The Uncounted War Dead

Today, I will be thinking of friends lost, and the many more I never knew, who gave their lives in service to our country. Those who die in combat are recognized in the local and national monuments that we rededicate each Memorial Day. Yet the names of those lost on distant battlefields fail to capture the full measure of American lives lost. While we spend our time today honoring the memory of our war dead, approximately 20 more veterans will commit suicide. They are dying of wounds suffered, often in combat, that are invisible and everlasting.  

Prior to 2006, veterans were less likely to commit suicide than civilians. But that has changed as more and more troops have returned from multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, U.S. military veterans have a 22 percent greater risk of suicide than Americans who have not served in the military. Female veterans’ risk of suicide is an appalling 2.5 times higher than civilian adult women. Additionally, substance abuse and related health problems – often tied to unseen wounds – have killed many whom we fail to count among our war dead.  This year, my West Point class lost a graduate who had served two combat tours in Iraq who died due to complications from substance abuse. His death is as much a war death as that of our four other classmates who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a country, we can and must do more. We must increase the availability of mental health services both in our country and in the Veterans Health Administration. As veterans are more likely to use firearms to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, passing legislation that institutes mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases and “red flag” laws will have a great impact on reducing veteran suicides, as well as reducing suicides in the broader population.

The rate of suicide among female veterans is a national disgrace. We must take real, immediate steps to address our failure to care for them. This includes not only transforming a military and veteran health system that still does not serve women adequately, but also a military culture that has failed to adequately address the scourge of sexual harassment and assault.  It is past time to remove the adjudication of sexual harassment and assault from the military chain of command. The military’s failure to address the issue head-on has meant that for far too many of our female troops, the horror of war doesn’t end “outside the wire.”

Finally, we must tackle substance abuse by combat veterans as a symptom of war, akin to any other wound suffered in combat. Too often, veterans with substance abuse issues find themselves in our criminal justice system instead of with a mental healthcare provider. Veterans Courts are a welcome addition to the arsenal of solutions needed to combat veteran addiction, and Virginia politicians should be shamed into expanding access to Veterans Treatment Dockets throughout the state. For many veterans, mental health and substance abuse treatment options remain too few with long wait times to see a professional who can help. It is time for our government to act expeditiously to provide the resources needed to support them once they’re home.

Today, as you visit a monument or cemetery, or just enjoy the first weekend of summer, I’d ask you to join me in thinking about the approximately 20 women and men who served our country who will commit suicide today.  They are casualties of our wars, and we cannot just accept that they will die.  As a country, this Memorial Day, let’s commit to giving them the welcome home they deserve: a chance to live full and healthy lives in the country for which they fought.