Volunteering for military service, especially during a time of war, is an incredibly brave commitment that less than one percent of the American population ever chooses to make. Whether serving as a Navy Seal or an Army truck driver, every service member makes the choice to join the nation’s military and swears to defend our collective freedom. As a nation, we should ensure these brave men and women do not die by their own hands.
Yet veterans are killing themselves and at a rate of approximately 22 per day, which equates to 8,000 deaths per year, according to a 2012 VA study. Of this current population, more than 69 percent of veteran suicides are among individuals aged 50 years or older. This is a grim truth that is becoming worse as the baby boomer population ages.
In the active Army, the primary cause of death is not vehicular accidents or combat; it is suicide. In light of this reality, and looking at the spike in the active component over the last few years, it appears evident that there is a tidal wave of veteran suicides approaching.
While an active duty service member, I dealt with military suicide firsthand. Within a few months of my first assignment, one of my own soldiers attempted to take her life. Her attempt was unsuccessful and today she is a successfully transitioned veteran, a college graduate, and a proud mother. She found hope as well as the will to live and transcended her darkest hour.
As of recent, many critics have chosen to blame various government organizations for not doing enough to answer this alarming call. We, however, choose to act. Stop Soldier Suicide (SSS) was founded in 2010 amid the worst suicide crisis our military has ever seen. SSS is a national veteran-led nonprofit organization determined to reduce the incidence rate of suicides among service members and veterans. The organization has created a national and community-based network of volunteers and partner organizations providing triage and alternative solutions for soldiers, veterans, and family members.
A critical component in reducing military suicides lies in understanding the second derivative of the problem: the underlying reason for the suicidal thought. When someone reaches out to us for help, we not only connect that client to a mental healthcare provider, but we ask pointed questions to try and identify the catalyst or trigger for that suicidal ideation.
Identifying the root cause of why someone is thinking about taking his or her own life allows us to better connect that client to specialized care. If, for example, someone is struggling with a disability or loss of limb, we have a partnership with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to provide specialized care. Our approach provides service members access to a lifetime of treatment if needed through our network of providers and ancillary services offered, ultimately helping them to be productive members of society.
SSS is also leading the way to generate awareness and outreach to change the way soldiers and veterans think about mental healthcare and the stigma of receiving treatment. In this country, we need a paradigm shift in the way we think about suicide, treatment, and mental healthcare. This movement will not happen overnight, and as we move further away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, support will fade.
Given the nuances of service, SSS brings a crucial element to the fight against soldier suicide, which is mutual understanding and a sense of camaraderie to those seeking help. Countless service members and veterans reach out to SSS because our volunteers have worn the uniform, but we are not a government entity.
Despite ongoing efforts by the Department of Defense, the VA, and the military, a gap exists between suicide support services and those in need. There is a proven lifesaving value in making connections when people are in crisis. In the case of all suicides, the first attempt is successful 50 percent of the time. SSS is the solution to fill the gap.
As we bring home the last of our soldiers, we can count on the fact that our generation will be judged by the stewardship we extend to our troops as well as the effort we make to welcome them back to their communities.
Veterans need more than congressional bills. They need more than your funds. They need your time, your ideas, and your involvement. Veterans need the other 99 percent of the US population to talk about the problem of military suicide, get involved in the fight, and work side-by-side with veteran initiatives to ensure a successful transition back into our communities.
Our nation’s warriors fight for us, and we owe them a fighting chance when they return home.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, “Invisible Casualties,” in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we’ll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.