Janet's Conner

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Monday, May 29, 2006

SUICIDES ARE CASUALTIES OF WAR, TOO




My husband Daniel came home from Vietnam in 1969 with what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder and subsequently took his own life. So did tens of thousands of other husbands, son and fathers whose names are not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial War. For those of us left behind, Memorial Day has a particular sadness. Officially, this is not our holiday because officially these were not combat deaths. Yet the psychic wounds suffered by the men we loved were deadly.

No one actually knows how many Vietnam veterans have taken their lives. The government refuses to track or count veteran suicides, and then uses the absence of those numbers to deny casualties and responsibility.

It is more difficult to deny the death of an active-duty soldier. In 2003, following alarming reports of suicides among American troops in Iraq, the Pentagon sent a team of health experts to investigate. Their report confirmed a suicide rate three times greater than what is statistically normal for the armed forces and acknowledged that fully one-third of the evacuated psychiatric casualties "departed theater with suicide-related behaviors as part of their clinical presentation."

Dismissing the obvious stress of combat entirely, the report concluded that "suicide among OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) deployed soldiers is occuring for the same reasons typically found among soldier-suicides:" namely insufficient or underdeveloped life coping skills; marital, legal and financial problems; chronic substance abuse; and mood disorders.

Last month, the army released another report showing that, in spite of new and much-touted prevention measures, suicide among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanastan has continued to escalate. Once again, the Army would have us believe that individual soliders with personal problems are to blame.

It is baffling that military psychiatrists, supposed experts in combat-related stress, have so normalized war that it is overlooked as the source of the disease they have been asked to diagnose. And it is simply disingenuous for the Army to continue to insist that the marital and financial crises faced by the deployed soldiers, and the self-medication they use to distance themselves from the horror of their circumstances, are not themselves by-products of the war. Yet, there is no acknowledgement that the most likely stressor for these soldiers is being plucked from their lives and dumped into a combat zone, followed by the realization that, once home, the war will not leave them just because they have left the war.

The suicides of deployed soldiers are camouflaged by the military, reported only as generic noncombat fatalities. The suicides of veterans are reported only in hometown newspapers, locally acknowledged and locally mourned, but there is no attempt to connect them to each other or to war. These deaths derserve a public as well as a private meaning. It is time to stop pretending that terror and horror cannot be every bit as lethal as bullets and bombs. It is time to insist that our government be forthcoming with casualty figures of all kinds.

Horace said that it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one's country. However hollow and inadequate that might seem to those who are left with memories and a folded flag, it has been offered as comfort to widows and children for more than 2,000 years. I have never heard it suggested that there is anything sweet or fitting about being a psychiatric casualty for one's country, yet it is entirely possible that what they cannot forgive or forget represents what is most honorable in our soldiers and our veterans.

On Memorial Day especially, we should remember that their despair is ours as well to carry.


Source: Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)
By: Penny Coleman
May 28, 2006

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