Last week, I did an article concerning the plight of a lot of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and for that matter and 35 years later from Vietnam. The real story, as I dug further, is even worse than I imagined and none of it is being elevated in MSM. The truth is we are losing more soldiers to suicide on a daily basis after they return than we are losing soldiers on the battle field. On average 18 per day, every day! There are, on average, 30 attempted suicides by returning veterans every day. The suicide rate among war veterans is extraordinary, new data reveals reported by The Army Times .
“Of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans,” said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at a VA-sponsored suicide prevention conference in January, Inter Press Service reported.
The Times noted that “In general, VA officials said, women attempt suicide more often, but men are more likely to succeed in the attempt.” The report cites access to health care and age — younger veterans are less likely to try — as two major factors in the suicide rate, and notes that the VA is seeking to strengthen its suicide prevention programs.
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, “Roughly 56 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively.” The struggle among veterans to return to everyday life has been documented over the years.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War and a multiple tour medic, I struggled with my demons for several years. I never sought help or treatment, as so many of us did not. Any soldier will tell you that “civilians” simply do not have a frame of reference to even begin to understand what a soldier is even coping with as he or she struggles to re-assimilate into civilian society. Yes friends and family can be sympathetic and empathetic, but they have no frame of reference to say “I understand what you are going through.”
I have had a sense however, that the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were having even a rougher go of it than my alumni from Vietnam because of two factors. First, there are a lot higher number of “drafted soldiers” in these campaigns. No, there isn’t a draft, but so many people were placed into active combat duty because they were serving in the reserves, more than in any other war.
Secondly, there are so many older troops. These are men and women who are not single, but have families, jobs and careers. Suddenly they have been yanked from their lives and do three or four tours in combat zones. Even the term “combat zones” have a very different meaning in these campaigns. At least in Vietnam, we had some semblance of front lines and combat zones, but not in these campaigns. No chance to hunker in a “hooch” and get a little R&R. It is 24/7 on your toes in these campaigns. The numbers are really showing it too.
The Associated Press reported in November 2007 that one in four homeless people across the nation is likely to be a veteran, even though veterans constitute a mere 11 percent of overall adults in the United States. “And homelessness is not just a problem among middle-age and elderly veterans,” AP added. “Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are trickling into shelters and soup kitchens seeking services, treatment or help with finding a job.” Homelessness among women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq is on the rise.
The Boston Globe reported last year that “number of female service members who have become homeless after leaving the military has jumped dramatically in recent years.” One in ten homeless veterans under 45 years of age is a woman, statistics showed in July of 2009. “Some of the first homeless vets that walked into our office were single moms,” Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s executive director and founder, told the Globe.
Troubling new data show there is an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans who are receiving some type of treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department. Seven percent of the attempts are successful, and 11 percent of those who don’t succeed on the first attempt try again within nine months. The numbers, which come at a time when VA is strengthening its suicide prevention programs, show about 18 veteran suicides a day, about five by veterans who are receiving VA care.
Access to care appears to be a key factor, officials said, noting that once a veteran is inside the VA care program, screening programs are in place to identify those with problems, and special efforts are made to track those considered at high risk, such as monitoring whether they are keeping appointments.
A key part of the new data shows the suicide rate is lower for veterans aged 18 to 29 who are using VA health care services than those who are not. That leads VA officials to believe that about 250 lives have been saved each year as a result of VA treatment. VA’s suicide hotline has been receiving about 10,000 calls a month from current and former service members. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Service members and veterans should push 1 for veterans’ services. Dr. Janet Kemp, VA’s national suicide prevention coordinator, credits the hotline with rescuing 7,000 veterans who were in the act of suicide — in addition to referrals, counseling and other help.
”We have now nearly two million vets of Iraq and Afghanistan and we still haven’t seen the type of mobilization of resources necessary to handle an epidemic of veteran suicides,” Aaron Glantz, an editor at New America Media editor and author of “The War Comes Home”, told IPS. ”With [President Barack] Obama surging in Afghanistan coupled with his unwillingness to withdraw speedily from Iraq, it means we have more veterans who have served more and more tours and as a result we have an escalating number of people coming home with PTSD, depression and other mental health issues,” Glantz continued.
