My nephew Bryan and I have planned a 22 mile hike (details coming soon) to attempt to raise awareness of what I can only think of an epidemic-the high number of daily suicides among our veteran population on a daily basis. The inspiration for planning this hike can be found here. LINK
There was a number floating around for a time, “22”, that was claimed to be the average number of suicides committed by veterans on a daily basis. While in actuality the number isn’t that high, according to the research I’ve done veterans commit suicide at a rate 50% higher than the general population. That’s a glaring statistical anomaly.
One of the things that makes the United States of America great, in my opinion, is that service in the Armed Forces that protect our country is entirely voluntary in this day. That wasn’t always the case. However, there seems to be a disconnect between the government, and by extension the country whom the government serves, and the care of those who volunteered to serve in the armed forces. The care of veterans is a political “football” in every election cycle. Our current newly-elected president has promised to improve the care and services veterans receive from the government. I hope he will. However, there are other ways we can help, as individuals and as communities, and I hope to cover some of those in this article.
Both Bryan and I are former Marines, and we both love the outdoors and a challenging hike. We thought this would be a good opportunity to both raise awareness of this issue and get a tough hike under our belts. We are both trying to make our little corner of the world more aware that some of our country’s veterans have troubles and need help.
Why do veterans struggle so much after leaving the military? I have given the subject some thought, and come up with some possibilities. There are of course many veterans who re-integrate into civilian life seamlessly, but there are those who struggle, even if it’s not noticeable, with the transition. While these struggles aren’t exclusive to veterans, there are certain aspects of life in the military than can make veterans more susceptible to them. If not overcome, these struggles can lead to despair and worse. (Please note: this article is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive resource to veteran’s struggles, just one man’s thoughts upon reflection.)
Lack of Community
Typically, the men and women who serve in the armed forces are essentially children fresh out of high school when they join. They are then indoctrinated into a particular mindset. Their fellow servicemen and their branch of service come before all else. In the Marines, one of the unofficial mottoes is “God, Country, Corps… not necessarily in that order” insinuating that Corps should come first. “Band of Brothers”, “Comrades in Arms”… all these phrases promote and foster a strong sense of community. However, once a person leaves that close-knit group, suddenly they are adrift without the strong bonds that community offers.
How can we help? Reach out to the veterans you know. Encourage them to be active in the community they now live in. Let them know that the people in their new community care about them, and that they can play an integral role in their community just as they did in their military community.
Lack of Purpose
The men and women of our armed forces have volunteered for a noble cause. They have essentially volunteered to fight for, and if necessary sacrifice their lives for, their country and loved ones. This sense of purpose is a driving and motivating factor during their time of service. Once they leave their military service, suddenly they no longer have that sense of purpose to drive them, and they may lose their impetus and become confused as to “what’s next?”
How can we help? Reach out to the veterans you know. Encourage the veterans you know to serve in their community. Because their military career is over doesn’t mean they can’t be of service to their fellow man. There are a myriad of ways that veterans can serve in any community in which they find themselves, but they may not be aware of them. Reach out to the veterans you know with opportunities to be of use to those around them.
Lack of Discipline/Structure
While in the military, the men and women who serve have very structured lives. From the moment they begin their basic training, practically every minute of their day is accounted for, and they are told what to do and how to do it from the time they rise in the morning to the time they go to sleep at night. Especially in basic training, independent thought is discouraged, and to some degree that continues throughout their time of service. They are not individuals, they are part of a team or unit. Once they leave the service, they no longer have someone telling them when to wake up, when to go eat their meals, when to clean their living spaces, when and to what standards to do their jobs, and the hundreds of other daily routines military personnel are subjected to. I imagine astronauts have a similar feeling the first time they experience a gravity-free environment- adrift and floating.
How can we help? Reach out to the veterans you know. If they are struggling to achieve a routine, help them set goals and schedules. Gainful employment goes a long way to helping establish routine in their lives. If they’re having trouble finding a job, try to help, and also help them identify resources that exist specifically to help veterans find employment once their service is over.
There are sub-cultures within our armed forces, unfortunately, where morality is subverted, and harmful behavior is promoted. Two areas where this is most prevalent are the use of alcohol (or other substances) and promiscuous sexual activity. In some circles within our armed services, the more alcohol a person can drink, and/or the more sexual partners they can claim, the more praise is heaped upon them to reinforce these harmful behaviors and to encourage them to continue doing them. Without getting “preachy”, there is more than sufficient data out there to tell us that continuing in these destructive behaviors is the antithesis of beneficial to our veterans (or to anyone for that matter). Continued heavy use of alcohol could lead to alcoholism, health problems, trouble with law enforcement, other addictions… the list goes on ad infinitum. Continued promiscuous sexual activity could lead to contracting chronic or fatal STD’s, will certainly hinder finding a spouse and the fulfillment of raising a family (where all of the above mentioned struggles can be put to rest, by the way), and will ultimately lead to despair and disappointment.
What can we do? Reach out to the veterans you know. Discourage these destructive behaviors. If necessary, research and provide resources to veterans struggling with these behaviors.
A further consideration: for those veterans who have seen combat, and been witness to the horrors and injustices of war, these issues can become magnified in ways those of us who haven’t seen these things can not imagine. Additionally, if a veteran has been wounded in either training or combat, this can also be contributing factor. If you know a veteran who falls within this category, pay close attention, do research on groups and institutions who are especially equipped to handle these challenges, and be ready to help if necessary.
Hopefully the reader has noticed a recurring theme- Reach out to the veterans you know. Pay attention to them, let them know someone cares and help with their welfare when and where you can. And finally, I want to offer two institutions that can help any veteran overcome the difficulties listed above.
Church: The right church can provide a sense of community and closeness, a sense of purpose, add structure to a life lacking it and motivate a person to live an upright and moral life.
Family: A close-knit family can provide these things as well. Both combined will greatly help to overcome the adversities veterans face once they leave the military.
Our prayers go with our veterans, our service men and women, and our nation.