According to a report out of Brown University and Boston University, over 30,000 US military veterans have committed suicide over the last 20 years. As a nation we must ask ourselves, why?
As a veteran myself and as someone who ran a homeless shelter for veterans for over 4 years, I have a perspective on the subject. You see, many who have little or no contact with the military think of them as the force that protects this country from external aggression, a force that keeps the peace. And that it is. But it is also a society unto itself.
It has its own laws, customs, heritage, social norms, and moral code. Since the all volunteer force came to be in the early 1970s many Americans have come to have no contact with military society. This is foremost in our elites. Their thinking seems to go that the dirty work of standing watch on the midnight ramparts of freedom is somehow beneath them, infra dig. Better others sully themselves than their career progressions be interrupted by such scut work. Well, the military notices this.
Thus there is a massive cultural disconnect between the protectors and the protected. Sure, it’s nice to hear “thank you for your service” at an airport. It would be nicer if more Americans pulled their fair share. As such, it sets up a tension between military and civilian society. Also many veterans, who join the service when they are very young, leave the military not especially adept in successfully navigating their way through the civilian world. This holds more true for combat vets than other veterans. Their intensity of experience sets them apart.
Where in civilian society, they ask themselves, is the camaraderie and sense of purpose that one finds in the military? Where is the structure and discipline? Where is the adrenaline kick of putting your life on the line for something you believe in? That something? That soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine next to you on the line. Where is the nobility of mission and the inherent trust of the soldier in the next foxhole over? Many times in many ways these things are found wanting in civilian society.
Also remember, because of their tender and formative age when joining, military society is the only way of life some know when they leave the service. Many have gone straight from their parents’ house to boot camp. Several years later when the leave the colors, some are perplexed and frustrated by the differences between the two lifestyles. That frustration can turn to anger and despondency. That can lead to tragic results.
A combat vet who had seen a lot of action in Afghanistan once told me over several drinks that he only felt truly alive when his life was in danger, when everything counted. Then all his senses were at fever pitch. He compared it to a high. After that he had a hard time adjusting to the mundane qualities of civilian life.
He survived and prospered. But some can’t cross that bridge and the dark deep waters below can seem a welcome respite to a person who not only has seen much, but who can’t square it with the life they are trying to lead outside military society.
They feel alone, they feel cold, they feel used and discarded as Kipling noted in “Tommy”, the British equivalent term for G.I. : “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ chuck him out, the brute! But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” Consider that, and those who wear and wore the uniform, the next time you say “thank you for your service.”