War is dangerous – but for soldiers in America’s armed forces today, the greater risk may be in coming home.
25 veterans took their own lives for every soldier killed at war this year, according to an opinion column in Sunday’s New York Times. That amounts to over 18 suicides every day, or over 6,500 a year. Veteran suicides are now at the highest rate they’ve ever been.
This trend is largely contemporary. Between 2005 and 2009, the suicide rate of veterans doubled, after decades with little divergence from the civilian suicide rate. Since then, the rise in suicides has continued unabated. Now, veterans represent 20% of all suicides, but just 1% of the U.S. population.
Unfortunately, there is no clearly identifiable single cause.
Some point to the trend of continuous redeployments, a recent trend implemented to fuel the “surge” tactic implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shore up slipping recruitment numbers. However, The New York Times reported that “80 percent of soldiers [who commit suicide] have had one deployment or none at all.”
It’s no surprise that redeployment is still asserted as a cause of suicide. The alternative is far more concerning. Instead of soldiers’ experiences in combat, what if the real trial is the America they find when they return?
On their return home, soldiers are met with high unemployment and a lack of veterans services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in 2011 was 12.1%, far higher than the already concerning nationwide unemployment rate of 8.2%. Veterans return home from war to idle unemployment and mounting bills.
Veterans’ services are also lacking. In 2007, The Washington Post published a series exposing degrading conditions at Walter Reed Medical Hospital. The post reported: “Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.”
Although conditions at Walter Reed improved after the condemnation that followed the Post’s reporting, the Veteran’s Authority at large is still plagued by long waits for programs and treatment-impeding bureaucratic routines. One veteran’s friend was quoted in Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed: “‘Getting an appointment is like pulling teeth,’ he said. ‘You get an appointment in six weeks when you need it today.’”
There’s no clear solution on the horizon. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq allegedly drawing to a close, the veteran population will soon be approaching highs not seen since World War II. It’s unclear how Veterans Affairs will accommodate these Americans’ unique needs.
Over the coming months, President Obama and presumed-nominee Mitt Romney will stake our their formal platforms. It remains to be seen if a response to the problem of veteran suicides will be included.