'We Pretend the Vets Don't Even Exist'

Article excerpt

Byline: Anthony Swofford

All across America veterans are committing suicide at unprecedented rates, but no one has been able to answer why. Author and former marine Anthony Swofford gets to the bottom of an epidemic.

I was sitting next to Melissa, a call responder at the VA Crisis Hotline in Canandaigua, N.Y., when she looked at me and whispered, 'He just said he thinks he should walk out into traffic on Interstate 5 and end it all, that life is not worth living.'

On the other end of the line was a young man who'd been out of the Marines for four months. He was unemployed and broke and hadn't eaten all day. He'd driven his father's truck from the middle of the country to Southern California to be near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and his buddies. But most of them were either overseas again or separated from the Marine Corps. He'd taken to drinking and occasionally smoking pot. After four years of military service and two combat tours in Iraq, he couldn't find a steady job. Now he sat at a rest area near Camp Pendleton, contemplating suicide.

Melissa had about her the endearing charm of a kindergarten teacher coupled with the steely nerves of a nose tackle and the all-American looks of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty queen.

She smiled and nodded at her computer screen as she spoke to the young Marine. Her voice radiated goodness. Her screen indicated that he'd called twice earlier in the afternoon and had had brief conversations with two other responders.

"You'll learn from reaching out and making this call. It's a brave call."

She IM'd a colleague on the crisis-hotline floor, a health technician, and told her that she thought this kid was in need of a rescue.

The tech had no idea where Interstate 5 and Camp Pendleton were. I told her Southern California, North County San Diego. I'd flown to Rochester from San Diego that morning.

"You have a long time to figure this out. You can't figure it out in four months," Melissa said to the young man.

The technician got to work initiating the rescue with a 911 center in California. I thought about calling my wife in San Diego and telling her to go find the kid.

The Crisis

About 18 veterans kill themselves each day. Thousands from the current wars have already done so. In fact, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by their own hand is now estimated to be greater than the number (6,460) who have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eleven years of war in two operating theaters have taken a severe toll on America's military. An estimated 2.3 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 800,000 of those service members have been deployed multiple times.

Pull up your local newspaper online and search "veteran suicide," and you're likely to come up with at least one link to a story. Based on data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, Mark Kaplan of Portland State University asserts that male veterans have a twofold increase in death by suicide over their civilian counterparts and that female veterans are three times as likely to kill themselves as their civilian counterparts. Veterans are 60 percent more likely to use a firearm in an attempted suicide than civilians, and firearms are the most effective way of taking one's own life.

So why are these young veterans killing themselves at such high rates?

In 1992 I was in danger of becoming such a statistic, just released from the Marines after four years of service and combat action in Kuwait during the Gulf War. I know the suicidal temptation that can accompany the isolation and loneliness veterans experience after the high of combat and the brotherhood of arms fade in the rearview mirror. I skulked around college campuses with a watch cap pulled tight to my ears, looking for a threat, knowing that when it appeared, I could extinguish it. I took a swing-shift warehouse job that required very little human interaction. …