18 Vets Kill Themselves a Day: We Hail Them As Heroes Then Treat Them Like Garbage
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The following is a transcript of an interview on Democracy Now!
The month of July set a record high for the number of suicides in the U.S. military. An Army report reveals a total of 38 troops committed suicide last month, including 26 active-duty soldiers and 12 Army National Guard or reserve members — more soldiers than were killed on the battlefield. The reasons for the increase in suicides are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies point to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the issue in June at the annual conference on suicide prevention in the military, saying, "Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction." We speak with Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard, whose new book is called "The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan."
AMY GOODMAN: The month of July set a record high for the number of suicides in the U.S. military. An Army report revealed a total of 38 troops—26 active-duty soldiers, another 12 National Guard or reserve members—are believed to have committed suicide in July, the highest rate recorded in a month since the Army started tracking detailed statistics on such deaths. More U.S. soldiers died in July by taking their own lives than on the battlefield.
We recently spoke to Iraq War veteran Aaron Hughes about suicides in the military.
AARON HUGHES: Every day in this country 18 veterans are committing suicide. Seventeen percent of the individuals that are in combat in Afghanistan, my brothers and sisters, are on psychotropic medication. Twenty to 50 percent of the individuals that are getting deployed to Afghanistan are already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or a traumatic brain injury. Currently one-third of the women in the military are sexually assaulted. It’s clear that these policies of the global war on terror has had a profound effect on the military, my brothers and sisters, while simultaneously perpetuating a failed policy. And unfortunately, we have to live with that failed policy on a daily basis, and we don’t want to be a part of that failed policy anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Hughes of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the issue in June at the annual conference on suicide prevention in the military organized jointly by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: This issue, suicides, is perhaps the most frustrating challenge that I’ve come across since becoming secretary of defense last year. Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking in June.
Well, to talk about the enormous problems that are contributing to increasing suicide rates in the military, we’re joined by Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard, whose new book is The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, previously a professor of political science and creative writing. Welcome to Democracy Now!
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: It’s a pleasure to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: July, 38 soldiers, National Guard, killed themselves. That’s more than a soldier killing themselves a day.
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: That’s right. And before I—after I finished that book, finally the Department of Defense was letting out these statistics. They were not letting them out before. I tried to get them. I called Veterans for Common Sense, Veterans United for Truth. They have 50,000 members. They said, "Sorry, the numbers are not coming out." And what I did get was that, in every 36 hours, one veteran from the Iraqi or Afghanistani war are committing suicide, and 18 veterans of all wars commit suicide a day. Also—
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about that—a day. I have heard this figure over the years, because we’re not talking about veterans when we talk about 38 people—
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: We’re talking—right.
AMY GOODMAN: —killed themselves in July, you know, far more than die on the battlefield.
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: Right. Just one more quote. One—in 155 days in 2012, 154 soldiers killed themselves in combat, not as veterans. This is a very, very important figure and one which we really need to pay attention to.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the chapters in your book, The Invisible Wounds of War, is "The High Rate of Suicides," and you have a photograph of Noah Charles Pierce. Talk about how you came to this issue.
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: I’m a writer. I write poetry and short stories as well as books on human rights. One of the reviews that had a story of mine, I saw a couple of poems by a soldier that committed suicide. And I thought, "What is this? A soldier committing suicide?" And I asked the editor, "Put me in touch with his mother." And it took me a while to persuade him to put me in touch with his mother. I did finally get in touch with her, talked to her a lot, wrote an article about her, talked to her continually. She was upset and later on became angry, which is, I think, very, very useful, to be angry—not anger to hurt another person, but anger at what was happening to people like her son. She said, "When he came back, he wasn’t Noah anymore. He was a different person."
So, the kind of combat that these soldiers endure is something that most Americans don’t know anything about. They don’t know about IEDs, improvised explosive devices, explosively formed penetrators. What do these mean? I’ll tell you what they mean. You can’t see them. They’re put under the—under the asphalt. They’re hidden in bushes. They’re put in garbage cans. So, here you are in a Humvee, which is not mine-resistant. You see your buddy get blown to bits. So you’re picking up pieces of his body, putting them in a bag, cleaning out the Humvee. You’re watching your buddies die in terrible circumstances, day after day after day. And what happens is that the membrane between life and death kind of disappears.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a poem about Noah, and I was wondering if you could read it here?
