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Suicide stalks 'war on terror' veterans

By HENG WEILI in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-02 10:26

More traumatized survivors dying at own hands than in battle for US

The United States' declared global war on terror has taken a heavy toll on its military forces, but more so off the battlefield.

Some 30,177 veterans of the war on terror have died by suicide since 2001, compared with 7,057 who lost their lives while deployed in support of the battle, according to estimates in a recent research paper.

That was a major finding in the report by Thomas Howard Suitt published on June 21 by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, as part of its Costs of War research series.

"Suicide rates among the United States public have been increasing for the past 20 years, but among active military personnel and veterans of the post-9/11 wars, the suicide rate is even higher, outpacing average Americans," Suitt wrote in the paper.

Suitt, a PhD and recent graduate of the religion program at Boston University, said the term post-9/11 wars refers to "ongoing US-led military operations around the world that grew out of president George W. Bush's' global war on terror' and the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001".

In the research series, Suitt tells the story of Army Sergeant Dominic McDaniel, who advanced to squad leader in Sadr City, Iraq, where he led a group of young soldiers. In "an extremely bloody time", McDaniel felt it was his job to keep them safe.

When members of his squad, including the youngest member of his battalion, were wounded in combat, he felt immense guilt.

"A couple guys got hurt, and essentially I prayed, and I asked God for help. And at the end of that, I felt that no one was coming, and it was up to us. And that was a very alone, isolating feeling for sure, and I don't know if that went away after that," McDaniel was quoted in the research report as saying.

An improvised explosive device, or IED, left McDaniel with physical and mental wounds that eventually forced him to resign after he was classified as unfit for combat with a diagnosis of a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I felt guilty because my guys got hurt, and I was in charge," McDaniel is documented as saying. "It was my fault. They started committing suicide when we got home pretty quick."

A study published in November 2020 by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and the Department of Veterans Affairs found: "Combat experiences involving direct exposure to death, killing, or grave injury were independently associated with SI/SA (suicidal ideation/suicide attempts), whereas several general combat experiences (e.g., combat patrols) were negatively associated with SI/SA."

Coping with depression

After his discharge, the loss of his fellow troops and his overwhelming guilt led McDaniel to alcohol abuse, divorce and a feeling of "cascading betrayal". Fortunately, he found help to cope with his depression and suicidal ideation. He now works for a nonprofit helping other veterans who have experienced severe trauma.

"I'm deeply concerned about the suicide rates, not only here but across the force," US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told a news conference at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, on July 24.

Suitt believes that one reason the suicide rate is high is the unpopularity or loss of interest among soldiers in certain military engagements, similar to what veterans of the Vietnam War experienced in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Diminishing approval of the wars, coupled with damaging veteran stereotypes, may contribute to today's rising service member and veteran suicide rates," Suitt wrote. "Unlike the public's celebratory treatment of World War II veterans as heroes, sections of the public have met the return of veterans from Vietnam and the war on terror with hostility for the former and often disinterest for the latter.

"Where Vietnam veterans were called 'baby killers' and treated with outright hostility, post-9/11 veterans face a public increasingly disinterested and even ignorant of the war."

He cited a 2018 poll that found 42 percent of US voters were either unaware of the continuing conflicts in the Middle East or believed that the war on terror was over.

Another key factor is the devastating effect that IEDs and resulting TBIs are having.

Suitt said IEDs accounted for more than half of casualties early in the war on terror and numbered in the thousands per month.

"Their persistent use contributes to a constant state of fear and vulnerability, increasing 'operational stress burden' and has been linked to increases in active duty suicidal behaviors by 26 percent among military personnel for every additional 1,000 IEDs encountered per month," Suitt said.

The author calls TBIs the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements, affecting between 8 and 20 percent of military personnel.

In a study of more than 150 military personnel serving in Iraq in 2009, the average number of such injuries per person was more than two, with the highest reported as 18. The researchers found these brain injuries increased a service member's risk of suicide with a higher frequency of the injuries correlating with higher risk.

Then there is the availability of firearms.

"Access to lethal means, or an accessible method of suicide, is another possible contributor to the persistently high suicide rates among both service members and veterans," Suitt said. Almost half of all veterans own a firearm, with most having both short- and long-barreled guns, he said.

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