Military Wire: In last decade, U.S. veteran suicides top Vietnam War fatalities

For those who know me, I am a true believer in the principle that we all can overcome. It takes work, and at times it is really ugly — like, brutally ugly. When I sit with combat veterans, I can feel it. And when I sit with the families, I can feel it. And while I can claim to be an overcomer, I can’t imagine losing my children or my spouse. I can say that I’d be a trooper through that experience, but I don’t truly know.

What I do know is that no trial, tribulation or circumstance has gotten the best of me or those whom I’ve been honored to sit with, interview and build life with to date. But that is not the case for more than 60,000 of our U.S. veterans. Since 2008, that’s how many of our country’s veterans have taken their own lives.

A 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) revealed that more U.S. veterans have died by suicide between 2008 and 2017 than died during the entire Vietnam War.

If you recall, the Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975, claiming more than 58,000 American lives, and until recently, was the longest American War.

In one decade, more than 60,000 U.S veterans have taken their own lives. I’m not here to debate the method — it is true that more than 70 percent of male veterans used a gun; more than 40 percent of female veterans the same. When one loses hope and chooses to end it, the method doesn’t really matter — the outcome is the same.

And the impact is often widespread and generational.

When one of my friends returned from a combat tour, we met at a restaurant down by Joint Base Lewis McChord and after the small talk, he put his fork down, looked at me straight-on, and shared that his sole purpose for going on his second deployment was to commit suicide. Fortunately, thoughts of how his son would take the news stopped him from pulling the trigger. And he asked me, “What can you do to fix this?”

I can do my part, like we all can. I am not a therapist. I do have a great therapist though — primarily to help me deal with the line of work I am in. My team develops great programs and we have been quite successful at helping military and veteran families get back on pathways to personal and professional success — however they define success. And I hear the stories. Lots of them. Thousands of them.

And when you break through the shell — the armor of being strong and without weakness — you’ll find that more than 60 percent would seek some sort of support network or therapy or counseling, if there wasn’t a stigma attached to it.

This is why my non-profit pledged $500,000 to support the Veterans and Families Health and Wellness Center at the Multigenerational Edmonds Waterfront Center. That is a big number for us. A scary number — but what is scarier is to do nothing. You can join us. Help us reach that number. All it takes is for 40,000 of us to give $12. One dollar a month.

We’ll work with NAMI and the Cohen Clinic and others to ensure that there is support at the Waterfront Center — so when those breakthrough moments happen, when they gain hope again, they can walk out those doors and experience the beauty many of us enjoy daily — without the stigma of “going to a clinic.”

If we all do our part, perhaps the next decade won’t be as heartbreaking.

— By Mike Schindler

Edmonds resident Mike Schindler is the founder and chief executive officer of Operation Military Family Cares –– a 501(c)(3) veteran service organization and technology provider that combats veteran homelessness, while working to strengthen relationships and equip communities and families for success.

 

 

27 Replies to “Military Wire: In last decade, U.S. veteran suicides top Vietnam War fatalities”

  1. I have very few heros in our world Mike, but you are one of them. I know you don’t see yourself that way but I do.

    We train our young people to do things and endure things that most of us would find unthinkable. We send them off to war where they are severely damaged mentally and physically and then expect them to return home and reinsert themselves in normal (whatever that is) living situations with no problems of readjustment. If they have problems, we tend to stigmatize them. It’s so unfair. Thank God we have people like you to mitigate our shortcomings as a society.

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    1. But wasn’t the death rate much higher (non suicide) with Viet nam? Seems like there were thousands a week dying.. not saying we don’t need to do more regarding suicides. I think we should have helped more with both wars. What would you say is the root cause of suicides in the military? Does the money your seeking go to hiring therapists or overhead?
      So they don’t want to seek help because of the stigma attached. THat seems like a marketing problem. Is there a way to repackage the consultation location?? Say if you teamed up with gyms (I’m assuming military work out still) had offices there…then they are just going to the gym…just a thought.

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      1. Hey Joy – 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam – and likely countless others after the war was over. What the VA looks at is in the past ten years more than 60,000 Veterans have committed suicide – all ages. We pledged the money for two reasons – so that we could be a part of helping finish the Multigenerational Waterfront Center – which will certainly outlive us – and also provide a place for Veterans and their families to get help, should they choose to seek it. The money we are raising is 100% pass through and goes to the Waterfront.

        You are right on the marketing…but here’s the challenge. We are trained to compartmentalize. We are trained to be strong and without weakness – and to show weakness gets you shortlisted for early-out or duties one would prefer not to do. So…while there is marketing, the best marketing is for members of our tribe – like Elena did – to share their experiences in hope that someone will act on it.

