Suicide and the Soldier

Gary G. Kohls, MD

Eleven years ago, the NeoConservative Cheney/Bush/Rove/Rumsfeld administration, with the enthusiastic support of the Radical Religious Right, started, by a series of treasonous lies, its so-called endless war on “terrorism”, most of which, in actuality, had been provoked by decades of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and blindly pro-Israel US foreign policies.

Since that perpetual war began in 2001, huge numbers of US military personnel have taken their own lives.  In 2009 alone, at least 330 active-duty servicemen and women were known to have committed suicide - more than the number of combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And last month, July 2012, the suicide rate for active-duty soldiers exceeded one per day. Worse, the Veterans Affairs reports that 18 American military veterans from all wars kill themselves each day!
 
The suicide rate in the US military, prior to 2001, approximated that of the general population. In the years since the Bush Wars, the suicide rate has risen to double the national average, and, just like after the Vietnam War, it is certain to go higher.
 
When wars result in suicide numbers that exceed those killed in action (KIA) or missing in action (MIA), something is wrong and there should be a hue and cry demanding to know the reasons why. And we also should be questioning the reasons behind the secret decisions to send mentally and physically healthy soldiers “into harm’s way”, where they become preventable emotional and spiritual casualties.
 
It needs to be pointed out that no data are kept on the rate of suicidal thinking among veterans – another devastating consequence of having once been a killing soldier.
 
In every war, the brass keep suicide statistics secret or deceptively low – a secrecy that applies to the KIA count as well. Also not counted are those mortally wounded soldiers who died after clearing Iraqi or Afghani air space en route to military hospitals elsewhere.
 
The large numbers of veterans who take their own lives following discharge should shock us all. These are the veterans who “came home crazy”, justifiably angry or hostile or depressed or remorseful, and with an understandable sense of hopelessness after their frequently doomed efforts to return to normalcy. Many veterans came home to find an uncomprehending, and often unsympathetic, community where life no longer had the same meaning for them as what they knew prior the combat zone.

Returning soldiers often find themselves totally changed by war and unable to enjoy life anymore. Their unprepared loved ones remember what they were like prior to the soul-damaging experience of basic training and expect them to return home the same. Those loved ones may greet them excitedly during the photo ops at the armory when they return from their last deployment, but they are not likely to fully understand (and usually don’t even want to hear about) the hellish realities that their once innocent soldier-boy somehow survived.
 
Lessons tragically
unlearned from the
Vietnam War

In addition to the underestimation of completed suicides among active duty soldiers and discharged combat veterans, the Department of Defense makes no attempt to measure the incidence of suicidal thinking or even of failed suicide attempts. The exact figures for these important realities are therefore not known. For a rough estimate of such suicidal thinking, which is often seriously disabling for the soldier-victim, some therapists have suggested that one might just multiply the incidence of successful suicides following any given war by a factor of 5 or 10.

One PTSD-related study of Vietnam-era veterans showed that 20% of that particular study group were chronically plagued by a preoccupation with suicidal thinking. An example of this sobering reality is Vietnam vet Tim O’Brien, the acclaimed Minnesota author of a number of award-winning novels about his war, including “The Things They Carried”, “Going After Cacciato” and “In the Lake of the Woods”. Despite all his success as an author, O’Brien still suffers, four decades later, from recurrent suicidal thinking.
 
Many researchers estimate that, over the first few decades following the American military’s defeat in Vietnam, there may have been as many as 200,000 veterans who committed suicide after they came home. Indeed, many members of Veterans for Peace say that the US should build another black granite wall in DC just to recognize and grieve over the ones who killed themselves after they arrived “safely home”.

The American KIA/MIA statistics in that war was “only” 58,000 (versus upwards of 3 million Vietnamese, mostly civilians). An uncounted number of American GIs who were included in the KIA count  in Vietnam were actually suicides or deaths from by “friendly fire”. Included in that well-kept secret, it should be mentioned, are hundreds of intentional “friendly fire” victims that were actually killed by “fragging” (the murder, by fragmentation grenades, of low-level commissioned officers by their own non-com soldiers).
 

What about the often
cavalier use of suicide
and homicide-inducing
psychotropic drugs in
Iraq War soldiers?

An alarming number of combat soldiers are being given brain-altering psych drugs to numb their emotional pain, chemically stimulate their low mood, quell the  understandable anxiety or produce a chemically-induced semi-coma that might temporarily suppress the horrific nightmares and guarantee a night’s sleep.
 
Along with these prescription drugs (that are acknowledged to just suppress or otherwise alter symptoms but never cure anything), the neurologically altered brains of these psychologically traumatized soldiers are highly likely to become addicted to the substances, just like many of their civilian counterparts back home who might also have been falsely-labeled with a mental illness diagnosis. Both categories of emotionally stressed-out patients are all-too-often told that they need to stay on their potentially disabling chemical straight jackets for the rest of their lives! In reality, both the civilians and the soldiers alike may only be experiencing a situation of temporary “overwhelm” of known etiology that is likely to be curable without the long-term use of brain-altering drugs.
 
Of course, it is well-known that many psychiatric drugs dramatically increase the incidence of suicidal thinking and can commonly cause many other adverse effects that can easily be mis-diagnosed as symptoms of a so-called mental illness. These widely used chemicals, whether legal or illegal, are also well known to produce altered thinking (sometimes described as “spell-binding” by psychiatrist Peter Breggin in his recent book titled “Medication Madness”).

