It has once again been a considerable passage of time since my last post, but reading the story below about the suicide rate among veterans has deeply moved and saddened me. I am convinced that the figure of 22 veterans a day taking their own lives is both under-reported, given the limitations of the data gathering, and absolutely unacceptable. At the same time I have also come to believe that it is yet another effect of war in general and the kind of wars in which we have been engaged since Vietnam. These are wars that are fought for all the wrong reasons – if there are ever any just wars – that result in soldiers being taught to demonize the enemy, to become numb to atrocities and to have no way to integrate what they’ve witnessed and done with the life they are expected to resume when they return home. When you add military sexual assault and the attendant stigma along with the underfunded and poorly run veteran’s administration, the statistic of 22 suicides a day becomes much less surprising, but no less disturbing.
Is there anything to be done? Certainly a first step is awareness. That is essentially what has inspired me to break my silence of the last few months. I came very close to writing a post about an article I’d seen on www.commondreams.org about Obama’s recent reference to American exceptionalism, which rings not just hollowly, but denies our history during the course of which we have made some atrocious mistakes for which we have yet to take full responsibility, including the oppression of Native Americans, black people, women, immigrants, etc… I see this story in a similar light. Our misbegotten concept of our exceptionalism is a factor in our refusal to see the terrible error of our way of making war on countries that do not threaten us – pre-emptive wars that become perpetual wars – and the consequences for our national psyche and for our soldiers are catastrophic. I would turn the word back on itself and us and instead talk about the exceptionally bad decisions that have led to countless injuries and deaths to innocent women, men and children in too many countries where we took it upon ourselves to “fix” governments that we had no business either undermining or propping up while we continue to ignore the exceptionally awful mistreatment of our own people.
The history of these gigantic missteps and the military-industrial-political-media empire(s) that have directed them is incredibly well-documented in James Douglass’s JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE that is having a second life as a play written by our own valley treasure, Court Dorsey, who received enormous support from a slew of local social justice activists. I will hopefully soon post about the significance of Douglass’s and Dorsey’s work, but suffice to say that we have been motivated by selfishness, greed, power and fear for far too long and until and unless there is a sea change we will continue to read about veterans who are so tortured by their military experience that their only way out is to take their own lives.
Why suicide rate among veterans may be more than 22 a day
By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 4:49 AM EDT, Sat September 21, 2013
(CNN) — Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s a suicide every 65 minutes. As shocking as the number is, it may actually be higher. The figure, released by the Department of Veterans Affairs in February, is based on the agency’s own data and numbers reported by 21 states from 1999 through 2011. Those states represent about 40% of the U.S. population. The other states, including the two largest (California and Texas) and the fifth-largest (Illinois), did not make data available.
People like Levi Derby, who hanged himself in his grandfather’s garage in Illinois on April 5, 2007. He was haunted, says his mother, Judy Caspar, by an Afghan child’s death. He had handed the girl a bottle of water, and when she came forward to take it, she stepped on a land mine.
When Derby returned home, he locked himself in a motel room for days. Caspar saw a vacant stare in her son’s eyes. A while later, Derby was called up for a tour of Iraq. He didn’t want to kill again. He went AWOL and finally agreed to a dishonorable discharge.Derby was not in the VA system, and Illinois did not send in data on veteran suicides to the VA.
Experts have no doubt that people are being missed in the national counting of veteran suicides. Luana Ritch, the veterans and military families coordinator in Nevada, helped publish an extensive report on that state’s veteran suicides.
Part of the problem, she says, is that there is no uniform reporting system for deaths in America. It’s usually up to a funeral director or a coroner to enter veteran status and suicide on a death certificate. Veteran status is a single question on the death report, and there is no verification of it from the Defense Department or the VA.
“Birth and death certificates are only as good as the information that is entered,” Ritch says. “There is underreporting. How much, I don’t know.”
A homeless person who has no one who can vouch that he or she is a veteran, or others whose families don’t want to divulge a suicide because of the stigma associated with mental illness; they may pressure a state coroner to not list the death as suicide
If a veteran intentionally crashes a car or dies of a drug overdose and leaves no note, that death may not be counted as suicide.
An investigation by the Austin American-Statesman newspaper last year revealed an alarmingly high percentage of veterans who died in this manner in Texas, a state that did not send in data for the VA report.
