The front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington is seen June 21. The number of military suicides is nearly double that of a decade ago, when the U.S. was just a year into the Afghan war and hadn't yet invaded Iraq. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
WASHINGTON — Five years ago, Joe Miller, then an Army Ranger captain with three Iraq tours under his belt, sat inside his home near Fort Bragg holding a cocked Beretta 40mm and prepared to kill himself.
He didn’t pull the trigger. So Miller’s name wasn’t added to the list of active-duty U.S. military men and women who have committed suicide. That tally reached 350 last year, a record pace of nearly one a day. That’s more than the 295 American troops who were killed in Afghanistan in the same year.
“I didn’t see any hope for me at the time. Everything kind of fell apart,” Miller said. “Helplessness, worthlessness. I had been having really serious panic attacks. I had been hospitalized for a while.” He said he pulled back at the last minute when he recalled how he had battled the enemy in Iraq, and decided he would fight his own depression and post-traumatic stress.
The U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acknowledge the grave difficulties facing active-duty and former members of the armed services who have been caught up in the more-than decade-long American involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system struggles to prevent suicides among troops and veterans because potential victims often don’t seek counseling given the stigma still associated by many with mental illnesses or the deeply personal nature — a failed romantic relationship, for example — of a problem that often precedes suicide. Experts also cite illicit drug use, alcohol and financial woes.
The number of suicides is nearly double that of a decade ago when the United States was just a year into the Afghan war and hadn’t yet invaded Iraq. While the pace is down slightly this year, it remains worryingly high.
The military says about 22 veterans kill themselves every day, and a beefed up and more responsive VA could help. But how to tackle the spiking suicide number among active-duty troops, which is tracking a similar growth in suicide numbers in the general population, remains in question. The big increase in suicides among the baby boomer population especially — linked by many to the recent recession — actually began a decade before the 2008 financial meltdown.
Compounding the problem, the VA — which administers health and other government benefits for veterans — has a huge backlog of disability, medical and other claims resulting from service in the military. Eric Shinseki, head of the VA and a former Army general, promises to have the backlog erased — but not before 2015. The Pentagon and Veteran Affairs are working to install compatible computer systems to speed up the process. And the VA just reported it had cut the backlog of claims pending more than 125 days by 15 percent in recent weeks.
Jason Hansman, of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says the problem among military men and women stems from a support system that falls far short of the needs of a military and its veterans.
“One of the big problems now is that we are trying to play catch-up on 10-plus years of war. People have gone back and forth seven, eight, nine times. And now you have a force that is stretched to its limit,” Hansman said.
“It’s not just people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are killing themselves. About 50 percent are people who’ve never deployed before. So there’s this broader issue going on in the military. Are there even the health services in the military to take care of the troops who have deployed, who have no first-hand knowledge of war and trauma.”
Miller had plenty of first-hand experience.
“I was really good at combat. I was really good at that job. It was when I was in the States that I had a problem,” he said from his home in Old Town, Maine, where he and his second wife are working toward doctorates in history at the University of Maine.
He said symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome began building, as did the effects of a number of concussions that caused mild traumatic brain injury. He had gone through elite Ranger training twice and became a jump-master in the 82nd Airborne. He ignored his symptoms because he didn’t want to leave combat and his job as a platoon leader. When he finally sought help from the military during his last rotation in the United States, he found what he said was a “19th century” attitude.
“I remember a psychologist telling me, ‘Officers don’t get PTSD.’ It was a real affront.”
A few days after he nearly killed himself on July 3, 2008, Miller mustered out of the service and resumed treatment for PTSD at a VA facility in Richmond, Va.
The treatment was helpful, but his feelings about the VA are “really mixed. My take is they are a bunch of really well-meaning people. I don’t know that it’s resourced for the tasks.” Also huge numbers of veterans — a tiny portion of the larger population — live in small towns, far from the cities where veteran services are available.
The American public, largely untouched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because an all-volunteer military did the fighting, is gradually becoming aware of the problems faced by active-duty troops and military veterans. Now, some in Congress and President Obama are trying to improve on the country’s ability to take care of those who have signed up to fight.
None of that, however, undoes the anguish of such people as Ashley Whisler, whose brother Kyle killed himself Oct. 24, 2010. He had been driving convoys of supplies to U.S. troops from Kuwait shortly after the American invasion in 2003. He hanged himself in his home in Brandon, Fla., seven years after leaving the military. He had returned to his family in Michigan then moved to Florida, married and had a daughter. He and his wife separated before reconciling. He worked in a tattoo parlor, tended bar and began showing increasing signs of PTSD. He hanged himself while his wife and daughter slept.
Ashley Whisler said her brother spoke of fears of being ambushed when he was driving to work in Florida. After Kyle killed himself, her brother’s friends told her how Kyle repeatedly called to talk about the horrors he had witnessed in Iraq and of how he couldn’t sleep if there was a thunderstorm.
While she and her parents don’t directly blame the military or the VA for Kyle’s death, she does not let the department off the hook.
“These guys are coming back from the war and just being thrown back into society without any kind of transition or any kind of support. It’s very difficult,” she said.
Joe Miller said his military training, in the end, kept him alive.
“I had a gun in my hand. The second I cocked the weapon, I was back in Ranger mode, and Ranger mode is not to kill yourself.”