This nation’s shame is invisible to most, yet it’s everywhere this holiday season.
In lonely motel rooms, homes seemingly filled with Christmas spirit and low-rent apartments, America’s veterans take their lives in ever-higher numbers.
Instead of a decline in this epidemic, a review of Department of Defense, as well as U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, reports finds self-inflicted deaths for young veterans are climbing.
Consider that suicides by active-duty personnel shot up from 57 deaths last year during the months of April, May and June to 75 suicides this year for the same time period.
While those numbers may seem small, realize that suicide statistics after Johnny comes marching home are far higher.
Between 2015 and 2016 (the latest year available), the suicide rate for veterans ages 18 to 34 jumped more than 10 percent.
Overall, the suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than for nonveteran adults. For women veterans, the suicide rate was 1.8 times higher.
Waves of despair, however, overwhelm Vietnam War-era service personnel in numbers even more alarming.
Veterans ages 55 to 74 represent the greatest portion of deaths, according to the latest VA report. In 2016, some 3,500 senior veterans died from suicide. That is an average of 10 older veterans taking their lives every day — the very same men and women who once fought valiantly just to stay alive one more day.
But there is new hope.
While the Veterans Administration this week stands accused of failing to spend millions of dollars earmarked for veterans suicide prevention, the private sector is stepping up with a small army of researchers.
The mission is to bring to light the often complex series of circumstances that lead veterans to end their lives, and the focus is on seven selected areas, including a large chunk of Southern California.
Appropriately, this new national program is called Operation Deep Dive.
With a $2.9 million grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, leadership from the nonprofit America’s Warrior Partnership and help from University of Alabama researchers, Operation Deep Dive is just getting off the ground.
But already, Deep Dive promises interim reports before its final study is completed in about four years.
The reason for the rush, explains Leah Taylor, national program manager, is that every day is critical.
“The goal is not to wait, to not hold data back, but to take it and run with it,” says Taylor. “We want to create change as soon as possible.”
Next year, researchers will fan out in the seven selected project areas to uncover details about individual veterans who took their lives. They will connect with local veterans, medical examiners, coroners, civic leaders. They will interview veterans at risk.
Operation Deep Dive also marks the first time a suicide study will differentiate between vets with honorable discharges and vets who left under other circumstances such as bad conduct or dishonorable discharges.
“When you join the military,” Taylor explains, “you join a culture.” But when you leave, you can lose your sense of purpose, of belonging.
Adjusting to the demands of civilian life often is marked by challenges unique to those who served. Finding an affordable apartment, making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, rebuilding family relations can feel impossible.
Being unemployed or underemployed can pile on feelings of low self-worth.
With a strict code of respecting privacy, researchers will focus on community-level causes of self-harm as well as dangerous behaviors. They will track down recent suicides and talk to surviving relatives.
They will review any additional information that might help in discovering commonalities in veteran suicide. Then, they will geomap the factors.
“We’re pulling a lot of different data from a lot of different sources,” says Taylor.
The last step will be to create different models to help a wide range of veterans who may be in danger of losing faith in their future.
Targeted communities for study include Orange County, Florida’s Panhandle region, Atlanta, Ga., Minneapolis, Minn., Buffalo, N.Y., and Greenville and Charleston, S.C.
“We’re interviewing veterans in those communities,” Taylor explains, “and we’re interviewing loved ones.
“We want to create a web of protection for people who are considering ending their lives.”
Denton Knapp, the recently appointed head of the Tierney Center for Veterans Services at Goodwill Center of OC, leads the Orange County Operation Deep Dive effort.
He brings to the table an unusual skill set, but not because he’s a newly retired Army colonel.
Along with a record that includes graduating West Point, earning a master of strategic studies degree at the Army War College, combat in Iraq and being named this month as brigadier general for the California State Military Reserve, Knapp is suited for Deep Dive because he is a man of courage, conviction and compassion.
As Knapp and I talk, he shares that 12 years ago he lost his 20-year-old son to suicide.
The tragedy was particularly heavy because that same year Knapp lost 18 of his men in Iraq.
“I look at veteran families,” Knapp quietly allows, “and I know what it’s like when someone’s gone. I’ve lived through this.”
After his son’s death, this bulldog of a man served as a lead organizer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and continues to volunteer. Just a month ago, Knapp and his wife took part in the annual “Out of Darkness” suicide prevention walk.
“If people don’t have family and friends to support them and somebody pushing them in the right direction,” Knapp says, veterans can become easy targets for post-traumatic stress.
“You have to catch people early,” he says, “and get people the right care and counseling.”
Still, Knapp understands how difficult it can be to offer help, and allows that his own son (who was not in the military) showed no symptoms of depression.
To combat suicide, Knapp plans to explore which veterans get support, which ones don’t, if drugs or alcohol are factors, whether veterans are incorrectly branded as PTSD malcontents.
Overwhelmingly, the VA, the defense department and Knapp as well, note that rather than suffering post-traumatic stress most veterans emerge with strong life skills. The retired colonel points to “character, competence, commitment.”
Still, with an estimated 130,000 veterans in Orange County, too many are on the razor’s edge between living life and taking their own life.
A 2015 USC study of Orange County veterans, for example, found that “among post-9/11 veterans, almost 20 percent had considered suicide and 17 percent had made a plan to die by suicide.”
Knapp suspects the percentages may be even more grim. I agree.
On Saturday night, I was asked to attend a veterans event to receive a VA community partnership award. Yet even before dinner, I found myself sharing with a troubled soul who served in a hellhole called Ramadi.
Several years ago, this Marine confessed, he decided to take his life. But in the final moment he found a ray of hope.
And that’s my Christmas column for Sunday.
Veteran suicide rates still climbing, but new national program may reverse tide