Left Behind

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 10-17-2021

When I was in college I had a pal who was a few years older than me; he had been in the Army and did an 11 month tour of duty in Vietnam. He told me a story about how he had returned on a flight to the US in a plane filled with GIs, but when he arrived back in the US he quickly found himself on another plane to his home town and then, less than five days after leaving Vietnam he found himself sitting in a college classroom listening to an economics lecture.

The cognitive dissonance was so great he left and didn’t go back to college for several years (when I met him).

The striking part was how he had gone from being in combat in the jungle to sitting in a classroom in something on the order of 100 hours and yet no one seemed to find that process strange enough to stop it.

Multiple times over the last 40 years I have met guys who have had similar, jarring, re-insertions into life at the home front.

As an example, a while ago I ran into a fellow who on a given Monday had been on patrol in bad guy territory, on Tuesday moved to the main airfield, Tuesday night he took a flight out of the country, to a US base in Europe, then on Wednesday afternoon he had a flight to the US, arrived Thursday. That Thursday evening he was alone in a mall in middle America, USA. Luckily, he had some friends in his new unit and they were going to meet him. 

Of course, he was also beginning training to redeploy in another 12 months.

I bring this up because of a story in “the Federalist” forwarded to me concerning the number of suicides in the DOD, a story which pointed out that substantially more DOD personnel have died from suicide than from COVID in the past 18 months.

The “Department of Defense (DoD) Quarterly Suicide Report (QSR),” details that from April 1 to June 30 of this year, a total of 139 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines committed suicide, 99 “active component,” 14 reservists, and 26 National Guard. Of note, 60 of the 99 were Army.

The article then makes this point: those numbers are more than double the total number of U.S. service members that have died from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.  There have been 67 COVID deaths in the military to date.

Why these numbers? I don’t know. But I would submit there is something disturbing about the idea that something that was so jarring to me when I was in college remains relatively unchanged 4 decades later. And yet we are far more concerned about the virus than about the suicides, despite the obvious fact that the virus has now been shown to be far less a threat to the force than we initially feared.

Consider this: Like many, my dad and all my uncles were in WWII. One of them was an amateur historian and kept notes and then wrote about his experiences. He was in the field artillery and then became a scout - landed on Guadalcanal in October 1942, was basically in combat (Bougainville, Leyte, Cebu) until the 1st of August 1945. Then he was put on a ship and sent home - to be reconstituted for Operation Coronet, the projected landings in Japan, that thankfully never took place. As he told the story, he was on a ship with 2,000 other guys all of whom had been essentially in the same “storm” he had been in and for about as long. It took more than 6 weeks to get to the US. All they did for about 20 hours a day, for 45 days, was talk to each other. It was, as he later said, a 900 hour therapy session. And, when he got home he had all his friends as well as all my uncles to talk to. They all talked to each other, they were close, they watched each other.

The numbers tell the rest of the story: In the US in WWII we had 13,5 million folks serve in uniform out of a population of 135 million - 1 in 10. Compare that to our current situation: over the last 20 years, 1.5 million folks have deployed in support of OEF / OIF and the GWOT. Out of a population of 332 million - 1 in 215…

There is more reporting that suggests that the suicide rate for veterans is substantially above that of the general population. Because of data sampling issues, the exact number of suicides since 1999 are in dispute, running from a bit more than one veteran suicide per day to as many as 22, the number that has been widely quoted in the past, and in fact quoted by a number of Senators and Congressman. But, even at 1 suicide per day among veterans, that number is well above the national average, given the relatively smaller number of veterans.

What is more perplexing is that what seems to be the solution selected by the government is “more of the same.”

Perhaps we need to transition folks slowly, (the special operations community has been trying to do just this), perhaps there is some way to foster more contact among current members units and previous members who have let the service. Perhaps we need to take look at our personnel management process so that the units and communities inside the services do a better job of keeping contact with people once they separate.

As a Soldier separates from active duty he shouldn’t just be left on his own, he shouldn’t be left behind. Perhaps there is a means to encourage units to maintain some degree of contact.

I don’t know what the right answer is. But I do know that 1 veteran suicide per day is too high. And that 99 active duty suicides in 3 months is too high. And the answers that I’ve seen in the last 40 years seem to be the same answers tried again and again.