That's 1,892 former soldiers who have killed themselves since the beginning of 2014, according the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization (IAVA). But even that is a conservative number, some say, as there is no centralized system to track veteran suicides.
A recent poll found that more than half of post-9/11 veterans know at least one colleague who attempted or managed to kill themselves. For many, the list of friends lost to suicide is much longer.
Mental health is one of the greatest challenges facing returning soldiers, but a deadly combination of indifference, stigma, red tape, and government dysfunction are to blame for the sobering numbers. Citing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics, the IAVA claims that 22 ex-service members die by suicide every single day.
That was the message brought to Washington last week by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their supporters, in their annual “Storm the Hill” campaign, which aims to raise awareness among lawmakers about the struggles of returning service members. This year, suicide topped the list.
As part of the campaign, the group took to the National Mall, where they placed a flag for each vet lost to suicide this year.
Veterans' campaigns often hit deaf ears. Many people like to nominally “stand” with the troops, but when it comes to supporting — and financing — the services they need after coming home from war, the backing is less firm.
IAVA, the largest network for veterans of the last two wars, hopes to change that and last week turned their campaign to combat suicide into a proposed bill, introduced on Thursday by US Senator John Walsh of Montana, the first Iraq vet to ever serve in the Senate.
“Far too often, we’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone,” Walsh said in a statement. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there.”
His “Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act” hopes to fight the problem with large reform to veterans' access to care, including expanding special combat eligibility from five to 15 years, and repaying the medical loans of psychiatrists who sign up for long-term service with ex-soldiers.
The bill would also require the military to review its practice of handing out “bad conduct” discharges to members for behavior related to post-traumatic stress disorder — so disqualifying them from the little mental health services available to them under the VA system.
The department said it has taken steps to address the suicides, including by asking for additional funding for mental health issues. The VA provided mental health treatment to 1.4 vets last year — up from 900,000 in 2007.
“We have made strong progress, but we must do more,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement.
But with a suicide happening almost every hour, veterans' advocates think they should do a whole lot more — though they add that suicide prevention is not just the responsibility of the VA.
In the video below, Iraq and Afghanistan vets talk about coming home.
Video by IAVA features returning soldiers talking about the trauma of coming home.
VICE News spoke with Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of IAVA. Here’s what he told us.
VICE News: This has been an issue for a long time. Why the focus on suicide now?
Paul Rieckhoff: Our members told us it was their number one priority. We have the largest network of post-9/11 vets in the country and every year they tell us what they think we should focus on, and [this year] they said suicide. I think the numbers tell a pretty powerful story, but most folks think the numbers could be much higher, there’s not a lot of great research, there’s no national registry. It’s clearly a matter of life and death and that’s what’s driving us, and the broader veteran community, to tackle this issue. I’m actually in Houston right now. I just left the family of one of our leaders, a guy named Clay Hunt who died three years ago today. We have been deep in this fight against suicide for years and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
Are things getting worse for vets?
It looks like it’s getting worse. We also expect increased demand [for mental health services] in the coming years. Candidly, we expected a better national response, sooner. These numbers are startling but they’ve been up there for a while, and suicide is an issue that has been on the national radar for a while. But the president and Congress have been really mute on it, and we’re losing buddies left and right. It’s got to be a public health priority. It’s also a national security imperative, and I think it’s a moral imperative.
But 22 suicides a day is crazy. Why is nobody talking about this?
Nobody is talking about the war either. Most people are personally disconnected. Less than one half of one percent of the country serves, so most people don’t have this kind of personal connection to these wars and definitely don’t have a personal connection to suicide. Folks care about what affects them personally and unfortunately folks are largely disconnected from all our issues, but especially this one.
What about the military itself and the VA system, why aren’t they doing more?
That’s a great question for the [VA] secretary. Give him a call and ask him, he probably won’t call back. I think the Department [of Defense] is moving much more aggressively than the VA has, but I think we also have to appreciate that they are only components in this fight. About 45 percent of our members never go to the VA, so it’s got to be more comprehensive. We’ve got to work together like spokes on the wheel. It’s got to be VA, Department of Defense, community-based health groups, hospitals, churches, we all have to work together, especially at the community level, because a lot of veterans, they’re going to come for help in a variety of different ways, a lot of folks won’t go to the VA. Access is a huge problem, quality is still a major challenge, and continuity of care is usually very bad.
