Veterans' Suicides: a Hidden Cost of Bush's Wars
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On November 6, the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Bill became law. The bill was named for a 22-year-old Iowa reservist who took his own life eleven months after coming home from Iraq. Though Josh is one of hundreds of combat veteran suicides since the wars began in 2001, it is his name that has become symbolic of the campaign to get the military to take the mental health of America's vets seriously.
With the exception of the unspeakable images of Abu Ghraib, which were e-mailed home by soldiers themselves, for six years Americans have been effectively insulated from the human cost of our wars. This insulation is not an accident; it is policy. Images from the Vietnam years, like the naked child trying to outrun her own burning skin, or the anguished women and children waiting their turn to be executed at My Lai, were catalysts that helped turn public opinion against that war. This time, the government wanted to ensure that would not happen. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon issued a directive to the media forbidding any coverage of returning American coffins. No coffins, no funerals, no wounds, no tears. No empathy.
Randy and Ellen Omvig's success in drawing long overdue attention to the issue of veteran suicide in an environment that has dismissed or derailed other worthy causes, can be explained, I believe, by their insistence on going public with the most intimate details of their tragedy. They complicated and humanized a debate that has been stalled for decades in a morass of misinformation, disinformation and other evasion tactics.
They described how his tour in Iraq had changed him, how he suffered all of the symptoms they now recognize as classic PTSD: the nightmares, the shaking, the dark moods and consuming fears. They admitted that they had failed to convince him to go for counseling, accepting his argument that the stigma would wreck his career plans. And then came the morning when Ellen discovered him locked in his pick up truck. He had a gun. As she tried frantically to reason with him, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It's a horrific image: she, banging on the window, terrified, pleading, while, on the other side of the glass, her son tells her he will always love her, but that now she must leave. "Go!" he says, and when she refuses, he raises his gun, angles his head so the bullet will not hit her, and fires. She was powerless to stop anything, the hand, the gun, the bullet, the blood. There must have been a lot of blood.
In spite of a suicide rate among solders that has now reached a 26-year record high, and contradicting the evidence of their own increasingly ominous studies, the Army continues to insist that they have yet to find a connection between combat stress injuries (PTSD) and suicide. They trot out self-serving anecdotes about "Dear John" letters, incompetent parents, and what they call "underdeveloped life coping skills" to blame active duty soldiers for their own deaths. As for veteran suicides, there has never been any official attempt to track or count them.
The virtual epidemic of veteran suicides that followed the war in Vietnam has remained largely beneath the radar of public awareness because there is still such irrational fear and shame attached to a self-inflicted death. Families, military and otherwise, have far too often tried to cover up the circumstances of such deaths, hoping to shield both the living and the dead from blame and condemnation. What has often been called the "most secret death" has afforded the military a convenient and virtually impenetrable cover for decades, allowing them to keep combat-related suicides a theoretical, statistical, deniable issue.
Josh Omvig was not able to keep his war theoretical. He and hundreds of other veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thousands of Vietnam vets carried home memories friends lost, bodies blown apart, and lives touched by real horror. Their wars were up close and personal, and when their memories became too much to bear, they chose to die.
Both as a war widow and as the mother of a boy who, like Josh, is in his 20's, I heard the Omvigs' story, saw it and felt it, through the lens of my own experience. My husband Daniel returned from Vietnam with memories he could never bring himself to share. They haunted him and they haunted our relationship. Was his death an execution? Euthanasia? Or was it my fault? What did I do to that poor man? In the years since, unbidden memories of the swirling red lights, the sirens, the pumps, the drains, and the blood have infiltrated who I am. I rarely if ever talked about Daniel, but I learned to tiptoe around everyone I love, hoping not to do it again, hoping not to kill someone else by mistake.
So I am enormously grateful to Ellen and Randy Omvig. I do not find their story inappropriately intimate. I do not think it is in bad taste. Or exploitative. Or sensationalist, though those are all excuses that are proffered in defense of the bloodless numbers, the numbing statistics and the endless slogans. It is, in fact, a vital antidote to the guilt, the silence, and the isolation that is typically experienced by the families of suicides. It invites empathy, which is the corner stone of common cause activism. It makes the personal political.
The Omvigs let their grief feed their activism. They insisted that behind the statistics there are real human beings whose suffering is monumental, and monumental as well for the people who love them. For me, and I imagine for a host of others who have been moved to help push this legislation forward, the impetus came, at least in part, from the courage it took for them to share the raw emotional intimacies of a son's death. Thanks in no small measure to the advocacy of his parents, the Department of Veterans Affairs will soon be required to develop and implement a comprehensive suicide prevention program at each of its medical facilities, including mandatory staff training in suicide awareness and prevention, a designated suicide prevention counselor in each facility, and a 24-hour suicide hotline. The bill that bears Josh's name is perhaps a small victory, but it will make more of a difference to veterans than any parade.
Note: The bill, as currently written, no longer requires the VA to screen all its patients for suicide risk factors and make an effort to keep track of at-risk veterans, an important element that was dropped because otherwise one senator, Tom Coburn (OK-R), threatened to block its passage indefinitely. Coburn feared that such a database could also be used to deny veterans who have sought help at the VA for mental health issues the right to purchase a gun. Too bad, but even so, it's a start.
Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam Veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War , was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is Flashback.