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As Memorial Day approaches, far too many American families are not thinking about what they’ll cook on the grill, but how they will remember their military dead, particularly the growing number who died at their own hands, of suicide.
I am the mother of one of those soldiers. My son was a reservist between deployments in the summer of 2007. He had served in Iraq in 2005 in a Special Operations unit and was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan at Thanksgiving. He floundered between civilian jobs and was increasingly enraged and irritated. His sleep patterns were labored and erratic. He drank a lot. Our last days together were strained, to say the least. His father and I suggested that he needed to seek mental health care and he scoffed at the idea. The Army would kick him out, he said. At the end of July on a full moon night, he took his life with a handgun.
Reading last week’s New York Times’ feature on military suicides, “Baffling Rise in Suicides Plagues the U.S. Military,” resurrected a lot of familiar emotions. Death by suicide compounds grieving with a barrage of questions — How could we not have seen this coming? What could we have done to prevent it? — and a heavy burden of blame and guilt. Stories like the one in the Times raise similar questions over what we, as a nation, should be doing to deal with this burgeoning epidemic of suicide, placing blame and guilt on ineffective institutions.
Here are the bare facts: Since 2001, more than 2,700 service members have officially killed themselves and that figure doesn’t include National Guard and reserve troops, like my son, who were not on active duty when they died. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that for every soldier killed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, about 25 veterans die by their own hands, and that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. Additionally, studies show, veterans are 60 percent more likely to use a firearm, the most effective way to kill oneself.
Stories like the one in the Times contextualize attempts at prevention under the umbrella of presumed medical conditions — PTSD and traumatic brain injury, epidemic plagues of these post 9-11 conflicts — and lay blame at the feet of the U.S. military for not getting more soldiers screened and the Veterans Administration for not offering prompt, readily available and effective treatments.
What is rarely spoken aloud is the elephant in the room, the question of why a nation is baffled by a suicide epidemic among young soldiers when it continues to ignore the psychological and social costs of killing others and witnessing brutal deaths repeatedly. Apparently there is not enough data to support a link between the violence of warfare and killing oneself.
What, someone might ask when contemplating the increase in military suicide rates, is our national appraisal of the value of a human life? And what, we might ask as Memorial Day approaches and we contemplate our military dead who ended their own lives, is missing in this discussion of the suicide epidemic?
My son, like too many others, returned home from war to a nation on whose collective consciousness the reality of war, so far away, barely even registered on a daily basis. There were neither rallies of support nor protest in the streets, just a steady stream of troops redeployed to phantom wars. Like too many others, he lost his sense of belonging; in Jarhead author Anthony Swafford’s words: “the brotherhood of arms fade[d] into the rearview mirror.” Like too many others, he felt the loss of meaningful daily work, and like too many others, he bore scars of war kept secret from those who loved him.
Maybe this Memorial Day, instead of continuing to point fingers and ask the same old questions, instead of aiming guilt and blame at convenient targets, we should be asking how we can help a returning soldier feel that he belongs, and how we can help him find meaningful work in a civilian world. Maybe we should look at the wars we continue to wage and compare the costs of keeping them going to the cost of a future that deems life too difficult to live for many returning soldiers.
When my son died, his Army unit conducted his memorial service with full military honors. For sure, this Memorial Day, we should honor all those who died while in the military, including those who died by suicide. We should look into the faces of their families and see our own.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.