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The Veteran Suicide Epidemic

Now that our troops are actually coming home from Iraq, many are killing themselves. Why?

As the sun set on June 9th nearly 2,000 walkers in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk took off down the grassy path toward the Golden Gate Bridge along the promenade that hugs the bay. The view was not only stunning but also poignant: as the famous Golden Gate celebrated its 75th birthday earlier this month, San Franciscans also mourned the loss of the 1,500 people who have died by jumping over the edge.

Last month I was riding BART to SF and read a statistic in TIME: 18 veterans die by suicide every day – that’s one every 80 minutes. As the subway pulled up to the my stop I saw a large poster advertising the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to break the silence about depression and suicide. Then a couple of weeks later Newsweek ran a feature story on veteran suicide.

For years I’ve been a “Bring Our Troops Home” banner waving leftist, attending anti-war marches and rallies more often than I ate ice cream. So now that our troops are actually coming home from Iraq, many are killing themselves. Why? To dig deeper into the question, I decided to join the Overnight, speak with fellow walkers, and do a little homework.

Veteran Suicide – A Predictable Epidemic?

When Ryan Yurchison returned home from Iraq in 2007, his mom said he was a shell of a man, consumed with tremors, flashbacks and a steadily growing problem with drugs and alcohol. While waiting for help from the V.A. and placement in an addiction program, Yurchison died of a drug overdose believed to be suicide in May 2010. The New York Times reported, “For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.” Last year over 6,500 veteran suicides were recorded, which is “more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.” Military suicide rates increased 150% from 2001 to 2009, according to an article in USA Today

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) started “ Operation Recovery,” a campaign to fight for the rights of service members and veterans to heal, and not be redeployed if experiencing PTSD. Too often, service members with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), military sexual assault, or combat stress, are forced to redeploy rather than receiving the support they so desperately need.

It’s clear that there’s a correlation between sending soldiers off to a warzone, asking them to do the unthinkable and dehumanize the alleged “enemy,” and the PTSD that so often follows deployment. Not only should soldiers receive the care they need, but also those who redeploy traumatized soldiers – and the elected officials who created these monstrous and unnecessary wars – should be held accountable. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his op-ed earlier this spring, “We refurbish tanks after time in combat, but don’t much help men and women exorcise the demons of war. Presidents commit troops to distant battlefields, but don’t commit enough dollars to veterans’ services afterward.”

Bringing Daylight to a Taboo Topic

During the Overnight I talked with veterans and military family members who were walking in memory of lost loved ones or as survivors themselves. One young woman vet told me her story of the military sexual assault that led to PTSD, which the military encouraged her to be silent about. The Overnight helped inspire her to start an organization to help vets heal from trauma. She carried a sign written with glow sticks: “Honoring Vets and Military W/ Suicidal Issues.”

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