Opinion: Walk 2.2 miles in their shoes

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On February 2nd, the 2022 Walk-for-Vets kicked off in Augusta. People are walking 2.2 miles in 22 states for a 22 day-long “Buddy March”, culminating in Indiana on February 24, to bring awareness to the alarming fact that each day, 22 veterans of America’s military commit suicide.

I’ve seen firsthand how sparsely-attended the funerals of fellow Navy SEALs who committed suicide can be. But they’re less sparsely attended today than they were in the ’90s, before a big increase in the numbers forced us to take a second look at how despair steals more lives of some of the bravest Americans every day.

The idea of suicide is difficult to square with our culture of never giving up, but the numbers of veterans taking their own lives in America today is on the rise. When you consider we lose 22 men and women who have served each day not on the battlefield, but to suicide, it is heart breaking. I now see these as a different kind of combat death.

Since September 11, 2001, the percentage of veteran suicides has risen by more than one-third and, even more troubling, continues to rise. Veterans today are 1.5 more times likely to commit suicide than the overall population. It’s useful to look at the numbers.

Thirty-thousand veterans have committed suicide in a generation – that’s more than four times the number of combat fatalities in the same period. Some estimate that by 2030, that number will spike to 23 times combat losses. That is, if we do not take effective action today.

We can never know for sure exactly what goes through the mind of someone before he or she takes their own life, but there is one thing we do know: Transitioning to the homefront is never easy.

Going from the stress of combat with its demands of constant, 360-degree awareness to the more forgiving rhythm of everyday life at home is a massive change. We all respond to it differently and there is no “how-to” manual. But there are tools out there, and peer-to-peer support systems are often the most effective way to put all the feelings we have coming home into the right perspective.

But the tight-knit teams on whom we’ve relied beyond the wire are harder to find in civilian life. That’s one of the reasons that events like the Walk for Vets matter. Raising awareness and connecting veterans to support groups that can help are a great first step.

There are other factors of modern combat operations that make threat of veteran suicide today more acute. For instance, researchers have linked something that has come to be known as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with higher rates of depression, despair and hopelessness among combat vets who have experienced it. 

Both in Afghanistan and Iraq, our most sinister enemy was the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), which is more likely to afflict its survivors with TBI. It’s interesting to note that a similar dynamic has been seen among high school football players who block and tackle, also wearing helmets. More research can help us understand and treat this more effectively.

And finally, there is a unique aspect shared among veterans’ experiences from Vietnam forward. It’s what researchers at Boston University have called the “moral injury.” This comes from the sense that higher-ups in command, as well as politicians, have betrayed us. Men came back from WWII with the belief they’d saved the world from evil tyrants. Ever since, the story has become more complicated by varying degrees.

Our departure from Afghanistan last year certainly didn’t help on the moral injury front.

Veteran suicides are compounded tragedies. They affect not only the next of kin and friends and community, but also our country as a whole. The service and sacrifice that come with wearing the uniform are a defining part of our national fabric. We must do a better job of honoring those who have offered themselves up as the starch that allows our great nation to stand strong.

It is no coincidence that the Veterans Administration borrows the words of Abraham Lincoln for its motto: “to care for him who has borne the battle.” Every veteran suicide is a collective failure to uphold this responsibility. Twenty-two a day is far too many. Maybe we should walk 2.2 miles in their shoes, and begin just by understanding.

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