Last week I said goodbye to a friend and fellow veteran who took his own life. A decorated Iraq War Veteran, he left behind a grieving young wife, and two small children, ages three and one. Tragic
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first veteran friend I lost to suicide, but I want him to be the last. 22 veterans kill themselves every day. That’s about 1 every 65 minutes. Over 31% of these suicides are warriors under the age of 49 years old. Some experts say today’s 1.3 million veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 to 2007, have up to 61% higher likelihood of committing suicide than the general U.S. population. The reality is most veterans are not suicidal – far from it. While veteran suicide is a big problem, military transition into civil society is even bigger.
This has been the longest war in our nation’s history, yet in this 14 year war, less than 1% of the U.S. population actually fought in the military. This heavy burden on a small number of Americans brings major challenges when they take off the uniform. These include things like combat and transition stress, high unemployment, and family strain – among other things. When looking at how hard we’ve pushed our military since 9-11-2001, it’s no wonder.
Experiencing one combat tour after another, my Special Forces Commander once said to me, “Scotty, there are two phases of life now, you are either over there…or getting ready to go back over there.” For fourteen years and counting, this adage has held true. Today, this high deployment tempo is compounded by a ruthless military drawdown not seen since the post-Vietnam era. The Obama Administration will cut 40, 000 Army troops over the next two years. This will put an even greater strain on those that transition, as well as those that stay on active duty. Some warriors even get their pink slips for mandated separation while serving in Afghanistan.
For those who stay in the military, increased hostile activity by groups like ISIS, will mean we have less warriors doing more combat. For those who separate, the current operational pace gives little time to prepare for transition. In fact, the military only gives ten days to go through its transition program. I went through it two years ago and it wasn’t nearly enough time. When facing this kind of transition pressure, “thanks for your service,” from passing strangers, and an emotional beer commercial just don’t cut it. Veteran transition is a national issue, and we need to change the way we deal with it.
America’s understanding of veteran transition is off base. Well-meaning, big veteran charities often give the perception that we are all damaged goods, in need of constant care. Some warriors are gravely wounded, and require constant care for their entire life. But most veterans, while banged up, are very high performers and problem solvers. They want to get back in the game, and our society needs them more than ever. Take my friend Romy Camargo.
Romy is a recently retired, Green Beret who was shot through the neck in Afghanistan and is paralyzed from the shoulders down. Rather than live a well-deserved quiet retirement on full medical retirement pay, he and his wife Gaby opened a non-profit rehabilitation center in Tampa, Florida called Stay in Step, to help other spinal cord injury patients. Equally impressive was how the community stepped up to help Romy overcome transition challenges at a grass roots level.
It’s up to us. It’s the citizen, warrior and community who will solve the Veteran transition issue, not the government. Washington D.C. politicians aren’t going to do more than they have to. The Pentagon has its hands full with ISIS and a mandated drawdown. Most media outlets don’t report on the long battle of transition unless there is a jump in suicides or other high impact moment. It’s patriotic community members on both sides of the political aisle and determined warriors who will bring this untapped talent back to America.
Since the time of Homer’s Odyssey, history has always judged society by the way it integrates its warriors into the community. The dark cloud still hangs over America from our failure to bring our Vietnam Veterans home. That can never happen again. But, even more importantly, today’s veterans hold some of the greatest hopes of restoring leadership and greatness to America. But, with 22 suicides per day, it’s high time we change how we bring them home.
Scott Mann is a retired Green Beret Lieutenant Colonel and founder of Mission America, a non-profit 501C3 dedicated to reconnecting warriors and citizens at the community level. He was the author of a book on Green Beret transition to civil society entitled Next Ridgeline, and has an upcoming book on transition 2015 called Mission America that’s due out in Spring 2016.