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Veterans Fri Feb 01 2013
This is some news that ought to be bigger. It is sad and it is sobering. It also gives insight into how national stories are created or ignored, and popular opinion manipulated.
A new Veterans Administration study estimates that 22 veterans are committing suicide each day. This represents an increase from previous study, when the VA was estimating 18 suicides per day among the vet population they serve.
What this also means is that, this month, the number of veterans who take their own lives will eclipse all the homicides in Chicago in an entire year. What this means is that the number of veterans who take their own lives will be larger than the number of men and women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past entire decade of war. And that, during the next decade, America will lose more lives to veteran suicide than US forces lost in the Vietnam War.
As one VA guy points out, this is not limited to vets; suicide is up generally in the US as a cause of death, and rather dramatically. Suicides among active military surged to a new high last year, even as our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were being drawn down.
So, big news, right? Some 6,500 deaths per year, from one cause, among one discrete, identifiable demographic group? But no. It merited a two-sentence squib on p. 18 of this morning's Chicago Tribune, and if it made the Sun-Times, I missed it.
Consider this. The 6,500 annual deaths from veteran suicide is about 20% more than the annual number of firearms homicides in the entire U.S. population of African-Americans, and approaches the total murders of black Americans by all methods. But there are only between 22 and 23 million veterans, a number that will decline because at any given moment, only 3/4 of 1% of the country is in the armed forces, and 200 of the surviving WWII vets die each day (most of natural causes). So on a per capita basis, veteran suicide is happening at about twice the rate of homicide in our African-American community of 42 million.
I compare to the group that is most victimized by murder solely to illustrate the magnitude of the veteran suicide numbers, and as further education on demographics, the size of our country, and some of its problems. As I've written before and will hammer on again, our policy suffers from a serious problem of perceptions due to selective focus. Again and again the public is whipped into a lather over relatively uncommon tragedies -- or worse, the perceived threat of dangers whose risk is in reality miniscule -- that receive grossly disproportionate coverage. Meanwhile, sweeping problems, including much more common deaths every bit as tragic, are elbowed out of our consciousness by the outrage du jour.
I don't know why veteran suicides are so high or why they are increasing. I do know that suicide wreaks unimaginable sadness on surviving friends and families. I do know that every veteran, whether a draftee, enlistee, officer or troop, regardless of why he or she originally entered the service (and let's not fool ourselves into thinking that a backdoor economic draft does not exist), served for what many if not most think was to defend, in some form, the American Dream. And that for too many Americans, veteran or no, that dream is proving elusive. I have to imagine that that disconnect is especially tough to face if you gave years of your life, maybe part of your body, maybe lost a buddy or two. I also know that there is a shortage of mental health services for vets.
A real probe into the reasons for, and some real progress on, our increasing suicides will do more than any gun control law to reduce the number of firearms deaths. To begin with, there are more firearms suicides than homicides. Second, a lot of crimes classified as homicide, especially multiple killings, have to be seen as fundamentally suicidal as well.
Think on these numbers, and on what is impelling Americans to self-destruct. Think on that number: 22 veterans a day. I am as appalled as any of the politicians who gave speeches about the recent death of an innocent Chicago schoolgirl; I have the same human hope as anyone for the boy taken in the bizarre abduction in Alabama. But in the several days that we'll give coverage to either of those incidents, and use them as fodder for policy argument, the equivalent of several Newtowns will have occurred among the veterans of America. And will continue to occur, daily. But by and large sadly, in solitude, and, as far as public attention seems to be concerned, in silence.