Over the weekend, we observed the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. As we honored those that gave their lives that fateful day, flooding social media with pictures and stories of the heroes that acted selflessly to save lives, many of us were reminded of our own feelings on that day. We reflected on where we were when we heard the news and the subsequent actions we took. We recalled the devastating images of the towers being hit and ultimately collapsing, and again felt that sense of panic and utter helplessness. We once again experienced horror for those trapped inside the towers and the unimaginable loss of life. It was a day that rocked us to our core. A day we will never forget – and one that hurts to remember.
Our hearts go out to the people that were directly affected by those events and hope that the families and friends of those that lost their lives that day have been able to move forward and find peace and healing. However, we know that with this anniversary, many people will struggle with PTSD, as well as grief, depression and anxiety. This may be particularly true for our US military troops and veterans, dealing not only with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but also with the recent events and military and civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
Veterans are at increased risk for suicide.
Following 9/11, many young men and women joined the military, inspired to be a part of something bigger than themselves and protect our country from further attacks of terrorism. Little did they know that the “War on Terror” would last another 20 years. As with any war, the traumatic experiences that our soldiers endure in wartime, is something that most of us cannot completely comprehend. Our military veterans must learn to live with these memories for the rest of their lives. Just because our troops are home does not mean that the war is over for them – the events of war are still engrained in their minds. We cannot simply thank our soldiers for their service and move on, we must provide them ongoing support in any way that we can. Most importantly, we must ensure that our soldiers have the mental health support that they need help them process their experiences and acclimate to civilian life.
Over the years, most of us have heard that an average of 22 veterans die by suicide each day. We’ve become accustomed to hearing that number. How sad is that? …That 22 people, men and women with friends and families that love them, 22 people who stood up and selflessly defended the freedom of our country, take their own lives every – single – day? … and we accept that as a common statistic. (Sigh). No, we must do better - our veterans deserve better. And, the suicide statistics are rising! Historically, military suicide rates have remained under that of the general population, but not anymore.
Since 9/11, four times as many active and retired military veterans have died by suicide than in active military operations during the “War on Terror”.
A recent study by Thomas Howard Suitt, PhD of Boston University found that post 9/11 veterans are having an even harder time transitioning back into civilian life. He summarizes;
“Suicide rates among the United States public have been increasing for the past twenty years, but among active military personnel and veterans of the post-9/11 wars, the suicide rate is even higher, outpacing average Americans. The “post-9/11 wars” refers to ongoing U.S.-led military operations around the world that grew out of President George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror" and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This paper estimates 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide, significantly more than the 7,057 service members killed in post-9/11 war operations. These high suicide rates are caused by multiple factors, some inherent to fighting in a war and others unique to America’s “war on terror” framework. Partially, they are due to risks common to fighting any war: high exposure to trauma, stress, military culture and training, continued access to guns, and the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life. In the post-9/11 era, the rise of improvised explosive devices (IED), the attendant rise in traumatic brain injuries (TBI), the war’s protracted length, advances in medical treatment that keep service members in the military longer, and the American public’s disinterest in the post-9/11 wars, have greatly contributed to increased suicide rates. High suicide rates mark the failure of the U.S. government and U.S. society to manage the mental health costs of our current conflicts.”
How can we better support our active service members and veterans?
Arguably, the most important thing that we can do to help our service members and veterans, and reduce their risk for suicide, is to provide emotional and mental health support. This isn’t always easy, as we (as civilians) may not be able to relate to their unique experiences and trauma. We can try, of course, by being open and active listeners, being empathetic and supportive, and providing guidance to resources that may ease their acclimation back into civilian life. However, it is likely that our heroes may need more emotional support than just the love and support of family and friends. If you see a veteran struggling, encourage them to seek professional counseling or join a veteran support group to establish a solid foundation of support. Often, these support systems can also direct or provide access to other valuable resources, such as assistance with housing, food, and other essentials.
Other ways to support military service members and veterans:
Reach out to a military family in your community and offering a simple gesture of friendship and support. Get to know them and see if there is anyway you can lighten their burdens. It may be as simple as running errands, babysitting, inviting them over for a meal, helping with a job search, providing a ride to a doctor or counseling appointment. Small acts of kindness can make a big difference.
Volunteer or donate to a non-profit veteran support or mentoring program. There are many to choose from; Helping Hands for Freedom, Wounded Warrior Project, Warrior Rising, Fisher House Foundation, Hope for the Warriors, and many more trusted organizations.
Visit an elderly or wounded veteran. Visit a veteran’s hospital or nursing home and provide a little company and conversation to brighten their day.
Invite a veteran or two over for a holiday gathering. Invite a veteran or service member to your holiday celebration and help them to feel welcome and included. The holidays can be particularly lonely and depressing for those that may not have a place to go.
Advocate and spread awareness. Advocate for programs that aide our military service members and veterans in getting the financial, emotional, physical and mental health support that they may need. Aide in reducing the stigma of receiving mental and behavioral health services by spreading awareness.
Veteran Suicide & Crisis Resources