Warm Southern Breeze

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Report: 20% of all American suicides are new Veterans

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Sunday, April 15, 2012

UPDATE 19 April 2012:

The news you don’t hear…

Just because you don’t hear it doesn’t mean it goes away.

Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia, who is the Defense Department’s top enlisted leader, held a press conference in Washington, D.C. December 9, 2011 in response a report to Congress on suicide among America’s military veterans conducted by Center for a New American Security. Testimony was given December 2, 2011 before the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, and may be found here. The findings are that suicide by veterans constitutes a serious threat to the stability of an all-volunteer military force. About 1% of Americans have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but 20% of suicides in the United States are former service members. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 18 veterans die by suicide each day.

Never before have our military service members been asked to do so much. Never before have our military service members been asked — or required — to attend numerous tour of combat duty consecutively. Those changes occurred under the George W. Bush administration by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

As early as 2007, the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress and warned the Bush administration that U.S. military forces are being pushed to a breaking point.

The Army is being stretched to its limit: all available active-duty and reserve combat units are now deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Associated Press recently reported that, “The Army’s 38 available combat units are deployed, just returning home or already tapped to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, leaving no fresh troops to replace five extra brigades that Bush sent to Baghdad this year, according to interviews and military documents.” (Associated Press, 8/20/07)

The pace of operations is requiring repeated and extended deployments for U.S. forces, including one Army brigade that has completed its fourth deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. As we entered into the fourth year of operations in Iraq and the sixth year of operations in Afghanistan, most Army brigades have completed two or three tours, while one Army brigade — The 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division — has completed four tours. According to Pentagon data, approximately 1.6 million service members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, with nearly one-third of those troops having served multiple tours of duty. (Department of Defense, 7/31/07; Associated Press, 8/20/07)

In addition to repeated deployments, U.S. forces also have had to endure longer deployments. To keep pace with operational demands, in April the Pentagon extended tours for active-duty soldiers, increasing deployments from 12 months to 15 months. (DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and General Pace from the Pentagon, 4/11/07)

General Petraeus testified that the military does not have the capacity to sustain the Bush Administration’s troop surge in Iraq beyond April of 2008. Although the White House has portrayed its plan to drawdown U.S. forces to be the result of success on the ground in Iraq, the reality is that the Pentagon will have to reduce troop levels in the spring of 2008 regardless of the situation in Iraq. As General Petraeus acknowledged in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in early September 2007, the Pentagon would be forced to withdraw 30,000 U.S. troops in the spring of 2008, barring a change in policy to further extend tours of duty for U.S. forces beyond the current limit of 15 months:

SENATOR REED: …my sense is that the overriding constraint you face is not what’s happening on the ground in Iraq, but the reality, unless you did recommend, request and then succeed [in extending tours of duty beyond 15 months] that unless tours were extended, 30,000 troops are coming out of there beginning April of next year, regardless of the situation on the ground.

GENERAL PETRAEUS: Again, certainly, the active brigade combat teams were going to come out of there. Again, I am not aware of what is available in terms of battalions, brigades or what have you…

SENATOR REED: My sense is that the Reserve and National Guard forces are not available to replace this.

GENERAL PETRAEUS: I think that’s the case.

(Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/11/07)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly advised the President that significant reduction in U.S. force levels in Iraq – beyond recommendations made by General Petraeus and endorsed by the White House – are necessary to ensure that the military is able to respond to other threats. According to a Los Angeles Times report, “the Joint Chiefs in recent weeks have pressed concerns that the Iraq war has degraded the U.S. military’s ability to respond, if needed, to other threats, such as Iran. The chiefs are pushing for a significant decrease in troop levels once the current buildup comes to an end — perhaps to about half of the 20 combat brigades now in Iraq. Along with support units, that would lower the U.S. presence to fewer than 100,000 troops from the current 162,000.” (Los Angeles Times, 8/24/07)

The Pentagon has been forced to take extraordinary measures to meet the Bush Administration’s operational demands: 

  • The Pentagon is increasingly turning to private contractors to fulfill mission requirements in Iraq.According to media reports, the Department of Defense is looking to hire additional contractors take over logistics responsibilities for many military units, as U.S. support personnel are being tapped to provide force protection and perform combat operations. As the Washington Post reported in early September 2007, “10 days ago [General Petraeus’s] commanders in Baghdad began advertising for private contractors to work in combat-supply warehouses on U.S. bases throughout Iraq because half the soldiers who had been working in the warehouses were needed for patrols, combat and protection of U.S. forces. ‘With the increased insurgent activity, unit supply personnel must continue to pull force protection along with convoy escort and patrol duties,’ according to a statement of work that accompanied the Sept. 7 request for bidders from Multi-National Force-Iraq. All of the small logistics bases, called Supply Support Activities, or SSAs, are ‘currently using about 50% of their assigned (currently less than 100% strength) military personnel for other required duties (force protection, patrols, escort duties, etc. along with performing 24 hour combat operations),’ the statement says.” (Washington Post, 9/17/07)

What shall we do?

What must we do?

A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame

Specialist Ryan Yurchison (LEFT)

A photograph taken in Iraq of Specialist Ryan Yurchison (left), who died of a drug overdose on May 23, 2010, after returning home to New Middletown, Ohio.

