.S. Army Special Forces and the Marine Corps. He served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and other inhospitable locales around the world. He is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia trying to live a quiet and peaceful life while doing the one thing he loves the most in the world, raising his daughter. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this post or any other veteran issues.
[i] Athey, P. (2019, September 30th). Marines must ‘be comfortable discussing life’s struggles’ commandant says to Corps’ 10-year-high suicide rate. Retrieved from the Marine Corps Times.
[i] Wentling, N. (2019, September 20th). VA says veteran suicide rate is 17 per day after change in calculation. Retrieved from Stars & Stripes.
[ii] DoD Press Release. (2019, June 5th). Bipartisan Legislation to Pair Service Dogs with Veterans Suffering from PTSD. Retrieved from Rep. John Rutherford.
[iii] Roberts, J. (2019, June 12th). Bill introduced in Congress would make service dogs more accessible to veterans. Retrieved from NBC-WGRZ.
[iv] VA Article. (2015, March 24th). VA restarting study on service dogs and PTSD. Retrieved from Veterans Administration.
[i] Schladebeck, J. (2019, September 24th). Three Navy sailors assigned to USS George H.W. Bush commit suicide in ‘separate, unrelated incidents’ in same week. Retrieved from NY Daily News.
[ii] Losey, S. (2019, August 1st). With deaths by suicide rising, Air Force orders resiliency stand-down. Retrieved from Air Force Times.
[iii] Department of Defense. (2019, September 13th). Annual Suicide Report. Retrieved from Department of Defense.
[iv] Wentling, N. (2019, September 20th). VA says veteran suicide rate is 17 per day after change in calculation. Retrieved from Stars & Stripes.