Today is Veterans’ Day. Today we honor the men and women of our Armed Services, those who keep us safe and voluntarily lay down their lives to protect us and others around the world. There has been a small amount of attention paid lately to the suicide rate among veterans, and while some may disagree, I think that we are undervaluing the lives of those veterans if we talk only about their military service and avoid talk of the lingering trauma that they carry with them when that service has ended.
Our veterans kill themselves at least two times as often as civilians do, and that number is underreported (like overall suicide rates) because families can pressure coroners to list another cause of death if they fear the stigma of mental illness. There are also states (including large ones like California and Texas) that don’t report information on veteran suicides; and suicides that are not counted as such because they are things like single-car accidents or drug overdoses, manners of death that are open to interpretation if there is no note. That’s not taking into account homeless veterans, who are often completely left out of reporting.
If we focus on flags and anthems and uniforms and glory today, we need also to think about war and violence, and the trauma suffered by the people who see it. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s easy to dismiss something like post-traumatic stress as a myth or a question of mind over matter. It’s not that easy, though. I am on medication for PTSD right now, because it helps me sleep without the horrible, violent nightmares I was having after Tony died. I cannot imagine the nightmares that must haunt the dreams of those who have seen combat. Who have killed. Who have seen their friends die in front of them, who have seen up close what war really is, and what it does.
Marching bands and flags are an important part of Veterans’ Day; but I hope that when you pause today to honor our veterans you will take a moment to think about the fact that when the military battles are over, many of them continue to fight battles that are unseen, unreported and often fatal. That is a kind of heroism that is rarely celebrated, but requires a level of courage that must be recognized. Our veterans deserve better than a celebration of their service that fails to acknowledge that the war, for many of them, rages within without ceasing.