April 14, 2012

HERE’S a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.

An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

These unnoticed killing fields are places like New Middletown, Ohio, where Cheryl DeBow raised two sons, Michael and Ryan Yurchison, and saw them depart for Iraq. Michael, then 22, signed up soon after the 9/11 attacks.

“I can’t just sit back and do nothing,” he told his mom. Two years later, Ryan followed his beloved older brother to the Army.

When Michael was discharged, DeBow picked him up at the airport — and was staggered. “When he got off the plane and I picked him up, it was like he was an empty shell,” she told me. “His body was shaking.” Michael began drinking and abusing drugs, his mother says, and he terrified her by buying the same kind of gun he had carried in Iraq. “He said he slept with his gun over there, and he needed it here,” she recalls.

Then Ryan returned home in 2007, and he too began to show signs of severe strain. He couldn’t sleep, abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered extreme jitters.

“He was so anxious, he couldn’t stand to sit next to you and hear you breathe,” DeBow remembers. A talented filmmaker, Ryan turned the lens on himself to record heartbreaking video of his own sleeplessness, his own irrational behavior — even his own mock suicide.

One reason for veteran suicides (and crimes, which get far more attention) may be post-traumatic stress disorder, along with a related condition, traumatic brain injury. Ryan suffered a concussion in an explosion in Iraq, and Michael finally had traumatic brain injury diagnosed two months ago.

Estimates of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury vary widely, but a ballpark figure is that the problems afflict at least one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. One study found that by their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than one-quarter of soldiers had such mental health problems.

Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health.

Michael and Ryan, like so many other veterans, sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, declined to speak to me, but the most common view among those I interviewed was that the V.A. has improved but still doesn’t do nearly enough about the suicide problem.

“It’s an epidemic that is not being addressed fully,” said Bob Filner, a Democratic congressman from San Diego and the senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We could be doing so much more.”

To its credit, the V.A. has established a suicide hotline and appointed suicide-prevention coordinators. It is also chipping away at a warrior culture in which mental health concerns are considered sissy. Still, veterans routinely slip through the cracks. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals in San Francisco excoriated the V.A. for “unchecked incompetence” in dealing with veterans’ mental health.

Patrick Bellon, head of Veterans for Common Sense, which filed the suit in that case, says the V.A. has genuinely improved but is still struggling. “There are going to be one million new veterans in the next five years,” he said. “They’re already having trouble coping with the population they have now, so I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Last month, the V.A.’s own inspector general reported on a 26-year-old veteran who was found wandering naked through traffic in California. The police tried to get care for him, but a V.A. hospital reportedly said it couldn’t accept him until morning. The young man didn’t go in, and after a series of other missed opportunities to get treatment, he stepped in front of a train and killed himself.

Likewise, neither Michael nor Ryan received much help from V.A. hospitals. In early 2010, Ryan began to talk more about suicide, and DeBow rushed him to emergency rooms and pleaded with the V.A. for help. She says she was told that an inpatient treatment program had a six-month waiting list. (The V.A. says it has no record of a request for hospitalization for Ryan.)

“Ryan was hurting, saying he was going to end it all, stuff like that,” recalls his best friend, Steve Schaeffer, who served with him in Iraq and says he has likewise struggled with the V.A. to get mental health services. “Getting an appointment is like pulling teeth,” he said. “You get an appointment in six weeks when you need it today.”

While Ryan was waiting for a spot in the addiction program, in May 2010, he died of a drug overdose. It was listed as an accidental death, but family and friends are convinced it was suicide.

The heartbreak of Ryan’s death added to his brother’s despair, but DeBow says Michael is now making slow progress. “He is able to get out of bed most mornings,” she told me. “That is a huge improvement.” Michael asked not to be interviewed: He wants to look forward, not back.

As for DeBow, every day is a struggle. She sent two strong, healthy men to serve her country, and now her family has been hollowed in ways that aren’t as tidy, as honored, or as easy to explain as when the battle wounds are physical. I wanted to make sure that her family would be comfortable with the spotlight this article would bring, so I asked her why she was speaking out.

“When Ryan joined the Army, he was willing to sacrifice his life for his country,” she said. “And he did, just in a different way, without the glory. He would want it this way.”

“My home has been a nightmare,” DeBow added through tears, recounting how three of Ryan’s friends in the military have killed themselves since their return. “You hear my story, but it’s happening everywhere.”

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. We enlist soldiers to protect us, but when they come home we don’t protect them.

“Things need to change,” DeBow said, and her voice broke as she added: “These are guys who went through so much. If anybody deserves help, it’s them.”

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.


Additional references:

Battaglia Calls Reducing Suicides a Top Priority

Understanding and Preventing Veteran Suicide

Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide
– http://www.cnas.org/losingthebattle

Understanding and Preventing Veteran Suicide
– http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/understanding-and-preventing-veteran-suicide

4 Responses to “Report: 20% of all American suicides are new Veterans”

  1. […] Report: 20% of all American suicides are new Veterans (warmsouthernbreeze.wordpress.com) […]


  2. […] Report: 20% of all American suicides are new Veterans (warmsouthernbreeze.wordpress.com) […]


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