Why Do So Many Veterans Kill Themselves?

That’s the title of an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post (Thursday, April 5, 2018, page A17) by Thomas R. Hicks, a writer well known for his books on the U.S. military. Hicks notes that a veteran is about 22 percent more likely to commit suicide than a comparable non-veteran. And “the suicide rate for veterans has gone up 35 percent since 2001.” Why?

Hicks offers four reasons—people feel empty and lost as wars wind down with dismal results, repeated deployments drain a soldier’s reserve, brain injury takes its toll, and the prospect of yet another war (North Korea?) is more than soldiers can face.

Only one of these possible causes sounds credible to me. We now know that many cases of Post-Traumatic Stress result from physical damage to the brain. And it’s clear to me that veteran suicides are almost invariably connected with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).

As I’ve said a number of times in this blog, combat—fighting to the death on the battlefield—grievously damages the soul. The resulting psychic wound can’t be healed. The only option is to learn to cope. I suffer from PTSI myself. I know firsthand of its tortures. I learned early that to handle with this malady, I had to face my memories, bring them into consciousness, deal with them head-on.

There’s good evidence that avoiding the memories, pushing them into the unconscious mind, worsens PTSI. And the longer the memories are suppressed, the worse the damage. So many of my fellow Vietnam veterans never speak of the scenes that lurk in the back of their minds. They don’t talk about how their spiritual pain was exacerbated by the way they were greeted when they returned to the U.S., being spit upon and called “baby killer” and “butcher.” Locked into the subconscious, the memories fester. Years after combat, the symptoms of PTSI appear—nightmares, flashbacks, irrational rages, panic attacks. For some Vietnam warriors, PTSI is only now burgeoning.

I’m lucky. Shaped by my early life to be a scrapper, I’ve never been suicidal. Besides, I was a writer long before Vietnam, and I learned to write down what happened as a way of forcing myself to face my unspeakable memories. Had I believed—as so many did— that it was cowardly to cringe as I recalled the grisly deaths I witnessed, my will to live might have failed. Had I banished the gruesome scenes of battle from my consciousness, my tortured soul might have cried out for relief.

So when I hear that a fellow veteran has died by his own hand, I realize that there but for grace of luck went I.

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