On January 13, 2013, the Department of Defense released the military's suicide statistics for 2012, and the numbers only confirm what the individual months had been predicting throughout the year: the suicide rate among military personnel is skyrocketing. Three hundred and forty-nine United States soldiers committed suicide after returning from combat last year. That is almost one soldier, each and every day, killing his or herself because of stresses that have become too much for many to endure.
While as sad and shocking as these statistics may be, this epidemic is actually far worse as there is a significant aspect which is not being reported. The official number only includes active military personnel. After a veteran separates from the military, there are no methods of tracking a subsequent suicide. If a soldier comes home from war, exits the military, and suffers in silence before taking his own life, he will never be documented in any military-related statistical data. Are you ready for a painful dose of reality?
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates the total number of veteran suicides in America to be 18 suicides every day. A recent survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) shows 37 percent of respondents stating they served with at least one post-9/11 veteran who later committed suicide.
I will be the first to agree not every one of these tragedies are absolutely going to be combat-related incidents, but there is just not enough information to formulate the data needed to prove either way. As a nation, we are left to our own devices to simply guess how serious and significant the emotional trauma of combat exposure is on our bravest men and women.
As a combat veteran myself, I am exempt from such guessing. I have experienced exactly how grave this problem is. Coming home from a war environment is not easy, and it poses a series of challenges that are unique and unlike almost anything else a person will ever experience. I know, first hand, that many of America's warriors, and their families, are left in the dark when it comes to identifying and managing the dangers of coming home.
Going from a peaceful home life to a war zone is actually quite easy. Soldiers train for it, and they are prepared and equipped to handle the challenges they are certain to face when their boots hit the ground. Going from the war zone back to home is quite different, however, and it can often be very difficult to just turn off the survival mentality and return to normal.
Many soldiers find themselves straddling two worlds. Their body is physically within the relative safety of being home, but their mind functions as if it were still surrounded by danger in the war zone. It is a challenge and a struggle that no soldier ever trains for, and for many, it proves too much.
There are programs to assist veterans and their families, such as the VA's veteran crisis line, but these programs require the veteran or their loved ones to reach out for help. Many soldiers will never reach out for help because, after all, it's the soldier's mentality for self-reliance that kept him alive in combat, and it is that same mindset that will all too often keep him suffering in silence long after the war has ended.
All I can ask is for everyone, whether you are a veteran, you know a veteran, or you just care about our nation's soldiers, to take the time to try to have a better understanding of exactly what the exposure to a combat zone does to a person. Find ways to learn what these brave men and women have actually been through and not just what Hollywood dramatizes it to be. Knowledge and heartfelt understanding are the first steps to finding a solution to this problem plaguing our nation.
I remember returning from Afghanistan and wanting everyone around me to watch television specials about the war. I would seek out programs that were similar to the missions I embarked upon, and I would constantly finagle a way for someone close to me to watch them. I was doing this with the hope that someone would truly absorb what they were watching, understand that I had been through that, and ask me if I was okay. How many combat veterans are suffering and just waiting for someone to ask them if they are hurting? As a nation, let's start asking.