President Obama has begun writing condolence letters to families who have lost sons and daughters to suicide while they were deployed in the military. It’s a sad reminder of the tragic, deep and far-reaching cost of war. It’s a cost that is too often ignored when the emotions of patriotism are stirred and the flames of vengeance are fanned and the nation goes to war.
Rep. Mike Michaud, who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health, introduced a resolution last year that called on the president to reverse the previous policy of not writing letters of condolence for suicide victims.
“Every family that loses a loved one in service to our country deserves a letter of condolence from their president,” Rep. Michaud said in a statement issued by his office.
Rep. Michaud deserves praise for working to pass the law that requires the Veterans Administration to create a plan to reduce suicide among veterans. He also has worked to get the Department of Defense to conduct face-to-face mental health screenings for those who serve. More of this response is needed.
The new policy also was endorsed by Maine’s other member of Congress, Rep. Chellie Pingree: “War takes an incredible toll on the men and women in uniform and sometimes they aren’t given the care they deserve. These service men and women served our country, their families deserve our gratitude and sympathy and they should not be forgotten,” she said in a statement from her office.
Maine has the highest per-capita death rate in the nation for the Afghanistan invasion and occupation at 1.52 deaths per 100,000 in population. Suicide statistics among active duty and post-deployment troops are not readily available on a state-by-state basis, so it’s hard to know how many Maine troops have chosen this sad end.
Official totals put the number of service-related suicides at 434 for 2010. The previous year, active-duty suicides exceeded deaths in battle. But the numbers may be under-reported. Some services do not track suicides after discharge, and some don’t track reservist suicides when the troops are not on active duty.
No can understand the horrors of war unless they’ve experienced them. The struggles of reconnecting to life at home did not begin after the Vietnam War. The 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives powerfully portrayed those difficulties for those returning from World War II, the so-called Good War which many younger people believe did not inflict the psychic wounds associated with later wars.
Those who send our young men and women into harm’s way must begin thinking in terms of generations that will bear those wounds for decades, not in terms of “mission accomplished.”
Too many men who came home physically unscathed from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam succumbed to depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, difficulty managing anger, inability to maintain relationships or succeed in a job. The term post-traumatic stress disorder does not adequately convey the shattered lives left in war’s wake.
And of course, suicide is the ultimate war wound. Until it is seen as such, little will change.