This thread of a story almost got lost amid the oily flotsam and jetsam of the day’s current events. But it demands notice as its implications, I think, are part of a much bigger pattern of problems:
The U.S. Secretary for Veterans Affairs was in Canandaigua Thursday visiting a facility that plays a key role in a five-year plan he’s laid out to help homeless vets. Secretary Eric Shinseki, who assumed his post last year, praised the Canandaigua’s call center facility and announced an expansion that’s underway now.
The 24-7 call center is already credited with rescuing more than 8,000 veterans on the brink of suicide over the past three years.
A new hotline launched in March specifically targets those military veterans who are homeless. Already it is credited with servicing nearly 2,000 homeless vets.
That there were 8,000 calls in which a vet was on the verge of suicide, to me, is staggering. According to another report, there were a total of 256,000 calls to the hotline in that time – 135,000 from veterans and about 17,000 from family members. Richard Barham, a hotline supervisor, said many of the calls have been about “homelessness, relationship problems, psychiatric problems and a lot about re-integrating when they’re coming home.”
Back in January, the VA released a report indicating that the number of suicides among young veterans between the ages of 18 and 26 increased 26 percent between 2005 and 2007 alone. This came on the heels of yet another report indicating that some 14 percent of vets were returning home with mental health-related problems.
In April, the issue came into shattering clarity when Jesse Huff, 27, a wounded Iraq vet, took his life on the steps of the VA in Dayton, Ohio:
…at 5:45 a.m. Huff walked to the front steps outside the VA’s Patient Tower dressed in full Army fatigues, toting a backpack and an M-1 rifle racked with nine additional bullets in the magazine.He rested the M-1 rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. When that didn’t kill him he pointed the gun near his temple and pulled the trigger again.
Jesse Huff fell near the feet of a Civil War soldier statue, his blood staining the front steps. Hours later, police blew apart his large backpack with a water bomb because it was unclear what was inside.
There turned out to be no danger, only private papers and a few personal items. The VA grounds crew quickly swept up the items, including the scattered fragments of his suicide note.
On Monday, the Army Times said there have been 32 accidental overdoses among active duty soldiers and Marines in the last three years. All of them had been under a doctor’s care and most of them had been prescribed dangerous “drug cocktails,” which the report describes as “combinations of drugs including painkillers, sleeping pills, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.” Though in all cases, suicide was ruled out, a deadly mix of alcohol (self-medication) had proved a “complication,” leading to their untimely deaths, doctors told the magazine.
But these were only the deaths recorded by the Army Warrior Transition Units and the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, under which these soldiers and Marines were being treated. According to the Army Times, the Pentagon has yet to provide the number of accidental overdoses military-wide, despite a pending Freedom of Information Act request.
GI’s are being drugged, they are coming home broken, they are killing themselves (slowly or quickly), accidentally or by suicide. This is no different from previous wars, but there is one big distinction. This war is unending. It is already longer than our longest war, the Vietnam War, and we are still drawing mostly from the tiny slice — less than one-half of a percent — of the population to fight it. I have a feeling that 8,000 is going to seem like a very small number very soon.