A suicide epidemic has hit recent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the United States. Margaret C. Harell and Nancy Berglass while writing for the Centre for a New American Security argued that the US was losing the battle owing to the spike in veteran suicides.
Whereas, veterans account for only 10 per cent of the adult American population, they represent 20 per cent of the suicides. The US Veteran Affairs (VA) claims that the veterans experience a 21 per cent higher suicide rate than the general public.
Suicides are not confined to veterans alone. In July 2011, almost 33 active and reserve members of the US army took their own lives. Thousands more American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Almost 5,000 US soldiers have died in Iraq alone. In Afghanistan, the death toll for American troops has crossed over 1900 during the same time.
The cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to limit overseas US casualties. However, as hundreds of thousands of suicide-prone US veterans return home, the passive war between veterans and the daemons will linger on for decades causing thousands more deaths resulting from suicides.
Scores of Americans lose their lives to violence each year. However, lives lost to suicides exceed far more than those lost to homicides. In 2010 alone, 14,748 people were murdered in the US. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 32,000 Americans take their own lives each year, twice more than those who are murdered.
Writing in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012, Mark Kaplan and others categorise suicide a major public health problem. “According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of the Inspector General, 1000 veterans who receive care from the VA and as many as 5000 of all veterans die by suicide every year,” Kaplan and others noted. In an earlier study they had estimated that veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide than the non-veterans.
Not all studies found a higher suicide risk amongst veterans. For instance, Kang and Bullman noted comparable suicide rates for veterans and the rest. The annual crude suicide rate for veterans ranged from 15.3 to 25.5 per 100,000, and 20 to 24 per 100,000 for the comparable general population. Similarly, Miller and others in 2009 concluded from a study of 500,000 adult men that veterans did not exhibit a higher propensity for suicides.
The controversy about higher than usual suicide risk of veterans could be an artifact of how studies are designed and conducted. For instance, Miller and others studied a large population of older men with an average age between 56 and 59 years. Whereas veterans of Iraq and Afghan wars, who exhibit a higher suicide risk, are much younger.
Despite the controversy, the fact remains that the “evil-doers”, a term of endearment coined by the former President George W. Bush, in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been able to inflict such massive casualties as have resulted from suicides by veterans. In no single year did the US lose more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that it does now to suicides. In fact, more veterans commit suicide in a given year than the total number of US soldiers (4,490) who have died in Iraq since 2001.
The more important question to ponder is why such a large number of US veterans are taking their own lives. The epidemiological research identifies post-traumatic stress disorder and severe brain trauma as the leading causes behind suicides. Seeing one’s comrades, or even enemy, die in front of one’s eyes is bound to scar the soul. The US Army sergeant who recently killed 16 unarmed civilians in Afghanistan (including several children) and whose wife refuses to acknowledge her husband’s culpability, may beat the murder charge, but his real battle will be with the daemons that have pushed several like him to the dark side.
America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not without excessive costs. While the number of Iraqi and Afghan dead have run into hundreds of thousands, even with a relatively much smaller death toll the US is still paying a heavy price for trying to tame Afghans and Iraqis. An estimated $1.3 trillion have already been spent on the wars.
Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in economics, estimates in his book that these wars will cost over $3 trillion dollars. A large portion of the costs is tied to rehabilitating veterans, many of whom were gravely injured while being deputed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kang and Bullman estimate that through March 2009, the number of wounded veterans from America’s recent wars equalled 33,907. Their care and physical rehabilitation will be a costly endeavour.