Health officials have pointed to the multiple tours of duty served by many U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq as one of the stresses placed on military personnel that differs from previous wars fought by the U.S. “The unfortunate truth is that the real challenge begins when these service men and women return home and readjust to day-to-day life,” said Rep. Michael McMahon, co-founder of the Congressional Invisible Wounds Caucus.
“The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs must be prepared with the appropriate staff and funding to conduct post-deployment psychological screenings with a mental health professional for all service men and women,” he said. “Evidently, the paper questionnaires currently in use simply do not suffice. How many more young men and women must die before we provide the necessary mental health care?” The VA estimated that in 2005, the suicide rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18-29 was 44.99, but jumped to 56.77 in 2007.
FAQ about Homeless Veterans
Who are homeless veterans?
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly five percent being female. The majority of them are single; come from urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans.
America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.
How many homeless veterans are there?
Although flawless counts are impossible to come by – the transient nature of homeless populations presents a major difficulty – VA estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.
Why are veterans homeless?
In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.
A top priority for homeless veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol. Although “most homeless people are single, unaffiliated men… most housing money in existing federal homelessness programs, in contrast, is devoted to helping homeless families or homeless women with dependant children,” as is stated in the study “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” (Understanding Homelessness: New Policy and Research Perspectives, Fannie Mae Foundation, 1997).
Doesn’t VA take care of homeless veterans?
To a certain extent, yes, but VA’s specialized homeless programs served more than 92,000 veterans in 2009, which is highly commendable. This still leaves well over 100,000 more veterans, however, who must seek assistance from local government agencies and community- and faith-based service organizations.
Since 1987, VA’s programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with such community service providers to help expand services to more veterans in crisis. These partnerships are credited with reducing the number of homeless veterans by more than half over the past six years. More information about VA homeless programs and initiatives can be found here.
What services do veterans need?
Veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing, nutritional meals, basic physical health care, substance abuse care and aftercare, mental health counseling, personal development and empowerment. Additionally, veterans need job assessment, training and placement assistance. NCHV strongly believes that all programs to assist homeless veterans must focus on helping them obtain and sustain employment.
What seems to work best?
The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, “veterans helping veterans” groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.
Government money, while important, is currently limited, and available services are often at capacity. It is critical, therefore, that community groups reach out to help provide the support, resources and opportunities most Americans take for granted: housing, employment and health care.
VA has approximately 4,000 agreements with community partners nationwide. These types of partnerships have demonstrated that groups are most successful when they work in collaboration with federal, state and local government agencies; other homeless providers; and veteran service organizations. Veterans who participate in these collaborative programs are afforded more services and have higher chances of becoming tax-paying, productive citizens again.
These numbers are so disturbing that we all have to intervene. Of all of the issues we are facing as a nation, this issue should have a top priority. They are our sons and daughters. As families, I know that they also are at a loose as to how to deal with the problem. But this definitely an issue we can deal with in our local communities. We just have to care and then find out how to act. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans suggests the following guidelines.
What can I do?
- Determine the need in your community. Visit with homeless veteran providers. Contact your mayor’s office for a list of providers, or search the NCHV database.
- Involve others. If you are not already part of an organization, align yourself with a few other people who are interested in attacking this issue.
- Participate in local homeless coalitions. Chances are, there is one in your community. If not, this could be the time to bring people together around this critical need.
- Make a donation to your local homeless veteran provider.
- Contact your elected officials. Discuss what is being done in your community for homeless veterans.
In a world where we seem insignificant and helpless most of the time to affect a positive outcome, this is one area where we are empowered. Get to know the situation in your community. Find out how you can volunteer. My personal example was to identify the homeless veterans in our area. The next step was to insure they are got enrolled for VA care. Then it was to make sure they sought the care they needed. We did a few fund raisers and bought a van to make sure they all could have transportation to the VA hospital. We were just a few folks who cared, but I think we made a big difference in people’s lives. You can do the same.