The War On Terror is over; the battle against veteran suicide still rages
Veterans need more than mental health services
This article originally appeared on the Dallas Morning News
More than 3.74 million Americans served at least one tour on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. We lost thousands to combat. But as America comes to grips with the end of the global War On Terror after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, we continue to lose thousands from another, more sinister cause — suicide. Since that fateful September morning 21 years ago, we’ve lost more than four times as many veterans to preventable suicide than to combat operations. On this somber anniversary, we should reflect on this issue and commit ourselves to reverse this trend.
Veterans between the ages of 18 and 35 take their lives at a rate two and a half times that of their civilian peers, contributing to an appalling total of 30,177 active duty and veteran suicides since 9/11. The sheer scope of the issue should promote an increased sense of urgency for government officials and communities across the country who wish to uphold our sacred obligation to honor those who served by enabling their successful transition to the civilian world.
Why is this happening at such an astonishing rate? That is difficult to say. But it is clear that veterans of the War On Terror face issues that are unique to their generation. They are almost twice as likely to have served in a combat zone than the generations who came before them, increasing the odds of acquiring physical or psychological scars. Indeed, a Pew Research survey found that “roughly half say they had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences related to their military service.”
Other factors could include the war’s prolonged length and multiple deployments, stress on family structures, detached communities, and the nature of fighting insurgencies that hide among the civilian population, among other things. Whatever the cause, we are failing as a nation to address the issue.
In my opinion, it is because we’re trying to address it reactively, primarily through the lens of mental health. While data suggests that a diagnosed mental health condition makes one more likely to spiral the path of suicidal ideation, the decision to take one’s life doesn’t result from that metric alone, and prevention would be more effective if we caught issues before they required a psychiatrist or crisis intervention. Dealing with regular civilian things like unemployment, relationship stress, lack of purpose, acute financial concern, substance abuse, etc., are all a part of the human condition that can be exacerbated by service-related issues.
A few years ago, we seemed to be making some progress. But COVID-19 resulted in more than 19 million health care appointments deferred at VA facilities around the nation. Then veterans had to endure the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, where we watched in horror as 13 U.S. service members were killed, hundreds of American citizens were left behind, and an estimated 70,000 of our allies who worked with U.S. forces as interpreters were abandoned to the Taliban. As you read this, Afghanistan is experiencing what can aptly be described as a biblical famine and those allies are still being hunted down and executed for helping NATO forces.
The consequences of these recent events on the veteran suicide epidemic can’t be accurately measured yet, but it’s a safe bet the effect wasn’t positive.
With all this in mind, veterans need a more proactive, upstream approach to suicide prevention. They need communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to rise up and volunteer time or money to mentoring programs, housing solutions, employment solutions, and yes, to holistic approaches to service-connected conditions. Only by embracing a more aggressive approach at the community level will America bring veterans home from their war within.
DFW native Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.