That’s 1,892 former soldiers who have killed themselves since the beginning of 2014, according the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization (IAVA). But even that is a conservative number, some say, as there is no centralized system to track veteran suicides.
A recent poll found that more than half of post-9/11 veterans know at least one colleague who attempted or managed to kill themselves. For many, the list of friends lost to suicide is much longer.
Mental health is one of the greatest challenges facing returning soldiers, but a deadly combination of indifference, stigma, red tape, and government dysfunction are to blame for the sobering numbers. Citing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics, the IAVA claims that 22 ex-service members die by suicide every single day.
That was the message brought to Washington last week by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their supporters, in their annual “Storm the Hill” campaign, which aims to raise awareness among lawmakers about the struggles of returning service members. This year, suicide topped the list.
As part of the campaign, the group took to the National Mall, where they placed a flag for each vet lost to suicide this year.
Veterans and supporters placed a flag on the National Mall for every veteran who committed suicide in 2014. Photo via Storm the Hill.
Veterans’ campaigns often hit deaf ears. Many people like to nominally “stand” with the troops, but when it comes to supporting — and financing — the services they need after coming home from war, the backing is less firm.
IAVA, the largest network for veterans of the last two wars, hopes to change that and last week turned their campaign to combat suicide into a proposed bill, introduced on Thursday by US Senator John Walsh of Montana, the first Iraq vet to ever serve in the Senate.
“Far too often, we’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone,” Walsh said in a statement. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there.”
His “Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act” hopes to fight the problem with large reform to veterans’ access to care, including expanding special combat eligibility from five to 15 years, and repaying the medical loans of psychiatrists who sign up for long-term service with ex-soldiers.
The bill would also require the military to review its practice of handing out “bad conduct” discharges to members for behavior related to post-traumatic stress disorder — so disqualifying them from the little mental health services available to them under the VA system.
The department said it has taken steps to address the suicides, including by asking for additional funding for mental health issues. The VA provided mental health treatment to 1.4 vets last year — up from 900,000 in 2007.
“We have made strong progress, but we must do more,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement.
But with a suicide happening almost every hour, veterans’ advocates think they should do a whole lot more — though they add that suicide prevention is not just the responsibility of the VA. >