        The VA has strong programs – and they’ve been working to “rebrand.” I sit on the Regional Community Veterans Engagement Board and have close ties with both the fed and state VAs – and both are doing great work. It unfortunately doesn’t break the “stigma.” So…you meet people where they are at.

        Take a walk down at the waterfront again – and you’ll realize the joy this location will bring to many, regardless of their service to this country.

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  2. Vets go from having a service life that is a fraternity with a purpose, to a the civilian life of facebook and solitary dog ownership. The book “Bowling Alone” talks about this, regarding societies lost community engagement by enlarge.
    https://www.amazon.com/Bowling-Alone-Robert-D-Putnam-ebook/dp/B003DYGOO6

    I felt depressed as a vet, and was able to troubleshoot my own depression to not being part of something larger anymore. I work with lots of veterans, some who were in just 4 years and now they’re 40-50yo men and they still talk about their service life constantly like it was a love-lost.

    Then there’s the VA, which has always done a lot of harm. Vets get out, then become dependent on their VA benefits in the same way a stray cat might be dependent on someone who feeds it. The VA provides just enough to survive, but not enough to prosper, keeps vets waiting in a cue, keeps vet around VA service providers making it harder to venture out and have a robust post-military career.

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    1. Matt – you are spot-on. Mission, purpose, identity is assigned while in service – and then when one transitions there is a sense of loss. And unless one is committed to discovering their post-service identity, they can struggle – and often times do. One has got to be committed to their personal growth. I was fortunate and had a great commander who reminded me constantly that I was responsible for me – “do your part – always – and with excellence.” That being said, I still stumbled after service – and found 14 jobs that I just wasn’t cut out for lol.

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  3. Clinton, you are kind. You are right. I don’t see myself as a hero. I just do my part. Like many of us. Mark Divine, former CMDR and Navy SEAL, reminded me of our sailor code – Honor. Courage. Commitment. But he flipped it on me – he said, “Mike, when you start with Commitment – like true commitment – no off-ramps, then you’ll appear to have courage and you’ll act honorably…but remember, it starts with commitment.” Clinton, if we all just start with committing to being quick to listen, slow to speak and to bettering our surroundings, we’ll discover that our entire community is filled with heroes. I truly believe that (even those who think differently than me lol).

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  4. I just went on http://www.OMFCARES.com and made a monthly donation. Also posting your site on my Twitter. Mike, It is not enough that you and Matt are my favorite “commenters”; but you blow me away by your compassion and ability to get things done. My husband flew Mac flights during Vietnam and was also in Air National Guard as well as Army Guard. He said it was a sad and hard thing to do flying young men to and fro from that horrible war…….. many to never return. God Bless You!

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    1. Linda, grateful. When we choose to do the hard work of discovering our true mission, purpose and identity, life can be faced with compassion and reason.
      And when we all do our part to be better neighbors, better parents, better servant leaders we can truly transform our own lives and those around us.

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  5. Fellow vets: Go to the VA Health Care System for any mental or medical treatment. It’s to your advantage to enroll with the VA as soon as you ETS. I am a vet with 9 years active duty in the Army. I was stationed at several U. S. and overseas bases. I know how difficult it is to re-start your life after the military. But the VA has actually done right by me, for more than 3 decades now. I take vets out to Thanksgiving dinner, no ulterior motive, just to support one another and keep each other company. There is no perfect system, and you yourself have a responsibility to take care of your health, proper nutrition, exercise, cut down on alcohol (especially alcohol). Many of us are very strong, and moral, people and can pull ourselves, and each other, up by our shoe strings on a daily basis. OUtsiders make us out to be like a bunch of cry babies who are too weak to navigate life. Well, I have done well for myself and know several other vets who have as well. The VA has walk-in service for those seeking maybe just support, or maybe more involved mental-health treatment. There is a suicide hotline. There is also an ER 24/7. It’s free for most, or there is a small charge; you won’t get any huge medical bills afterwards, I can promise you that. At the VA hospital in Seattle, where I go, you can also find leads for many other services, such as housing, job placement, etc. Yet, there are shysters out there who prey on vets to pay for a service that you can get at the VA for free. Even if the money you pay is comouflaged as a “donation.” Don’t sign any contract! Go to the VA first!

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    1. I agree. Veterans should definitely register for both VHA and VBA…and their telehealth is for sure improving. I am like you…we are trained to navigate and overcome what life throws at us…and some will. Others won’t. So…we leave no man or woman behind.

      The services at the waterfront will always be free…and provide services to those who can’t or won’t drive to Seattle.

