Opinion

Why veterans die by suicide, and how to stop it

Try to picture a veteran who has recently chosen to take his own life, and you'll probably think of someone like me: a 20-to-30-something man who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. That's a result of countless hours spent by advocates to raise awareness about the issue.

In 2014, as a volunteer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I spent most of my free time advocating for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Act. I spent the summer traveling the country telling Clay's story to everyone who would listen in hopes of building a movement that would get Congress to finally take decisive action to address the suicide crisis in the veteran community.

I had never met Clay when he was alive, but thanks to my experience with IAVA, I now know Clay's parents, Susan and Richard Selke. We don't talk regularly or see each other much since the Clay Hunt bill was signed into law in early 2015, but I feel like I've got a unique sort of bond with them. It's a bond that I've felt with lots of parents who have lost their son or daughter to suicide.

That bond exists because they see in me what they lost, and I see in them what I almost did to my own parents.

On my way into Baghdad from Kuwait in early 2005, I was a private first class with just about 12 months in the Army. Our Bradley fire support team vehicle was strapped on top of a civilian 18-wheeler in order to preserve fuel as part of a gigantic convoy, and I traded my gunner seat for the Bradley commander's spot so that I could hang outside the turret and soak in all the sights.

Little did I know, an insurgent had placed an IED on a road sign that was suspended above the road. I chose just the right time, for no particular reason, to hop down into the turret and clamshell the hatch above me. When the bomb went off, I didn't even know what happened for a few seconds. Between the relatively small size of the bomb and the Bradley's armor, I was fine. But I spent the next year thinking about how I could die at any moment.

When I returned home from Iraq at the end of 2005, I felt like anything but a hero. Save for a few random close calls, I had been relatively safe.

Still, in May 2007, I walked out onto Warrior's Walk, a field at Fort Stewart, Georgia, where they plant a tree for every Dogface Soldier who has fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like a lot of memorial sites, it feels a bit like a graveyard. There I chased a fist full of Percocet with a bottle of vodka, with intent to die among my fallen brothers.

Parents like Clay's don't always ask me, "Why did you try to kill yourself?" but I can see it in the way that they look at me that they want to know.

They want to understand why they lost their own son or daughter.

In order to address the problem that is suicide in our community, the answer to this question is vitally important — and unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs' new suicide data report doesn't provide us the answer.

On a personal level, answering, "Why'd you try to kill yourself?" is incredibly frustrating. There was a lot going on at the time of my suicide attempt. I had been suffering from severe bouts of depression, frightening panic attacks, and paralyzing migraines — what I now understand to be the effects of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

What made things worse before my suicide attempt is that when I asked for help, I was treated with suspicion by my Army doctors and later chastised by my company commander for taking the antidepressants that I had been prescribed.

Despite an otherwise stellar career, I felt like I had failed as a soldier and as a man. My personal relationships were a mess. My unit went downrange without me so that I could get some emergency surgery, and I spent the next month restricted to my quarters. In that time, I quit going to therapy, and I stayed home in a dark room watching the 2007 presidential primary debates, where my buddies in Iraq seemed to have been forgotten, and I was drinking myself to sleep most nights.

So, why did I decide suicide was the only way out?

It wasn't the nightmares about discovering a mass grave in Iraq, or waking up from vivid dreams not knowing which of my friends were alive and which were dead. It wasn't the fear of going back to the sandbox for another tour that made me want to end my life.

At the age of 21, almost every bit of experience that I had as an adult was at war, or training for it. Outside of my limited, and what was then, miserable world, I didn't think there was any chance of things getting better. There was no one thing, one event, one person to blame.

It was a last resort, a last way to exert control over a life that otherwise felt like complete and total chaos.

And thankfully, I woke up from that drug-induced brush with death after a battle buddy found my limp body.

Years later, I've figured out that the common theme among veterans who choose suicide is as Dr. Thomas Joiner says, an overall sense of hopelessness combined with severe mental anguish — a feeling that we've lost control of our own lives, and there's not one thing that we can do to get back on the path.

The VA's latest report confirmed what we already believed to be true: The highest rate of veteran suicide falls on those aged 19–29. In terms of raw numbers, it's the Vietnam veterans' generation who are dying in droves. But the biggest takeaway from the report is that 14 of the 20 veterans who die each day aren't enrolled at the VA. The increase in suicide rates for veterans outside the VA healthcare system has grown almost five times faster than those getting care at VA.

There are a lot of questions the VA still doesn't have answers to. As a survivor, it's my duty to try to fill the gaps so that we can continue to look out for one another, beyond our own units, and beyond our own generation.

For all of its flaws, it's the VA that's provided me the care that pulled me out of that dark place the war pushed me into. It's usually not the success stories that make the headlines — but the VA saves lives.

When politicians bash the VA as if it's worthless, they're feeding the hopelessness of vulnerable veterans by discouraging them to reach out for care in a system that works. I'm not saying we shouldn't hold the VA accountable or try to fix its problems — but we need to be responsible about it about who we're blaming and for what.

Kristofer Goldsmith deployed as a forward observer with the Army's Third Infantry Division. He is now the assistant director for policy and government at Vietnam Veterans of America and a member of the Defense Council at the Truman National Security Project.













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