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Noah is in my heart, I have to say, and that’s why—
AMY GOODMAN: Where did he live?
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: He lived in—he lived in Eveleth, Minnesota, in a small town. There are so many soldiers that come back that don’t get the care that they need, that are in small towns. Nobody else is—1 percent of our soldiers are in the war, OK? One percent. And it’s a volunteer army. So, I will read Noah’s poem. "Specialist Noah Charles Pierce."
When he returned from the war
they called him a killer.
He was not a murderer.
He befriended a child, gathered
the limbs of his fellow soldier
who was blown up beside him,
lost some of his hearing from the blast,
obeyed his colonel’s orders to gun down
a man driving into the Green Zone
who turned out to be a physician.
When he came home, the weight
of his guilt, displacement and pain
was invisible. He didn’t come home.
He was still in Iraq. The people
in his town couldn’t hear the nightmares
that haunted him or his heart
pounding at sudden noises.
They couldn’t understand how he left his house
to protect his parents and sisters
from his anger, closed the door of his apartment
to release his sorrow. Then one night
he drove to the mine dumps
near his favorite fishing spot
wrote "Freedom isn’t Free"
on the dashboard of his truck
beside the nine medals of honor
closing yet another door
to liberate his own life.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the poem that you wrote about Noah Charles Pierce. We’re talking to Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard, the author of The Invisible Wounds of War. I want to address a controversy earlier this summer involving Major General Dana Pittard. Dana Pittard, a commander at Fort Bliss, in May, he wrote on his blog, quote, "I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us," he said. The posting was retracted, but Pittard never apologized. He still commands one of the Army’s largest units. Marguerite, your response?
MARGUERITE GUZMÁN BOUVARD: Well, my response is that there’s a military culture and a civilian culture, and there’s a gap between them. And in the military culture, you’re supposed to be strong, brave, nothing bothers you. If you need help, you’re looked on as a wimp, as weak. And it takes a long time for soldiers to feel that it’s OK not to be OK. That’s a different culture. That’s another culture. It’s not the military culture. And so, they really don’t provide the help that these soldiers need when they return.
They come back from Iraq, they’re still in Iraq. For instance, they’re driving down the street—where there used to be IEDs buried—they see a can, they get panicked, they say, "This is going to blow up." They hear a noise, they get startled and upset. And most of us have good and bad memories. We can put our bad memories aside. Our soldiers can’t. They dream about them. They hallucinate. All of the veterans I’ve interviewed, they close their door. They sleep with a gun under their pillow. They’re still at risk. They work 24/seven in a group that is like a family. A unit is like a family. And when one of them dies, it’s like losing a member of your family. And, in fact, so many of them die that one veteran told me, when I interviewed him, he said, "There were—we had maybe 40 to 50 RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades, come over our base a day. The silence was eerie." He said, the trailer where he lived, "My bunk was damaged. Suppose I had been in that bunk." In other words, you come back, you’re still in Iraq. You feel more alien than if you had come from Mars.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with a comment of Aaron Glantz, author of The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans, talking about why rates of suicide are so high.
AARON GLANTZ: We’ve been at war for 10 years. We have 2.5 million Americans who have served in these wars. About a million of them are still in the military, and a million and a half of them are out of the military and are now veterans. We have 18 veterans who commit suicide every day in this country. We haven’t asked people to go through war in this kind of way, you know, probably since World War II. In Vietnam, people served one tour, and then they came home. We had a draft. Now we ask people to go again and again. And so, you have a million people who have been through the wars who are still in the military. You have 90,000 people who are still in Afghanistan fighting this war. It’s not surprising that the suicides would be higher than the battlefield deaths at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s journalist Aaron Glantz. And I want to thank you, Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard, author of a number of books, including, the most recent, The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s a resident scholar at Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.