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More U.S. veterans are dying by suicide than in combat. What are we going to do about it?

BY PATRICK GRIFFITH


For as long as wars have existed, they’ve been fought on two battlefronts — on the battlefield and in the mind. Only recently, however, have the mental-health tolls of combat been truly understood, or even acknowledged.


Since 2005, more veterans have died by suicide than the total number of U.S. troops who died in 30 years of war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. By 2018, suicide among veterans was more than 17 a day. And the number of military deaths by suicide jumped 25% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020.


But these deaths are preventable if Americans, legislators, and the Veterans Administration make veterans’ mental health their top priority.


A RAND study found that one-third of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD, depression, or a cognitive condition like traumatic brain injury, which has been linked to future mental health disorders. If one out of every three men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were struck by enemy fire, it would be national news. But because mental health is an invisible kind of suffering — and many veterans don’t seek help for it — its implications are often overlooked.


If today’s children and teens grow up believing our country doesn’t take care of its veterans, how can we expect them to want to join the military? Without a culture that renounces stigma and a system that prioritizes mental health, we can’t sustain the quality of forces we now have.


Sebastian Junger calls the bond shared between service members in war the “core experience of combat.” He writes in his book “War,” “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love, and is a profound and essential part of the experience.”


Because of this, one of the best ways we can honor those who have lost their lives in combat is to take care of their brothers and sisters who made it home. Most veteran suicides stem from post-combat PTSD, depression or substance abuse disorder (In 2017, a team of researchers studying data from more than 4.8 million veterans found that those with substance use disorders had twice the risk of suicide than civilians struggling with substance abuse). We need to tackle these issues together as a country — from everyday Americans to legislators in Washington, D.C.


Here are four things you can do:


▪ Call a veteran you know, even someone who “seems alright.”


▪ Be open about your own mental health struggles. Make it a part of our daily national conversation, so that we reduce the stigma associated with it.


▪ Donate to organizations such as America’s Warrior Partnership; Team RWB; Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS); Gold Star Families; and others that are addressing PTSD and mental-health challenges among veterans and their families.


▪ The MISSION Act is legislation, passed in 2018, that gives veterans greater access to healthcare in their communities if they can’t get a VA appointment. But veterans are still having issues accessing appointments, especially mental health services. It is one of the most common issues I hear about in my job every day. If you are having issues getting an appointment, contact Mission Roll Call and tell us your story and how it impacts you. Veterans have a unique perspective, and it needs to be heard.


As a nation, we must do better. We can do better. The steps we take toward ending veteran suicide today could end up saving the lives of our children or our children’s children in the future.


Patrick Griffith is the program director of Mission Roll Call. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army where he served as a noncommissioned officer in the 38th Ordnance Company Explosive Ordnance Disposal, supporting deployments to Africa, South America, and Afghanistan.

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