Dying for one's country, at home and abroad

Memorial Day has passed, quiet and warm, with full beaches and maybe some visits to cemeteries where the war dead lie.

Those of us who grew up during World War II remember long lines at the groceries for rationed foods like butter, air raid drills with sirens in the night, air wardens patrolling the dark streets to make sure all lights were out, and, saddest of all, the little flags with gold stars that hung from our neighbors’ windows, marking the home where a son had died in battle.

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Today the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are not called “wars” but “support” for forces that we think share our values. But in a covert way both wars are still being fought in our own neighborhoods: internal, psychological struggles in which mentally and physically wounded veterans struggle for meaningful lives and sometimes fail and, more often than we realize, take their own lives in despair.

A few statistics: the annual suicide rate is 29.5 per 100,000 veterans, which is 50 percent higher than the rate of similar civilians. One current study estimates there is one military suicide a day. Over all, the patterns today are quite different than those of previous generations.

Why? Perhaps because Afghanistan and Iraq have attracted more volunteers prone to risk-taking and impulsive behaviors. It’s an all-volunteer army and a high proportion of the fighters have been deployed four or more times. For many of these soldiers the risks of suicide drop when they are abroad and then soar when they return home. While scientists across the country are gathering data, those who kill themselves are little understood. According to the New York Times a theory is emerging that “the very skills they learned to keep themselves alive—unceasing vigilance, snap decision making, intolerance for carelessness, and the urge to act fast and decisively,” work against them in peace time. They are “hyper hardwired” to confront all situations. They are conditioned to strike quickly at night in raids on insurgents—called “vampirework”—but when they are home the failure of someone to pick up a dropped piece of paper is liable to trigger an emotional explosion.

This may explain why a soldier’s suicide rate, 40 per 100,000, is greater when back home. There is no one clear cure for men caught in this track, except the help of friends as well as psychologists who can get them to think before they act. As one struggler put it, as he started his first job, his boss, “got me to see the humanity of the people I was confronting.” That’s a long way from what he was trained to see in war.

Correction: June 3, 2016
A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the suicide rate among veterans is 29.5 percent per 100,000. The annual suicide rate is 29.5 per 100,000 veterans.
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Howley
1 year 6 months ago
Sebastian Junger suggests in his new book "Tribe" that we at home are part of the problem. After risking their lives for us and developing a heightened sense of patriotism, soldiers come home to a country where we treat each other with disrespect and hostility. Maybe we should show our veterans with our actions that we are worth fighting for.
Mark Mitchell
1 year 6 months ago
We at home are part of the problem. How many Catholic churches have a ministry for veterans and family members?How many churches hold educational talks on war, moral injury, reintegration, welcoming , & veteran resources? I encourage members of the Catholic community and ministry to do so.The soul repair is in the community,
Charles Erlinger
1 year 6 months ago
I am trying to think of how the small parishes that our family has belonged to would acquire the human resources with the appropriate expertise to start a ministry to vets that would make any sense to the vets. Returnees from WWII, Korea and Vietnam Nam had plenty of people in the parish and neighborhood who had shared more or less the same experiences or at minimum had gone through the same training as the returnees, spoke more or less the same language, and even cussed the same irritants of life using the same profanities, as everyone my age knows. That's all changed for these current vets. Trying to do something meaningful at the parish level, especially the small parish level, would seem to require a lot of help from the diocese or even from a national coalition of dioceses. Subsidiarity is nice in theory.

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