When I was passing through Iowa recently, I overheard a couple of locals talking about an Iraq War vet from Des Moines named Richard Miles. As a veteran myself (from the Vietnam War), I eavesdropped, only to realize that Richard Miles’s story was one of those tragic tales I didn’t want to hear, but one that’s being told far too often.
I learned more details after Googling “Richard Miles Iowa.” News reports told me that he'd suffered from PTSD, anxiety and insomnia. He had entered the VA Hospital in Des Moines on Feb. 15, telling the staff there, "I need help," according to hospital records obtained by CNN. Five days later, the 40-year-old father was found in the woods with no jacket and no shoes, having consumed a deadly amount of sleeping pills. He died of exposure.
My heart aches when I think of veterans like Richard Miles, who've given up all hope and turned to suicide.
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His sad story was eerily reminiscent of Clay Hunt, the young man for whom the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act is named.
Hunt enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 2005, deployed to Anbar Province near Fallujah in January 2007, and was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head, earning him a Purple Heart. He recuperated at Twenty Nine Palms and then graduated from Marine Corps Scout Sniper School in March 2008. He redeployed to southern Afghanistan a few weeks later. His unit returned in late October of 2008, and he was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 2009.
Hunt was open about having PTSD and survivor’s guilt, and he tried to help others coping with similar issues. He worked hard to move forward and found healing by helping people, including participating in outreach work with Team Rubicon and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He starred in a public service advertising campaign aimed at easing the transition for his fellow Iraq and Afghan veterans.
Hunt died by suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28.
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The Rate of Veteran Suicide
According to a 2012 report from the Veterans Administration, a veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. That’s 22 veterans a day. Every day. More than 8,000 a year.
Many experts think those figures are on the low side. A recent study published in the February 2015 issue of the Annals of Epidemiology — perhaps the most definitive study of its kind to date — showed that of 9,353 deaths among recent veteran cohorts, veterans had a 41 to 61 percent higher risk of suicide relative to the U.S. general population.
If those numbers don’t indicate an epidemic, I’m not sure what will.
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Stop the Epidemic
Instead of pointing fingers at the VA or the military or the victims themselves, we need to come together as a society and find a way to stop this epidemic. The fact that all members of Congress, arguably the most contentious group there is, unanimously passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act and that President Obama signed it into law at a White House ceremony on Feb. 12, is a good sign.
This important legislation is designed to help reduce military and veteran suicides and improve access to quality mental health care by, among other things, creating a peer support and community outreach pilot program to assist transitioning service.
Peer support and community outreach will be key here, and that’s where the rest of us can play a role. The American public is more disconnected from these wars and from veterans than at any time in our history. We need to bridge that military-civilian divide. We need to move past what Mike Freedman, a former Green Beret, told The New York Times is the “thank you for your service phenomenon.” Freedman feels like the thanks “alleviates some of the civilian guilt,” adding: “They have no skin in the game with these wars. There’s no draft.”
Let's move beyond mouthing platitudes. Let’s also stop judging these men and women. Try listening to them. Try connecting them and their families to local and national resources to help them with their transition to civilian life.
Support and resources abound. Veterans Coming Home (VCH), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s initiative that builds on public media’s strengths to address the needs of veterans in local communities, is a valuable repository. VCH and its public media partners including Next Avenue are also sharing the compelling stories of veterans’ challenges and triumphs.
Let's begin. All of us. Listen. Engage. Connect. Support.
And let’s start now so that maybe we can avoid losing more veterans, like Richard Miles and Clay Hunt, to suicide.
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