The war in Iraq is officially over, and the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close. But those conflicts, and previous ones, still take their toll on the nation's veterans. Twenty veterans commit suicide every day.
That number may come as a surprise to those who remember the Vietnam War, when military members were not universally welcomed home. In that era, too many Americans blamed foreign policy mistakes on the brave men and women who had to carry out those decisions. Today, we all say, “thank you for your service,” regardless of how we feel about the post-9/11 wars.
But thank yous aren't always enough.
“Even though people may not revile you, that doesn't mean that people understand,” said Rick Swigart, suicide prevention coordinator for the Veterans Administration in northern Indiana.
The VA's legendary slowness at processing claims and recent revelations of names dropped from waiting lists don't seem to bear on the agency's suicide-prevention operation here.
“Our responses are very, very quick,” Swigart said. The area's psychiatric services are at the VA hospital in Marion, where Swigart is based. But there's a suicide-prevention specialist at the Fort Wayne hospital, as well. A national help line is staffed 24/7.
A call or a visit to the VA hospital is all that's needed for Swigart or an associate to move into action.
He can ask authorities to make a welfare-check visit, arrange for a substance-abuse evaluation, address homelessness, get help for family or legal issues or provide for medical help.
Sometimes the situation calls for hospitalization, or sometimes, for vets with suicidal tendencies already being treated for other problems, the key is reducing their supply of medications. “The majority of our suicide attempts are through overdoses,” Swigart said, though most veteran suicides – they're termed “completions” – are by gunshot.
Sometimes the most important step is just getting in contact. “There's still a kind of a stigma about seeking out mental help,” Swigart explained. “Real warriors, they don't need this kind of help. Just bite the bullet and move on.
“If you believe that,” Swigart said, “you're not going to seek out what you need.”
Many times, it's a family member who reaches out. The most common problem he hears from families: “They say the person who comes back is different.”
With family members' permission, Swigart, who served in Vietnam, may call the veteran.
“A lot of (vets) have been isolated, and to know that there's somebody supporting them” is very important, Swigart said.
In the past, the older the veteran, the more risk of suicide. Older veterans often face “an accumulation of losses” that leads them to despair, Swigart said. But the average age of veteran suicides is going down and now is just 43.
Recent veterans are more often challenged by the transition back into civilian life.
“We're seeing more and more of the younger vets,” Swigart said. “There's only so much preparation you can do for the transition to civilian life.”
There may be more that America can do to help its veterans who are in self-destructive despair. Indiana's Sen. Joe Donnelly, who is trying to pass a bill to help current service members at risk of suicide, plans to address veterans' suicides as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But for now, it's good to know that people like Swigart are on the job. If you need help, or you know a vet who does, call one of the numbers in the box.