by Darryl Walker, Jr.
Images of flag-draped coffins are often attributed to wars fought abroad. A seldom acknowledged internal battle, however, also poses a danger to U.S. service members. In 2014, twenty veterans took their lives every day. The risk for suicide among veterans was 21% higher than the general population, with women having a significantly higher prevalence. Invisible wounds such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injuries are linked to increased rates of suicide. In 2012, the leading cause of death in the U.S. military was suicide – surpassing those directly related to combat.
Stigma, Policy & Access to Care
The fact that mental illnesses and cognitive impairments are stigmatized is a major problem. People with psychological disorders are discriminated against and viewed as weak. For example, when asked about troops returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder, Donald Trump suggested some were not strong enough to “handle it.” This corrosive perspective is enabled by the economic system of capitalism which serves corporate greed instead of human need. Social beings become alienated individuals saddled with expectations of self-sufficiency. This creates an atmosphere where veterans are compelled to suffer in silence.
The United States Congress and Department of Veterans Affairs has made important strides toward decreasing stigma and improving mental wellness in the military. The Female Suicide Prevention Act became law in 2016; stating that troops who “experience combat-related mental health wounds should have immediate, appropriate, and consistent access to comprehensive mental health care.” The bill requires that mental health programs treating women with the greatest rates of success be identified. At a practical level, this will ensure that the best practices for assisting women in the military are recognized and standardized throughout the country.
“Conventional wisdom has focused solely on the individual rather than the larger structure. A rapacious appetite for profit is international in scope and requires an armed force to suppress the masses abroad . . . Defense contractors exploit the honorable desire to protect one’s community to make a pretty penny. Naked destruction is cloaked by narratives of patriotism; breeding a twin sense of nationalism and desensitization to its victims.”
The Department of Veterans affairs doubled the resources available for its Veterans Crisis Line. This greater capacity enables the operation to run around the clock. Since its implementation in 2007, hotline counselors have “answered over 2.5 million calls, dispatched emergency services in crisis situations more than 66,000 times, and engaged 314,000 veterans or concerned family members through its chat option.” Additionally, access for marginalized communities was increased, in part, by the launch of TeleMental Health Services, which allows patients to be provided with expedited psychological care from specialists, from a distance, in real-time. (TeleMental is the satellite project of a larger service. Between 2003 and 2015, some 677,000 veterans utilized TeleHealth Services for mental health management; the program was expanded in light of the acute mental health issues befalling service members.)
The Military-Industrial Complex
Politicians and psychiatrists alike have danced around the true root of veteran suicide: warfare. Conventional wisdom has focused solely on the individual rather than the larger structure. A rapacious appetite for profit is international in scope and requires an armed force to suppress the masses abroad. The military is a global police force – with 800 military bases around the world – ensuring the will of those atop the pyramid with guns and bombs. An endless demand for expansion propels a war machine that views human lives, truth, and morals as expendable. A prime example is the War on Terror; justified, in part, by the claim that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. Leaders knew the assertion was false, but it loaned credence to an adventure of conquest worth billions of dollars. There is a military-industrial complex that lines the pockets of the wealthy by using our brave daughters and sons as cannon fodder. Defense contractors exploit the honorable desire to protect one’s community to make a pretty penny. Naked destruction is cloaked by narratives of patriotism; breeding a twin sense of nationalism and desensitization to its victims.
Hiding Violence: Language & Perspective
Language naturalizes the violence of the military. Leaders tend to frame military actions as mere defense or intervention. These are not exercises in semantics that are reducible to poor word choice; this is a strategy for justifying empire. Consider the fact that between 1789 and 1947, there was a Department of War. After World War II, however, it was renamed the Department of Defense. This not so subtle rhetorical shift is an attempt to gain consent for war by making the aggressor the victim, and the victim the aggressor.
“There is a general interest in ‘treating’ veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, but not preventing the original trauma of warfare. If America is truly dedicated to ending suicide among service members, it would dismantle capitalism and the military industrial-complex that requires endless war.”
Furthermore, the term intervention is disingenuous because it assumes that the United States is a neutral third party. America does not intervene, it interferes – with coup d’états if necessary to the needs of capital. What the United States government calls ‘foreign policy’ is a euphemism for imperialism: the invasion, obliteration, and/or occupation of another territory to gain power and profit.
A Strategy for Ending Veteran Suicide
The Trump Administration has proposed a military funding increase of $54 billion. Judging from the latest attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, and posturing toward North Korea – warfare will continue to be the country’s standard operating procedure. The prospect of more warfare only increases the probability that more service members will become traumatized, leading to more veteran suicides. At this point, the typical liberal proposal is introduced as a solution: the mental health system needs to be funded better. This idea tends to exist alongside a support for an increase in military spending. For example, Hillary Clinton supported a $500 million increase in mental health care for veterans, while also arguing that America “should maintain the best-trained, best-equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known.” There is a general interest in ‘treating’ veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, but not preventing the original trauma of warfare. If America is truly dedicated to ending suicide among service members, it would dismantle capitalism and the military industrial-complex that requires endless war. Anything short of that is disingenuous and a middle finger to service members. We need to imagine a world that is free from capitalist exploitation and violence. The best strategy for ending veteran suicide is building a society that does not require the armed forces.
Darryl Walker, Jr. is a poet, bookworm, and member of Socialist Alternative RI. He has a Master of Arts degree in Sociology & Anthropology from Northeastern University, and Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Rhode Island College. He can be contacted here and you can read more of his writings here.