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      1. I encourage vets to move on, not to register for VA. No to digress, I even let my GI Bill expire, and I compare the experience I gained in aviation via OJT against the schooling my colleagues got via the GI Bill. Get schooling while you’re active duty, not right when you need to find a job. The VA fosters dependancy. They even cooked the books to hide the cues of patients waiting for care, made secret waiting lists. The VA is what socialized medicine looks like. Keep your military friends, but become a civilian as soon and as good as possible. That’s a huge task because the service takes you from your mom, becomes your new mom, then just drops you off in a jungle as a man-child when they’re done with you. The transition is very hard. There’s even a stigma vets have to overcome on the civilian side, where society typecasts vets as crass and perpetually blue-collar or no-collar. In my experience, having military service on your resume is a liability in cities like Seattle.

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        1. Alicia – we will be presenting a check here shortly / and another one at year end. We are committed.

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    1. The five clinical spaces that will be in the waterfront center will be dedicated to our Veterans and families – it will be shared with other clinicians who will also serve our seniors.

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  6. I’m glad you will have spaces at the waterfront..great planning.. Its interesting how people solve some of their problems in life. Some need extensive help, some none, and some in different various ways. Like training dogs..Something other than themselves..very good

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  7. Isn’t the Waterfront Center the new senior center that Edmonds is building? So this Cohen clinic which is afiliated with the National Mental Health Institute, with which Mr. Schindler is somehow afiliated, wants people to donate $12 each, so that they can rent/own a few spaces in the new senior center? And to get people’s tear ducts to open up, along with their wallets, a long introduction tells us about the emotional toll military service takes on soldiers and their families…. Wonder how people coped after World War 2, after the Korean War, the Vietnam War. I am not aware of a big onslaught of former soldiers onto mental-health clinics — are you? There is a general malaise in this country, especially in the cities. Seattle is a prime example. I have said it before and will repeat it: These people need a kick in the behind and be sent to make a contribution, such as cleaning up parks or highways. Back in the Middle Ages, the solution found by the Pope in Rome was to send the returning knights on crusades to the Holy Land, to give them a purpose and to get rid of them, as they were looting and raping and causing all sorts of trouble. Successive American presidents have instituted versions of Work Corps. Nowadays, vets (if they indeed are vets) stand at street corners begging. Or they huddle in alleys shooting up. Worse yet: they end up on meth. This is really a job for the government, but the whole West Coast is run by Democrats in all three states, and they pay more lip service than come up with working solutions to the problem. Post-Vietnam, we have been at war in various countries for decades, so of course there will be an ever growing number of former soldiers being shed out of the military. Most of them are still young and need direction, work that pays a living wage, neighbors who care. What they don’t need is being used as pawns in a money-making scheme.

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  8. Hi Elena – as I stated in my article, I am a true believer that those of us who serve have accomplished something great. We have accomplished something 93% of Americans have not – and that is service to our country in uniform. It makes us a great asset to our country because of the indoctrination of skills, training, and thinking we received.

    I am also committed to changing the narrative – all veterans are not broken. Most go on to become tax-paying, community-contributing individuals. And I am known for saying “I don’t believe in bringing up dependent veterans” (actually, the true words are “I don’t believe in bringing up socialist veterans”). I do believe in helping those who need it get squared away and back on a pathway to success.

    For clarification, Cohen may or may not use this facility – that is still to be decided. To answer your question, our WWII veterans came back from war and many of them started businesses or entered college, where they found a tribe of others who had similar experiences, and developed their own support networks. The majority of the country was aware and in many ways involved in the war – everyone sacrificed and many healed together – as a community.

    Today, fewer than 1% of Americans serve on active duty and fight our wars. And the studies show that close to a majority of Americans don’t even realize we are involved in combat operations or are still in Afghanistan. And what is driving the suicide rate is a lack of hope, and a feeling that they can’t ask for help, for fear of being viewed as weak.

    My encouragement to you is to do some deep digging into the issues surround veteran mental health. I’m not sure many who know me would put me in the “handout” camp.

    Many of those of us who serve – you included – land on our feet and continue to add value to our community. Others struggle – and I am of the mindset that we help others get back on a pathway to success. It is why we have the programs we do – they are a “hand up”, not a “hand-out.”

    The Edmonds Waterfront will provide a pathway for some to get back on their feet. Can we save everyone? Nope. Only those who choose to make changes. I’m not sure who is using veterans as pawns in a money-making scheme, but I can assure you, we aren’t making money from this.

