March 20, 2009 in Opinion

Bob Ray Sanders: Suicides hidden cost of war

Bob Ray Sanders
 

Surely I had misread the news account from Fort Campbell, Ky., last week. At the very least, there must have been a typographical error.

When I reread the story more carefully, however, there was no mistaking the first sentence of the third paragraph: “Eight Fort Campbell soldiers have killed themselves since the beginning of the year.”

The year was less than 2 1/2 months old.

But then I don’t know why I was surprised since I had written earlier this year about the record number of soldiers who had committed suicide last year. That article, coupled with the latest news of murders and suicides among civilians in recent days in Alabama, Germany and my local Texas community, caused me to search for a letter I’d received from a Pennsylvania veteran last month.

The writer, Steven, had read my column on soldier suicides in his local paper and he had urged me to “dig deeper” into the issue.

I’ve written on several occasions that I can’t comprehend a person taking his or her own life, although intellectually I suppose I understand how some people come to believe that suicide is the only solution to their personal problems and inner torment.

A study last year showed that the overall suicide rate in the country was on the rise after a decade of decline, with the greatest increase occurring among whites ages 40 to 64, and middle-age white women having the largest increase overall. Another disturbing fact comes from reports that suicide among American Indian youth is 2 1/2 times that of other young people nationwide.

All of those statistics sadden me, but none so much as the alarming figures about those who risked their lives to fight in foreign wars and survived the enemies’ attacks only to decide they don’t want to live anymore.

One of my colleagues, J.R. Labbe, reported this month that Secretary of the Army Pete Geren was focusing on the needs of the servicemen and women and their families. Geren told her that the Army was planning a major counseling program this month on suicide prevention.

This is not easy to come to grips with, which is why I went back to the letter from Steven in Pennsylvania. His words were disturbing because of the obvious agony he has gone through over the years, but also comforting because he made me believe that he truly no longer considers killing himself.

Steven served in Desert Storm at age 19 and would spend 17 years in the military, most of which he said was in the reserves and Pennsylvania National Guard. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and came out with only 2 1/2 years remaining before he was eligible for retirement. But he left the service.

“Since then I have become an alcoholic, lost two good jobs, spent time in jail, on parole and struggle everyday to maintain my sanity,” he wrote.

“You wrote about guys not being the same when they come back,” he said. “I really miss who I used to be; a little bit probably died in ’91, but I’m scared the rest died in ’04-’05. I used to be a fun-loving person.”

I could feel his suffering, as he related his story.

“Suicide? I’ve considered it, but if I did that they would have won, would have beat me.

“ ‘They’ aren’t the Iraqis or Afghans, or IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices). ‘They’ are people that never served or fought but still love the idea of war – Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh.”

The last two paragraphs of his letter said:

“Please write and dig deeper into the suicide issues, convince the gov’t to count and track the suicides of former military members. Only then will we all be accounted for. I no longer sleep with my .45; had to sell it before I went to court and got sentenced. LOL.”

’Nuf said.

Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His e-mail address is bobray@star-telegram.com.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email