Earlier this year, using the clout that only major broadcast networks
seem capable of mustering, CBS News contacted the governments of
all 50 states requesting their official records of death by suicide
going back 12 years. They heard back from 45 of the 50. From the
mountains of gathered information, they sifted out the suicides
of those Americans who had served in the armed forces. What they
discovered is that in 2005 alone -- and remember, this is just in
45 states -- there were at least 6,256 veteran suicides, 120 every
week for a year and an average of 17 every day.
As the widow of a Vietnam vet who killed himself after coming home,
and as the author of a book for which I interviewed dozens of other
women who had also lost husbands (or sons or fathers) to PTSD and
suicide in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, I am deeply grateful
to CBS for undertaking this long overdue investigation. I am also
heartbroken that the numbers are so astonishingly high and tentatively
optimistic that perhaps now that there are hard numbers to attest
to the magnitude of the problem, it will finally be taken seriously.
I say tentatively because this is an administration that melts hard
numbers on their tongues like communion wafers.
Since these new wars began, and in spite of a continuous flood
of alarming reports, the Department of Defense has managed to keep
what has clearly become an epidemic of death beneath the radar of
public awareness by systematically concealing statistics about soldier
suicides. They have done everything from burying them on official
casualty lists in a category they call "accidental noncombat
deaths" to outright lying to the parents of dead soldiers.
And the Department of Veterans Affairs has rubber-stamped their
disinformation, continuing to insist that their studies indicate
that soldiers are killing themselves, not because of their combat
experiences, but because they have "personal problems."
Active-duty soldiers, however, are only part of the story. One
of the well-known characteristics of post-traumatic stress injuries
is that the onset of symptoms is often delayed, sometimes for decades.
Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still taking their
own lives because new PTSD symptoms have been triggered, or old
ones retriggered, by stories and images from these new wars. Their
deaths, like the deaths of more recent veterans, are written up
in hometown newspapers; they are locally mourned, but officially
ignored. The VA doesn't track or count them. It never has. Both
the VA and the Pentagon deny that the problem exists and sanctimoniously
point to a lack of evidence they have refused to gather.
They have managed this smoke and mirrors trick for decades in large
part because suicide makes people so uncomfortable. It has often
been called "that most secret death" because no one wants
to talk about it. Over time, in different parts of the world, attitudes
have fluctuated between the belief that the act is a sin, a right,
a crime, a romantic gesture, an act of consummate bravery or a symptom
of mental illness. It has never, however, been an emotionally neutral
issue. In the United States, the rationalism of our legal system
has acknowledged for 300 years that the act is almost always symptomatic
of a mental illness. For those same 300 years, organized religions
have stubbornly maintained that it's a sin. In fact, the very worst
sin. The one that is never forgiven because it's too late to say
The contradiction between religious doctrine and secular law has
left suicide in some kind of nether space in which the fundamentals
of our systems of justice and belief are disrupted. A terrible crime
has been committed, a murder, and yet there can be no restitution,
no punishment. As sin or as mental illness, the origins of suicide
live in the mind, illusive, invisible, associated with the mysterious,
the secretive and the undisciplined, a kind of omnipresent Orange
Alert. Beware the abnormal. Beware the Other.
For years now, this administration has been blasting us with high-decibel,
righteous posturing about suicide bombers, those subhuman dastards
who do the unthinkable, using their own bodies as lethal weapons.
"Those people, they aren't like us; they don't value life the
way we do," runs the familiar xenophobic subtext: And sometimes
the text isn't even sub-: "Many terrorists who kill innocent
men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers
of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens
in New York, in Washington and Pennsylvania," proclaimed W,
glibly conflating Sept. 11, the invasion of Iraq, Islam, fanatic
fundamentalism and human bombs.
Bush has also expressed the opinion that suicide bombers are motivated
by despair, neglect and poverty. The demographic statistics on suicide
bombers suggest that this isn't the necessarily the case. Most of
the Sept. 11 terrorists came from comfortable middle- to upper-middle-class
families and were well-educated. Ironically, despair, neglect and
poverty may be far more significant factors in the deaths of American
soldiers and veterans who are taking their own lives.
Consider the 25 percent of enlistees and the 50 percent of reservists
who have come back from the war with serious mental health issues.
Despair seems an entirely appropriate response to the realization
that the nightmares and flashbacks may never go away, that your
ability to function in society and to manage relationships, work
schedules or crowds will never be reliable. How not to despair if
your prognosis is: Suck it up, soldier. This may never stop!
Neglect? The VA's current backlog is 800,000 cases. Aside from
the appalling conditions in many VA hospitals, in 2004, the last
year for which statistics are available, almost 6 million veterans
and their families were without any healthcare at all. Most of them
are working people -- too poor to afford private coverage, but not
poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or means-tested VA care. Soldiers
and veterans need help now, the help isn't there, and the conversations
about what needs to be done are only just now beginning.
Poverty? The symptoms of post-traumatic stress injuries or traumatic
brain injuries often make getting and keeping a job an insurmountable
challenge. The New York Times reported last week that though veterans
make up only 11 percent of the adult population, they make up 26
percent of the homeless. If that doesn't translate into despair,
neglect and poverty, well, I'm not sure the distinction is one worth
There is a particularly terrible irony in the relationship between
suicide bombers and the suicides of American soldiers and veterans.
With the possible exception of some few sadists and psychopaths,
Americans don't enlist in the military because they want to kill
civilians. And they don't sign up with the expectation of killing
themselves. How incredibly sad that so many end up dying of remorse
for having performed acts that so disturb their sense of moral selfhood
that they sentence themselves to death.
There is something so smugly superior in the way we talk about
suicide bombers and the cultures that produce them. But here is
an unsettling thought. In 2005, 6,256 American veterans took their
own lives. That same year, there were about 130 documented deaths
of suicide bombers in Iraq.* Do the math. That's a ratio of 50-to-1.
So who is it that is most effectively creating a culture of suicide
and martyrdom? If George Bush is right, that it is despair, neglect
and poverty that drive people to such acts, then isn't it worth
pointing out that we are doing a far better job?
*I say "about" because in the aftermath of a suicide
bombing, it is often very difficult for observers to determine how
many individual bodies have been blown to pieces.
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.