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  9. Well, I didn’t mean to overstate the VA. Like I said, no system is perfect. I only use it for medical procedures, not mental health. The good part is that you only pay if you use it; normally, I go every two years for checkups. The VA charges no annual premiums as in socialized healthcare, that come out of your paycheck or pension, as in EU countries. Matt, I read a few pages in the book you referenced, “Bowling Alone.” Depressing! But all of us, individually and together, we shape this society we live in, it’s up to us to change it. It takes effort. I practice at my small condo building. A core group (the social gals), meet for coffee at a local café on Monday mornings, play cards in the Community Room on Wednesday evenings, anybody can show up, some bring snacks, some even wine, you don’t have to play cards. On Thanksgiving, we. have a big potluck. Some show up just to eat, some engage in conversation, some just take it all in. That’s fine — no pressure. Probably all of us are over 60 and mostly women, but a few men show up, especially when there is food. LOL. The other day, three of us got together spontaneously, bought flowers and chocolates, then paid a visit to an old man who at age 81 is now in hospice care in a home in Bothell. He used to live in our building. Was he pleasantly surprised! Potlucks are advertised on the bulletin board in the lobby, everything else is word-of-mouth. Not meaning to bore anybody, but it starts with one or two people making an effort and drawing everybody else in. I have tried to get others to join who never have. Don’t know why, but I am working on it. This is so precious, especially when you get older, it beats being in a book club (which is really boring, if you ask me). Now, if I could only get them to go snowboarding at Stevens Pass ….. LOL Of course, you can’t expect miracles. I have younger friends for that stuff. And Mike, I got a kick out of your “14 jobs I wasn’t cut out for.” We should all write a book about our post-military trials and tribulations (or maybe you have already). As for me: Imagine being an NCOIC in charge of a tactical airfield, looking sharp and super fit in that uniform, running three miles in the CO’s fast group, giving map-reading lessons to the troops in the ATC tower during downtime, getting occasional rides from warrant officers in their AH-1 Cobras, Black Hawks, Hueys… but then after I got out my first job was as an entry-level receptionist in an accounting department. Even though clerical work had been what I wanted to get away from when I joined the Army to become an air-traffic controller. But the FAA’s cutoff age for civilian controllers was 31 1/2, so I was too old. At another of my “14 jobs,” a supervisor ridiculed my military service during a staff meeting…. (Shouldn’t have put it on my resumé.). On the other hand, one of my tenants joined the Army Reserves at age 35 after I told him about the benefits. He has already been deployed to Afghanistan twice, and now to Kuwait. He is getting out soon. His wife is so happy when he gets back. They are my best tenants.

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  10. Elena..now that’s a great answer… reminds me of my sister in eastern Washington. My father was put in a nursing home. MY sister didn’t think he was God saved. SHe started teaching the Bible with felt people on felt board.(like many of us were taught back in the day.) My father, who with Parkinson’s disease, got so excited he told my sister everybody needed to hear this. (He was raised a Mormon but my sister taught the Bible). MY father insisted she tell the other people In the nursing home. They started to meet in a auxiliary room. That was 6 years ago. Now a average of 28-35 people (from nursing home attend) once a week and my sister has a group of about 5 people each week come fro her church to assist. Though my father is gone he saw how important these interactions can be.

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  11. Mike, what you and Matt describe has also become apparent recently in wildland fire fighting. More firefighters die outside the fire season, from suicide, than during the season on fires. They are just beginning to study this, but the factors you talk about – loss of social network, loss of defined purpose, etc. – are things that have already been mentioned by fire fighters who considered suicide. I’ve also heard firefighters say that they’re often unemployed outside of fire season, sitting home alone while spouses and kids are off at school, and that doesn’t help.
    The current Forest Service Director of Fire & Aviation has really taken this to heart and is pushing an effort to address it. Her husband, another firefighter, committed suicide some years ago.

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  12. Brian – it truly is that loss of hope and identity. The loss of identity after a uniform comes off – whether it be military or sports, or first responders, fire fighters – is common. Most fall into the “I am what I do for work.” The key is truly finding purpose – and then work just becomes the mission. If the work changes, one hasn’t lost their sense of purpose. It was a journey for me – fortunately, I had good mentors.

    So sorry to hear about the Director’s loss.

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  13. One last comment, there is an AP story in the Everett Herald on Feb. 9 about military suicides: … a problem that seems to defy solution and that parallels increases in suicides in the U. S. civilian population.
    The writer also refers to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. … based on assessment of current and former military personnel over a 7-year period, … that deployment-related factors were not associated with increased risk of suicide.
    We live in an increasingly harsher society where suicides, serial killers and mass shootings have become the norm.

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