Your Montana Public Radio
Commentary - July 16th, 2013
Mon July 22, 2013
This is Dan Gallagher with Veteran’s Viewpoint.
“To be or not to be…,” Hamlet asked rhetorically. “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”
Suicide; is it the final plea for help, a desperate call for recognition, the ultimate acknowledgment that things will get no better and that ending life is better than enduring it, or a concluding statement of defiance against a life flooded with hurt--a closing act of taking authority over the world? Or is it an act of true nobility, as Shakespeare asked?
Or, in the case of the frighteningly large number of contemporary soldiers and veterans who are taking their own lives, could it be a tragic application of the code of the warrior--echoing notes of both strength and surrender?
Whatever the driving force behind it, suicide among our soldiers and veterans has reached epidemic proportions, especially here in Montana.
And the dual questions that the military, veterans’ advocates, and all American citizens in whose name these soldiers served and fought must urgently find an answer to are these: Why is it happening, and what can be done to stop it?
A recent story by Troy Carter in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle offered some pretty shocking data. For instance, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reported that, in 2010, the rate of veteran suicide in Montana--66.5
suicides per every 100,000 persons--was nearly five times the overall national suicide rate. And in Montana, which has the third highest overall suicide rate of all states in the Union, the suicide rate among veterans was three times higher than the state’s overall suicide rate.
All sorts of ‘why’ questions spring to mind. Why would someone who had witnessed combat death and survived the horror of war later choose to employ that core method of horror to end his own life? Surely, in a situation where so many others died and in which ending life was considered acceptable, even expected, coming out alive must be seen a Divine gift--something even more precious to a veteran than to those who never had to experience war. Yet, suicide runs strongest in the veteran community.
After enduring war, what in civilian life could possibly compare to war to such an extent that the veteran would find it unendurable?
Why is veteran and soldier suicide more common among veterans of Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan than it was among previous generations of veterans? Oh, sure, it existed prior to the 1960s, but it was certainly not as prevalent as it has been among veterans of the last fifty years. And, no, this statistic is not merely a tracking deficiency--the numbers truly are greater now than then.
Could some of the reason for that change in numbers be due to how we approached war prior to Vietnam? Back then we sang about war, we made it heroic, and we sterilized war’s ugliness for public entertainment. And, with our military-macho code, we told those veterans who carried the war through life in their minds to “suck it up”, “be a man”, “get over it”.
Who knows, maybe that attitude actually helped keep some veterans alive back then.
Of course, it’s always easier to endure such ugliness when there is a noble cause behind the effort and when we’re on the winning side--and we always used to assume that the American ‘cause’ was noble, and we were always on the winning side, from the Revolution to the World Wars and Korea. And everyone loves a winner, especially the winners!
Maybe that’s part of the mix--we just aren’t fighting winnable wars any more.
And finally, why is the suicide problem among veterans so severe in Montana--under the beautiful Big Sky? I can’t answer that one, although some people who deal with the topic say that it has to do with our economy, a western culture that eschews psychological counseling, a greater reliance on alcohol to
self-medicate, and the distance veterans must travel to facilities whose job it is to help veterans.
Personally, I think that the limited VA presence in the state, and/or its lack of accessibility is high on the list of reasons.
So, what can be done? Obviously, acquiring more services
and facilities to care for veterans should be part of any solution, as
would a more user-friendly veterans assistance process--the current method is an outrage and a disgrace.
Providing returning veterans with more--and more meaningful--re-employment and educational and family-wellness programs and opportunities seems a good place to start.
The present issue of veteran/soldier suicide has a multitude of causes and would-be explanations--multiple re-deployments and the erosion of trust and stability that results being among those that I think top the list.
And war, itself, by it’s very nature, likewise sets the stage for the thought processes that might make suicide seem a preferred or acceptable resolution for soldiers and veterans filled with hurt.
But whatever the cause and whatever the affected soldier/veteran’s problem might be, the self-inflicted deaths of so many of those whom our country has sent to war must become a major issue for our government and our people.
No matter what cost must be borne finding some degree of solution, the cost to our society and our heritage if this problem continues to run amok is much, much greater.
This is Dan Gallagher with Veteran’s Viewpoint.