These drug-induced averse effects can include impulse dyscontrol, rage reactions, worsening depression, drug-induced mania, insomnia or irrational behaviors such as criminal or antisocial behaviors. Many of these psych drugs can also cause dependency so that serious withdrawal symptoms can occur when a patient tries to cut down or quit the medication. Drug dependence may be good for the pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries but it is very bad for patients and their brains, partly because the withdrawal symptoms are often misdiagnosed as a “relapse” of the patient’s “mental illness”. Fortunately, if a careful patient history is taken, the symptoms of withdrawal will be recognized as just that because those symptoms were not present prior to the use of the drug.
 
Killing and dying for
ChickenHawk legislators
and assorted war
profiteers

How crazy-making must it be for suffering veterans, who thought that they were defending democracy, the US Constitution, their country and their honor when they find out too late that they had actually been killing and dying for thousands of corporate war profiteers like Halliburton, Gulf Oil, Blackwater, Wall Street, the bankers, the weapons-makers, the gun-runners and for the glory of ChickenHawk politicians and talking heads like Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Rove, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity and the numberless armchair warrior wanabees who “had other priorities” when the call to serve their country came?
 
So what to do about the bankrupting war economy that has no idea what to do with the hundreds of thousands of “expendable”, increasingly anti-patriotic and very angry young men and women vets who are haunted by their unseen demons of war? It doesn’t take combat veterans too long to realize that they are coming home to a bunch of war-profiteering political operatives who sent them off to a war that had no endgame and who seem oblivious to their suffering (unless there is a political campaign going on).

The billionaire investor class (AKA, the One Percenters on Wall Street) have happily promoted another in a long string of highly profitable wars that handsomely padded their corporate bank accounts and stock prices but changed forever the lives of the cannon fodder soldiers that did the fighting and killing for them.

Many discharged soldiers are coming home to what the eggheads in the econ departments call a “jobless recovery”. And the ones who can’t find work but may have once been college-caliber may not be able concentrate well enough to handle the rigors of an college education.

Many of them will finally tumble to the fact that they had been duped by the military recruiters who had lied and promised them valuable work experience and/or a subsidized education but made no mention of the fact that there would be hidden neurological, psychological and spiritual impairments when they came home.
 
Many of these soldiers came back to find out that their homes had been foreclosed upon or repossessed by corrupt mortgage banking elites that had been rescued  by multi-billion dollar bailouts ­  and they logically asked: “what about bail-outs for us grunts.” Many returned to find their marriages on the rocks or their family was on food stamps. Is it any wonder that many ex-soldiers have simply lost the will to live – or are tempted to “go postal” on what they see as an uncaring corporate-dominated culture?
 
Any thinking citizen who is still capable of reading between the lines, who cares about the survival of his deeply flawed nation and who perhaps has even sworn to defend his country against its domestic and foreign enemies, knows that it is time to stop the monetary hemorrhage from the Pentagon that has, for decades, been bleeding the US taxpayers dry at a rate of 2 billion dollars a day! At that rate, multi- trillion dollar deficits can accumulate pretty fast!

The lamentable legacy
of old “666” and
trickle-down
Reaganomics

The money that is being flushed down a bottomless war industry toilet got its start during the free-borrowing and spending, nuclear arsenal-crazed, “Star Wars-happy”, tax-cuts for the rich administration of Ronald Wilson Reagan (old 666 himself) and his VP George H. W.  Bush. The Reagan years were marked by the infamous largely forgotten, fraudulent and failed “trickle-down” economic experiment that was foisted upon a naïve and unsuspecting populace. And then it somehow was made to disappear down the memory hole so that its current reincarnation in the 2012 Republican Party platform hasn’t been noticed.

Reaganomics rapidly created, by massive, and relatively painless (as credit card spending is wont to do) borrowing and spending, a new three trillion dollar US debt by the time that senile old man was sleeping through his cabinet meetings. Except for the Clinton years the deficit grew with every administration and with every unfunded war hundreds of thousands of previously healthy uniformed men and women wound up dead or permanently disabled in body, mind and spirit.
 
Most Americans are tired of being dragged into war after senseless war, wars that can not be justified unless they are fascist, militarist and imperialist wars. The national bankruptcies that inevitably follow all perpetual war-making empires throughout history will ultimately not be rescued by any of us in the soon-to-be-enfeebled 99 %. And our children and grandchildren, who have had their birthright stolen from them by the current ruling elite, will be helpless to do so.
Most Americans know that the US can’t afford to continue borrowing and pending massive amounts of money on destructive wars when so many human needs are being left unmet. It’s time to cut our losses, declare victory (or accept defeat)  and bring the troops home before more damage is done to them and more wealth is siphoned into the coffers of the multinational corporations and the Swiss bank accounts of the wealthy elite who so successfully promote their wars of aggression.

When will we ever learn?
 
Dr. Kohls practiced holistic (non-drug) mental health care prior to his retirement in 2008 and came to understand the critical importance of neurological, psychological and spiritual trauma that is a predictable consequence of both domestic and combat-induced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and which is one of the  major root causes of what are too often called “mental illnesses of unknown etiology”.