18 Veterans a Day, What a Horrible Loss
by James Glaser
April 23, 2008

Now people will tell you that there are a lot of veterans, and 18 suicides a day isn't really all that much, but what those same people forget to tell you is that 4 to 5 of those suicides every day are veterans who are receiving mental health care from the Veterans Administration. That works out to over 1,600 suicides a year, and these are the men and women who are asking for help.

That number is twice the number of our troops getting killed in Iraq each year, but like past wars, suicides are never counted in the total American death toll in any war.

I was thinking about all the vets that I knew who killed themselves. The first one was right after I got back to the States. Thinking back, the Marine's name or nickname was Clyde or Clooney. What I remember is that he put on his Dress Blue uniform, complete with his medals, and put all of his Marine Corps paper work in the back seat of his car, and then drove into the Assumption Church in Saint Paul at a very high rate of speed. They said he was dead on impact.

I didn't know the guy very well, as I had just gotten home, but there was that bond between Marines, and we had had some great conversations. His death was a wake up call for me.

All through my time going through various PTSD programs at the VA, people would be talking about this guy or that guy, who had done themselves in. Some I knew, others were just names. I bet every PTSD program has a drawer full of plaques that the veterans in the program bought to remember this Marine, that Soldier, or maybe that Navy Corpsman that just couldn't handle it any more. I have seen the plaques, but the staff takes them down as soon as the group the vet was in passes back to civilian life. If they left them all up it would scare anyone thinking about getting help with that particular program

I have written in the past about the Soldier that did a "header" off of a foot bridge onto the concrete driveway right in front of the PTSD building at the Minneapolis VA PTSD Unit. Right away, they rushed in counselors for the VA Staff, and sent all the veterans home. Many people won't like this next statement, but many, many Vietnam Veterans believe that VA staff members get a bonus if a guy kicks off. You commit suicide and the government doesn't have to write that disability check every month. Like I said, a lot of people won't like that, but after years of dealing with the VA, nothing would surprise me.

Last year, I got word that a good friend of mine had killed himself where I came from in Northern Minnesota. He and I spent many hours talking about how the war had affected us. I tried every way I could think of to get him down to the VA, but he was scared—scared of the VA, but I think more scared of what his friends and family would think of him. It is hard admitting that you can't handle something on you own. Every vet has read the books and seen the movies about crazy veterans. You sure don't want that label put on you.

Here is one of the first things I learned about dealing with the VA from fellow veterans. Never, under any circumstances are you to ever mention a thought about suicide. I can't tell you how many vets drilled that into my head. You even mention that thought, and every right you ever had being an American is taken away from you. Bam! You are put in a lockdown ward, and then you have to prove that you are sane enough to get out. I made that mistake one time. I was heading down to the Minneapolis VA to see Doctor Harry Russell. It was Friday, and he was sick or something and last minute had to cancel our appointment. I was 250 miles from home and was told I could get in to see him on Monday. I asked if I could stay on the Psyche Ward until then, and right away the nurse started giving me the evil eye and asking me if I was thinking about killing myself.

Because I had other vets tell me what would happen if I even breathed that thought, I said "no way." They did have space on that ward and let me stay, but every staff person during that weekend tried to get me to admit that I was thinking about offing myself. Even on Monday morning I had to go through a little test to prove that I was sane enough to have them unlock the ward door and let me out. I was scared, and after seeing how drugged they kept the veterans on that ward, suicide looks like a better answer than help from the VA.

Now that was 15 years ago and I pray things are different today, but you scare somebody like they scared me. and they have closed the book on my trust.

I hope today those vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan get a better reception than what I got when I came home from Vietnam. When the Senate and the House were debating about this war, nobody said anything about what would happen to our returning veterans. There are VA hospitals and Homes all over this country where we try and hide those veterans who can't make the transition from the combat zone into civilian life. Yes, we hide them, and that puts a stigma on anyone who admits they need help, too.

Many, about 6,500 + veterans a year think that suicide is preferable to working out their problems at the VA. After my experiences with the VA, that does not surprise me at all.

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