Letter to the Editor – Suicide is the Hidden Horror of the Iraq War

Cumberland Times-News

December 10, 2007 – Some months ago a friend of mine – an Iraq vet – committed suicide. He was a solid citizen, a hard working family man, serious, level-headed, and had a deep desire to help others. The kind of person who makes a community a better place to live.

Shortly after he returned from a tour in Iraq, he put a bullet through his head. Was this an unfortunate aberration, or was this an indication of something more insidious?

War changes people. Killing is an unnatural act, requiring a person to brutalize a basic moral instinct that seems to be hard-wired at birth into the vast majority of people. Participating in the often senseless death of civilians – and civilians pay the greatest price in war (as many as three million killed in Vietnam, over a million so far in Iraq) – plays havoc with the mind, often leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

At this point, almost a third of returning Iraq vets are reporting PTSD. Are these soldiers getting the help they need? Of course not. The current administration spends billions and billions on weapons of mass destruction while permitting the Veterans Administration to carry a backlog of 800,000 cases, and mental health is not a high priority. I know of one soldier with serious PTSD at a VA hospital whose treatment consists of one hour of group therapy a day. Now that’s caring for our troops.

What’s the result of this neglect? CBS News recently did a massive study on suicide going back 12 years, using data from the 45 states that responded to the CBS request for information. After looking at the data, specifically searching out suicides of veterans, CBS made an astounding discovery. In 2005, 6,256 vets committed suicide – undoubtedly more considering that five states didn’t share their statistics. That’s an average of 17 veteran suicides a day.

How does the VA respond to these shocking statistics? The VA maintains that these suicides result from “personal problems,” that these deaths have nothing to do with what soldiers saw and did in combat. I’m not a psychologist, but I could tell the VA that my friend was as steady and normal as anyone I’ve ever known.

He didn’t have “personal problems.” What he had was a continuous loop tape of blood, death, and destruction in his head that he couldn’t turn off. He honored his country’s call to war, and his country dishonored him when he returned, just as it dishonors each of those 17 vets who will commit suicide today and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Author Penny Coleman, widow of a vet who committed suicide, points out a chilling irony. Mr. Bush likes to say about suicide bombers that, “Those people, they aren’t like us; they don’t value life the way we do.” He often talks about suicide bombers being motivated by despair, neglect and poverty – though the facts don’t support his assertions. (He follows in the grand tradition of Ronald Reagan who said, “Facts are stupid things.) Yet 6 million veterans and their families have no healthcare. Brain injury and PTSD make getting and keeping a job almost impossible. And though vets make up only 11 percent of the adult population, they make up 26 percent of the homeless. Talk about despair, neglect, and poverty!

To quote Ms. Coleman directly from a recent article, “There is something so smugly superior in the way we talk about suicide bombers and the cultures that produce them. But here is an unsettling thought. In 2005, 6,256 American veterans took their own lives.

That same year, there were about 130 documented deaths of suicide bombers in Iraq. Do the math. That’s a ratio of 50-1. So who is it that is most effectively creating a culture of suicide and martyrdom? If George Bush is right, that it is despair, neglect and poverty that drive people to such acts, then isn’t it worth pointing out that we are doing a far better job?”

I hold Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney accountable for my friend’s death, and for the death of every vet who honorably served his country in this most dishonorable war, to be cruelly abandoned upon return.

The blood of these soldiers drips from the hands of Bush and Cheney, as does the blood of the innocent women and children slaughtered in this most evil of wars. Where is the outrage at these callous warmongers who extend tours and plot to attack yet another country while ignoring injured vets?

Where is the Congress? Where are my senators, Mr. Byrd and Mr. Rockefeller? What have we become that we allow this to continue?

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