May 17, 2008 – Timothy K. Israel was likely just one of 18 veterans who committed suicide on May 9, according to internal e-mails of the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Israel, a decorated Iraq war veteran, was found hanging in the Elwood Police Department jail cell. He used the drawstring of his Army-issue pants.
Just three days before Israel took his life, the House Veterans Affairs Committee grilled VA officials for apparently concealing statistics regarding the suicides of U.S. veterans.
A CBS News investigation revealed internal e-mails from the VA in which agency officials conspired to hide the staggering suicide numbers from the press.
Ira Katz, the VA’s director of Mental Health, said in a Dec. 15 e-mail, “There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.”
In another e-mail, Katz attempts to keep the true suicide statistics from the public. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
The recent death of Israel and CBS News reports reveal a little-known problem in the U.S. military, one that has existed for decades, according to Anderson Vietnam veteran Larry Wiesenauer.
Wiesenauer, director of Vet to Vet of Madison County, is one of many combat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his combat time in Vietnam.
Dr. Steve Herman is the director of the Psychiatry Ambulatory Clinic in Indianapolis and said PTSD “is the result of an individual experiencing a severe stressor in such a way that they are unable to process it or grieve their way through it appropriately.”
PTSD sufferers include those who’ve been involved in a car accident, rape, combat or any other life-altering stressor. “Women who have been raped, people in violent situations or car accidents, the survivors of (Sept. 11) — most had PTSD,” Wiesenauer said. He believes combat veterans face a different challenge in PTSD due to extended time exposed to the stressor.
“The difference between their PTSD and combat PTSD is that ours is not related to a single incident, but a way of life. (That life) becomes an integral part of our emotions. It eats up a great part of our sense of reality because the reality we live in now, we still run against the combat check list.”
Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, withdrawal from friends and family, avoidance of social situations, poor sleep patterns and intrusive thoughts, according to Herman.
Often times, veterans say, the mental challenges of PTSD lead to alcohol and drug abuse, imprisonment and homelessness.
Joe Lansford is the director of Stepping Stones, a Madison County organization aimed at helping veterans. The two-year transitional housing program at Stepping Stones currently houses 53 people. Ninety percent of them are veterans, Lansford said.
Many believe untreated PTSD has also led to suicide in veterans. While Israel was never diagnosed with PTSD, friends and family have acknowledged that he may have been suffering from the disorder.
Lansford said he has seen PTSD lead to suicide. “I’ve seen it over the years. I’ve seen guys just drink themselves to death.”
Though only 20 to 30 percent of all soldiers reportedly return home with PTSD, Lansford said all are changed in some way. “You’re not the same guy as when you went into military service. The military just does something to you.”
Wiesenauer has lost several of his brothers-in-arms to PTSD and suicide, more in fact, than he lost in combat.
“I had several friends from high school and I’m the only one alive. The others died from homelessness or suicide. Two are on the (Vietnam Memorial) wall. They aren’t alive anymore, and it’s a consequence of Vietnam. The same thing is going to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
It may already be happening. According to a recent Associated Press story, “In 2006, the Army’s suicide rate rose to 17.3 per 100,000 troops — the highest in 26 years of record-keeping.”
An article released by the National Center for PTSD, “The Unique Circumstances and Mental Health Impact of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” explored the threat for PTSD and ensuing suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans.
“The conflict in Iraq has been fraught with the dangers that ensue from guerilla warfare and terrorist actions (e.g., roadside bombs) stemming from ambiguous civilian threats. In this context, there is no safe place and no safe duty.”
Wiesenauer faced similar guerrilla warfare in Vietnam and said combat vets with PTSD continue to live in the warfare mentality long after returning home.
“One of the main ones is hypervigilance. When you’re in combat, you realize that every second you’re life is on the line. You have to be aware of your surroundings in order to survive. Once it gets started, your brain doesn’t let go of it. I can go into a restaurant and, if I sit down to eat, I will appraise everyone in the restaurant before I can eat.”
Jerry Sensing is the Veteran’s Service Officer for Madison County and said many veterans are not willing to seek treatment for PTSD. “We see people coming in all the time that need help and they are not getting it.”
Sensing said a great number of veterans minimize the disorder, which will lead to an episode. “A lot of people dismiss it and say it’s common for people to have problems and rather than them deal with it they lash out at each other. They lash out at each other and their children.”
Sensing places some of the blame on the military, which, he says, is not addressing the growing problem of suicide and PTSD in veterans.
“The Army is not dealing with or handling this. They’re not equipping the soldiers coming back with this. Usually, the soldier is back in the population and they’re released away from the Army and the next thing you know, there’s a problem. What happened? Well, he came back with problems and nobody knew about it. The way you find out about it is when he explodes. Then everybody shuts the barn door afterwards, saying we should have done this, we should have provided him some help.’”
Wiesenauer has his own beliefs about why the military has allegedly not addressed the problem. “It’s because soldiers in our society are not treated as part of a family but as soldiers and a commodity. When you reduce them to a commodity, you make them expendable.”