“It’s very hard to capture that information,” says Barbara van Dahlen, a psychologist who founded Give an Hour, a nonprofit group that pairs volunteer mental-health professionals with combat veterans.
Nikkolas Lookabill had been home about four months from Iraq when he was shot to death by police in Vancouver, Washington, in September 2010. The prosecutor’s office said Lookabill told officers “he wanted them to shoot him.” The case is one of many considered “suicide by cop” and not counted in suicide data.
Carri Leigh Goodwin enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2007. She said she was raped by a fellow Marine at Camp Pendleton and eventually was forced out of the Corps with a personality disorder diagnosis. She did not tell her family that she was raped or that she had thought about suicide. She also did not tell them she was taking Zoloft, a drug prescribed for anxiety.
Her father, Gary Noling, noticed that Goodwin was drinking heavily when she returned home. Five days later, she went drinking with her sister, who left her intoxicated in a parked car. The Zoloft interacted with the alcohol, and she died in the back seat of the car. Her blood alcohol content was six times the legal limit.
Police charged her sister and a friend in Goodwin’s death for furnishing alcohol to an underaged woman: Goodwin was 20. Noling says his daughter intended to drink herself to death. Later, Noling went through Goodwin’s journals and learned about her rape and suicidal thoughts.
A recent analysis by News21, an investigative multimedia program for journalism students, found that the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared with the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. The analysis of records from 48 states found that the suicide rate for veterans increased an average of 2.6% a year from 2005 to 2011 — more than double the rate of increase for civilian suicide.
Nearly one in five suicides nationally is a veteran, even though veterans make up about 10% of the U.S. population, the News21 analysis found.
The authors of the VA study, Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, included many cautions about the interpretation of their data, though they stand by the reliability of their findings. Bossarte said there was a consistency in the samples that allowed them to comfortably project the national figure of 22.
But more than 34,000 suicides from the 21 states that reported data to the VA were discarded because the state death records failed to indicate whether the deceased was a veteran. That’s 23% of the recorded suicides from those states. So the study looked at 77% of the recorded suicides in 40% of the U.S. population.
The VA report itself acknowledged “significant limitations” of the available data and identified flaws in its report. “The ability of death certificates to fully capture female veterans was particularly low; only 67% of true female veterans were identified. Younger or unmarried veterans and those with lower levels of education were also more likely to be missed on the death certificate.”
“We think that all suicides are underreported. There is uncertainty in the check box,” says Steve Elkins, the state registrar in Minnesota, which has one of the best suicide data recording systems in the country.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki requested collaboration from all 50 states to improve timeliness and accuracy of suicide reporting, key to improving suicide prevention. At the time the VA released its last suicide report, at least 11 states had not made a decision on data collaboration.
Combat stress is just one reason why veterans attempt suicide. Military sexual assaults are another. Psychologist Craig Bryan says his research is finding that military victims of violent assault or rape are six times more likely to attempt suicide than military non-victims.
More than 69% of all veteran suicides were among those 50 and older. Mental-health professionals said one reason could be that these men give up on life after their children are out of the house or a longtime marriage falls apart. They are also likely to be Vietnam veterans, who returned from war to a hostile public and an unresponsive VA. Combat stress was chalked up to being crazy, and many Vietnam veterans lived with ghosts in their heads without seeking help.
Even though more older veterans are committing suicide, it’s difficult to predict what the toll of America’s newest wars will be. A survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed that 30% of service members have considered taking their own life, and 45% said they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide.
“There’s probably a tidal wave of suicides coming,” says Brian Kinsella, an Iraq war veteran who started Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit group that works to raise awareness of suicide. Between October 2006 and June 2013, the Veterans Crisis Line received more than 890,000 calls. That number does not include chats and texts.
President Barack Obama says there is a need to “end this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops.” In August 2012, he signed an executive order calling for stronger suicide prevention efforts. A year later, he announced $107 million in new funding for better mental health treatment for veterans with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, signature injuries of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I knew I wanted to see the film “The Sapphires” when I heard that it was based on a true story about 4 Australian aboriginal women who entertain U.S. troops in Vietnam. Last Saturday night we couldn’t get to Amherst Cinema in time to see the film so we saw “The Company You Keep,” Robert Redford’s film of the book with the same title by Neil Gordon about Weather Underground members who go underground after a botched bank robbery ends in the murder of a security guard. It was a worthwhile film that had echoes of the ’60′s and the anti-war movement as well as an incredible scene featuring Susan Sarandon explaining what motivated her character to join a group advocating ending the war by any means necessary including violence.