Is there still a stigma around both suicide and mental health issues?
That’s true across the civilian population as well. There’s no mental health priority, suicide is a huge problem in the civilian population, mental health issues in general still have a huge stigma. It’s exaggerated in the military, it’s compounded in the military, but civilians aren’t crazy about running to get mental health either. In some ways, this [campaign] can be a good thing for everybody, if we can learn more about mental health challenges and what’s going on here I think could benefit everyone. There’s an old saying that the only victor in war is medicine, and I think that if we can make some progress in the next few years it would definitely be true around these issues.
There is even very little medical research. There’s something like 30, 40 programs at the Department of Defense and they don’t even know which ones work. I think we’ve got to really drill down and find out the scope of the problem and the scope of the solution. Clay Hunt got a lot of national attention, but a lot of these folks are really nameless, uncounted, and undocumented — their stories aren’t really told. That’s why we felt that we had to make such a powerful statement in Washington. Last week was a wakeup call.
You called this new bill “historic legislation.” Is Washington going to get behind it?
We hope so. It covers most of the major priorities that we’ve seen. Washington is often where good ideas go to die, so we’ll see. There’s been initial bipartisan support, having Senator Walsh, an Iraq vet, up front is important. We hope, but you never know. The other issue besides the bipartisanship is the short calendar: if we don’t get this done by the summer it’s going to be very hard to move it forward. Cost is always an issue to people. Some folks are going to quibble about cost. It’s going to cost money, and some folks don’t want to spend money on anything in Washington right now. And then there’s also the standard political infighting. Often times, parties don’t want to give the other party a win. We’re hoping that John McCain will step up, as will other combat vets in the Senate. But the president has also got to step up, we’re calling on the president to issue executive action here that can tackle some of the problems without having to wait for Congress. We hope he’ll do that sometime in the next few weeks.
What is your background? Why did you get involved in this?
I founded IAVA 10 years ago. It’s personal for me: I served in Iraq and one of my guys, Jason Bonts, died by suicide a few months after we got home, and I’ve been losing friends ever since. For me it’s very personal. They’ve been fighting and sacrificing for a decade, and everybody else has been living life uninterrupted so they’ve got to get their lives back in order, and find jobs, feed their families, and go through all those transitions. Maybe they’ve also got a mental health injury or physical injury. It’s very stressful. It’s very chaotic. And the resources are pretty scattered. Getting help helps, but getting good help is very hard. It’s a difficult system to navigate, all the issues we laid out are pretty much true in every city in America. We didn’t even have a crisis line until 2008. There were six, seven years of war before we even had a real veteran crisis line. That gives you a sense of how far behind we are.
Are more mental health resources available to people while they’re serving?
The Department of Defense has actually done a pretty good job of increasing the mental health resources. They’ve increased training; there are usually mental health support teams embedded within units, so they’ve come a long way. The suicide rate is still too high there, but the real problem is when they leave. Most of the folks that we see that have real challenges, sometimes the challenges don’t reveal themselves until they’ve been home for five years, or maybe seven years, and that’s part of why we want to extend the eligibility from five years to 15, because so many folks don’t show symptoms until they’ve been home a while.
Why is the question of wrongful discharges so important to you?
Tens of thousands of people have been discharged under what they call “bad conduct” discharges or pre-existing conditions. If you come down with that paper, you can’t go to the VA. A lot of these folks didn’t really have pre-existing conditions, and they can’t even access the limited resources that are available, so those people are especially at risk for mental health challenges and suicide. That’s an example of where the president can lean in and impact that issue pretty much immediately. [The military has] this very tough culture that prides itself on toughness and being macho. But there are some pretty counterproductive policies and I think the wrongful discharge situation has really gone on for too long. We have a guy, Kris Goldsmith, who was with us at the White House last week. He is a great example. He tried to attempt suicide and then was given a general discharge by the army for supposedly committing "misconduct," as that's how the military interprets surviving an attempt. As a result, he lost access to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and was left "stuck," and unable to improve his life for quite a while. Thankfully, he rebounded and he’s now helping other folks out. He’s a good example of how bad that can get.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
Photos via Storm the Hill.