As I sat in a hospital room at the Spokane VA Hospital fighting a bout of pneumonia my attention was pretty much focused on my discomfort and the things being done to and for me to help me get better. During the week there was the news of the George Washington Bridge and the skulduggery New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may or may not have engaged in. Frankly, I still don’t think I have a grasp on what that whole thing was about. But at the same time that the news was hawking information on the bridge debacle, an article was released that spoke to an increase in veteran suicides.
While the overall number of veteran suicides was increasing, the number of suicides for men and women 50 years and older dropped a few percent. But the number of youthful suicides, including a sharp increase in women, rose by 44 percent since 2009. In spite of the programs put in place by the Department of Veterans affairs to try and curb the number of vets taking their own lives, the number just keeps on rising.
In a conversation I had in a waiting room at the VA hospital, we were wondering why the number of suicides was so high, why the rate was climbing, and why the trend toward younger suicides was happening. None of us had any answers except to wonder if it had something to do with the state of things in America. When I was serving in the army it was more likely for soldiers to approach the military as a career. Being in the military didn’t mean a constant rotation into combat as it seems to these days. Soldiers who went to Vietnam did their ‘tour’ and came home, and were somewhat exempt from being sent back if they reenlisted. In fact, reenlistment usually meant a soldier could choose a duty station and possibly even a new occupational specialty. So those who came to the end of their term of service had options available to them for what to do next. Plus that, the GI Bill we had offered a much wider spectrum of choices for education, with Uncle Sam picking up 90% of the tab. So even if a veteran chose not to stay in the military, they had a wider set of options.
Plus that, the economy was in better shape. There were more jobs available and they were jobs with a future track rather than dead end labor. The fact that opportunities existed, we decided in the waiting room, had a lot to do with the emotional condition of veterans. Understand that none of us was saying that things were perfect, just that they were better. The 1970s and 80s seem to have been happier times, at least that’s the way we remembered it or had heard about it. It was a long time ago and some in the conversation weren’t alive during the Vietnam era.
The younger people in our conversation had an underlying anger. They felt that they didn’t have the same opportunities that Vietnam vets had. They weren’t angry at anyone in particular, they just felt a bit ripped off by circumstances. The Gulf War vets said they felt like they were on a merry go round, taking a tour and then being sent back again and again. That staying in the military was a dangerous prospect, especially for enlisted rank and file. Leaving the service, they face a crowded job market and one which made it difficult to go to school in order to get educated so they were more attractive candidates for jobs. There were the minimum wage positions that offered no career track and paid so little that it was impossible to pay their portion of tuition and costs as Vietnam era vets could. And, then too, there was high competition for jobs that became available to vets who were able to eke out a degree.
But there is a lot more to it all. It’s wrong to say that any one thing or another is more or less responsible for vets taking their own lives. The VA is an easy target as people accuse it of not doing enough. It’s true, the VA bureaucracy is hosed up in many ways, but that seems to be a genetic condition for bureaucracies, especially governmental. The fact is that the VA doesn’t have enough money to adequately support its various vets nor does it spend the money it has with wisdom. It spends its money the way one would expect of diverse and competitive committees. It works under the Band Aid principle, where certain pressures are brought to bear and action is taken to relieve the pressure. But no real solutions are being developed on a comprehensive basis. It the government stood back and designed a system geared to provide specific benefits to specific qualifiers and then built it, it would be too expensive for the country to absorb. As a result, the VA is going to continue to work in brush fire conditions. But that also isn’t really going to deal with the number of veteran suicides. The problem appears to be much larger and sits at the feet of our society.
As we sat there talking we concluded that we really didn’t know what we were talking about because there are just too many things involved. What we concluded was that the belief that there was a magic button that could be pressed to fix the problem of veteran suicide was wrong thinking. That the VA, the government, corporate policies and society doesn’t really have a guilty party in them. The problem is the so many things that need to be better addressed for the world at large. If we can manage to impart systems that improve everyone’s lot then the problems faced by veterans will be reduced as a function of that improvement.