In between the two films was “The Draft,” the staged reading of the play based on CALLED TO SERVE. There were too many highlight moments for me to attempt to chronicle, but Penny Rock journeying from San Francisco to see Peter Snoad’s play was certainly one of the most memorable. Peter and I got to debrief with her over lunch on Friday following Thursday night’s premiere performance, which played to a full house and received a wonderfully enthusiastic response from the audience and those sending email congratulatory messages. Penny had many suggestions, but I felt her strongest message was no matter what Peter decides to change based on viewer comments or viewing the videotape courtesy of men’s group member and interview subject, Paul Richmond, he should most assuredly hold onto what the book and play are urging on us all – forgiveness and healing. The Vietnam War divided our country and those divisions are with us still. The book and play are intended to allow all who read and watch to gain an awareness and ultimately an appreciation for the ways in which we were all victims of the war and the way forward is to recognize the commonality of our experiences, forgive ourselves and one another for what we did and did not do and ultimately continue the healing process that remains so unfinished despite the intervening years. Penny embodies that work in her own story, which I decided, at the strong urging of my wife Susan who was deeply moved once again by seeing aspects of Penny’s story brought to life in the play, to include in the next version of CALLED TO SERVE.
With such words and thoughts echoing in my mind, watching “The Sapphires” last night provided many new and powerful images having to do with forgiveness and healing. Without revealing too much, since I strongly urge you to see the film if that is possible in your neck of the woods, let it suffice to say that there is a moment in the film where a beloved grandparent figure finds it in her heart to welcome a “stolen child,” one who was literally kidnapped by white Austalians who gave themselves license, as was done here in America to our native population, to steal native children, especially light skinned ones, from their homes, communities and cultures in order to raise them in a white world. The scene where this takes place was overpowering for me. All of the ways in which our culture has so egregiously failed to welcome our soldiers home, to cleanse them and accept them back into the community, to heal them and affirm them as beloved members of their families, and to forgive them for the awful things they have had to see and do – these failures were what I was keenly aware of as I watched this young woman brought back into the loving embrace of her loved ones.
This is what we must face as a country, community by community. This film reinforces this fact sensitively and beautifully.
George W. Bush Library dedication attended By President Obama And former presidents. (Photo: Getty)Responding to the fawning morning coverage of the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library in Texas Thursday, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill mocked the cable news outlet MSNBC by tweeting:
“This is such a singular moment,” said MSNBC’s David Gregory in the interlude between the presentation of the First Ladies and the subsequent introduction of President Obama and the former US presidents: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. “It’s not just pomp and circumstance,” Gregory said as the US Army band rolled drums and the trumpets blared.
The Pledge of Allegiance followed. Shortly thereafter, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice took the podium to deliver a series of introductions.
MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews set the frame for the network’s coverage by saying, “No one wants to talk about Iraq on a day like this.” Instead Matthews repeated time and again, what people really wanted to know was what Obama and former first lady Barbara Bush, seated next to one another on stage, were chatting and giggling about.
As the ordered ceremony continued—with each former President taking turns with a few remarks—anti-war activists proved Matthews wrong by utilizing the official #bushcenter hashtag to voice their opposition to the Bush legacy and calling the former president a ‘war criminal’:
The library, officially called the George W. Bush Presidential Center, is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and was designed to honor—critics argue ‘to re-write’—the legacy of the former US president whose administration led the country into two foreign wars, opened the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as a way to avoid judicial oversight of detainee treatment, initiated rendition and torture programs within a global network of CIA-run black site facilities, oversaw the creation of a vast national surveillance apparatus, and ushered in the largest financial crisis of the modern era.
Outside the event, more than 200 peace activists protested behind police barricades against what they called Bush’s “crimes against humanity”.
In an interview with USA Today earlier this week, George W. Bush repeated what he has often said about his legacy by remarking, “I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.”
For many, however, that judgement deserves no further delay.
Asked in an interview to suggest what the world should remember about the Bush legacy, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange responded by saying:
A good place to start would be laying out the number of deaths caused by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. At Wikileaks, we documented that from 2004-2009, the US had records of over 100,000 individual deaths of Iraqis due to violence unleashed by that invasion, roughly 80% of them civilians. These are the recorded deaths, but many more died. And in Afghanistan, the US recorded about 20,000 deaths from 2004-2010. These would be good facts to include in the presidential library.
