TRNN Replay: Anti-militarism activists say rising military suicides linked to illegal wars and high civilian death tolls
JAISAL NOOR: This Memorial Day, veterans advocates are demanding the military do more to address the increasing rates of soldier suicide. According to a VA analysis of suicides in just 21 states in 2012, on average 22 veterans took their lives every day, up from 18 a day in 2011. But antimilitarism activists argue solider suicides are linked to the high civilian death tolls resulting from the military’s participation in unjust and aggressive wars.
When Army Specialist Andrew O’Brien returned from a 12-month stint in Iraq in October 2009, he suffered mood swings, could not control his anger, had frequent flashbacks, and was unable to sleep without drinking heavily due to traumatic nightmares. After dealing with these symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder on his own, he decided to see a counselor on his army base in Hawaii for help. But the counselor was dismissive, said O’Brien, and his sergeant publicly shamed him for seeking help.
ANDREW O’BRIEN: For my first Sergeant to sit there and call me out in front of all these other soldiers, and my counselor, who I sat there and I depended on this person, and they destroyed my trust, and that was it. I was done. I was tired of feeling ashamed, feeling the way I did. I was tired of nightmares and the dreams and the paranoia.
NOOR: O’brien says their actions convinced him to stop seeking help through the Army.
O’BRIEN: And so, finally, I decided I was done, and I was like, you know what? Screw it. I’m done. I can’t take this anymore. You know, I felt like I was fighting a war by myself. I didn’t have people to help me. You know, I felt like I didn’t have people to help me and I was just fighting this big war and I was going to lose no matter what. And if I was going to lose, I was going to lose it my own way.
NOOR: O’Brien continued drinking heavily, failed at relationships, and sought out the adrenaline rush he experienced in Iraq by racing on the highway. But in November 2010, after more than a year of feeling ashamed for what he was experiencing, O’Brien made a snap decision to swallow four bottles of pills.
At the last moment, he called 9-1-1 and woke up in the hospital. A few months later, he came across an article discussing the number of veterans who commit suicide every day.
O’BRIEN: And seeing those numbers it just clicked. I was like, wow. I thought I was alone. You know. Whenever you go through this, you feel like you’re the only one in this world that tried to take their own life. But seeing those numbers, that made me realize, holy crap, I wasn’t the only one and there’s others out there who did the same thing, and they were actually–you know, they succeeded at taking their own life. Luckily, I didn’t. And the first thing I thought was, I can make a difference, you know, that with my experiences, I can change this.
NOOR: O’Brien’s experiences as a suicide survivor led him to become an outspoken advocate for soldier’s mental health care and preventing suicide. He’s been interviewed in the media, gone on speaking tours, and wrote a guide for families called “Welcoming Your Soldier Home,” which offers advice on helping soldiers find the right counselor and providing positive reinforcement and alternatives to drinking.
O’BRIEN: I’ve been contacted by so many veterans telling me their suicide attempt stories and telling me that my story saved their life–not me talking to them, just hearing my story and seeing me open up to the world and not being ashamed of it, made them–they told me it saved their life to see that, to see someone just be vulnerable and open and not care and just show that I have emotions from what I experienced.
NOOR: O’brien is just one of a growing number of advocates who are taking action into their own hands to help prevent soldier suicide.
When her 24 year old nephew Adam Muffler took his own life last November, Linda Ricci says she along with the rest of her family were shocked because they saw no signs he needed help. Ricci says her nephew was deeply affected by witnessing flag-draped coffins being loaded onto aircraft that was returning to the United States.
LINDA RICCI: He got a lot of support. And that’s probably the most shocking piece of it to this family was that he had so much support. He never did withdraw from the family. And so when he decided to take his own life, we just were just beyond surprised and shocked, and why, if he was struggling with anything, he didn’t reach out to the 40 members in this family.
NOOR: Since then, Ricci and her family pieced together what led Muffler down that path. He was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, had difficulty adjusting back to civilian life, and was unable to get sufficient mental health care from the VA.
So Ricci helped create the Adam Charles Muffler Memorial Fund, which raises money for two programs that help soldiers readjust to civilian life, the Midwest Marine Foundation and The Fight Continues.
RICCI: In these retreat type programs, they reconnect with one and other. It’s extremely emotional as they share on their days of sharing, and there’s not a dry eye in the crowd. But they’re all struggling with something. They’re all embarrassed. They don’t know how to reach out and ask for help. The help that has been offered is inadequate or it’s maybe piecemeal, or, you know, some wind up in AA. But they’re treating components of the problem instead of a more holistic approach.
NOOR: The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to FSRN’s requests for an interview. But according to a February press release, the VA added 1,000 mental health workers. It needs to hire 600 more by June 30 to meet the requirements of an executive order issued by President Obama last August. Additionally, officials say they have increased the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent and launched “Stand By Them”, a year-long public awareness campaign to educate families and friends about how to help.
But advocates question whether this is enough to stem the rising tide of suicides.
Tod Ensign, a veterans rights lawyer and director of the anti-militarism group Citizen Soldier, says there needs to be a complete change in the culture in the Armed Forces.
TOD ENSIGN: Well, within the military there is a very deep resistance to acknowledging the problems soldiers have after they return home. And so there will be pressure put on those soldiers to withdraw any request for mental health care. They will be told that you’re putting your career on the line, you may face separation other than honorable, and that there are not facilities available to really care for such veterans, such soldiers. So the military is still in major denial about the problems that these guys face.
NOOR: Ensign says the high civilian death toll of the Iraq and Afghan wars also greatly affects soldiers’ mental health.
ENSIGN: The nature of your activity affects your mental attitude about what you did, meaning if you’re in a village in Iraq and you shot children, families, civilians, noncombatants, which is what all these battles are, you have to deal with the moral consequence of that, the memories of that, the thought of that. And moral injury is part of the PTSD process, but it’s also separate. And I can tell you the VA is not dealing with moral injury, because they have a red, white, and blue flag-waving approach–these are heroes coming home, heroes who did something good.
NOOR: Reporting for The Real News and FSRN, this is Jaisal Noor.
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