And perhaps the library could document how people around the world protested against the invasion of Iraq, including the historic February 15, 2003 mobilization of millions of people around the globe.
And Common Dreams contributors Jodie Evans and Charles Davis write on Thursday:
George W. Bush presided over an international network of torture chambers and, with the help of a compliant Congress and press, launched a war of aggression that killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. However, instead of the bloody details of his time in office being recounted at a war crimes tribunal, the former president has been able to bank on his imperial privilege – and a network of rich corporate donors that he made richer while in office – to tell his version of history at a library in Texas being opened in his name.
Kill a few, they call you a murderer. Kill tens of thousands, they give you $500 million for a granite vanity project and a glossy 30-page supplement in the local paper.
Bush’s legacy is reflected not in his library, but in the regular bombings that rock Baghdad, killing dozens at a time. The Connecticut blue blood turned straight talkin’ Texan is of course welcome to tell his side of the story. That’s only fair. But let him do it at the Hague.
Last month, on the tenth anniversay of the start of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, wounded Iraq war veteran Thomas Young, who remains in hospice waiting to die, wrote an open letter to Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney which included:
I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
Ending his letter, Young wrote to Bush:
My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.
Back in Texas on Thursday, just as Bush closed his remarks at the library’s opening ceremony, a tear caught his eye and he swallowed a sob as he returned to his seat. There was no apology for the war, the many deaths, or torture. There was no confession or acknowledgement of sin or error. The military band rose to perform “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” as the other presidents, their wives, and the crowd sang and applauded.
Charles Rangel sure thinks so and I have to confess, given our track record since Vietnam with an all-volunteer army fighting our awful and unnecessary wars, perhaps he’s right. I am certainly torn when it comes to imagining a re-instated draft that requires all young Americans to serve their country in either military or civilian roles for 2 years. Remembering the anti-war movement that was very connected to the draft during Vietnam and how our government responded got easier for me this week, since I have been watching the incredibly powerful Oliver Stone series, “UNKNOWN HISTORY OF THE U.S.” and the last episode (#7) I watched Friday morning before school was all about the war.
Arguments continue to this day as to whether it was the degree to which the draft affected so many of my generation that gave rise to such a movement and whether that movement caused Nixon and his cronies to question our endless seeming involvement in that “mistake,” as John Kerry, now Secretary of State, called it. But if there was more “shared sacrifice” as Rangel describes it, would Bush’s administration have thought twice before beginning the horrific wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is now obligated to consider whether women upon turning 18 will have to do as their male counterparts have been doing and register with the armed services. Rangel wants this country’s leaders to much more deeply examine what they are doing when they support such grand mistakes as the two wars Bush and co. began and he feels if they were obliged to consider the effects on a much broader swath of the population, they’d be much less likely to rush us into war. If he’s correct then I could support such a draft…
Rangel, who has pushed for years to bring back the draft, said the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to serve in combat means that they too should register for the Selective Service.
“Now that women can serve in combat they should register for the Selective Service alongside their male counterparts,” Rangel said in a statement. “Reinstating the draft and requiring women to register for the Selective Service would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. We must question why and how we go to war, and who decides to send our men and women into harm’s way.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order rescinding the ban on women serving in combat units last month, potentially opening up as many as 237,000 positions to female service members.
The move raised a number of policy issues, including whether women will now be required to register with the Selective Service. The Pentagon is required to report on how changing the ban effects the constitutionality of the registration being males only.
In an interview on MSNBC, Rangel said the draft should be reinstated because the majority of Americans make “no real sacrifice” when the country goes to war.
“The Congress never gets a chance to vote up and down on these war questions. Every president just puts our kids in harm’s way and we just foot the bill, but there’s no real sacrifice in what’s going on. Less than 1 percent of American families are involved in the military and they really pay the price for it,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
He argued that a draft would make the executive branch think long and hard before sending troops overseas.
“Take my word for it, if every time a president was about to put our kids in harm’s way, we we’re thinking about our kids and grandkids, it just wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Rangel’s legislation would require those between the ages of 18 and 25 to perform two years of national service in either the armed services or in civilian life, while the All American Selective Service Act would force women to enroll in the Selective Service System.
“If this country has its security threatened, I would like to believe that all of us, no matter how old we are, would want to do something.”