PTSD, Suicide, and Combat Deaths

In a paper I gave recently at the International Association of Buddhist Studies, in Atlanta, I had occasion to introduce the topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. PTSD was a diagnosis fought for politically by veterans of the Vietnam-American war, though in all likelihood it shares a commonality with Shell Shock and other combat and trauma-originated disorders (the very fact that it is a disorder makes it difficult if not impossible to truly classify it).

I discussed this history and then applied it to Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge situation. I won’t discuss that here – far too depressing for a day I’m supposed to be writing. Instead, since I discussed the case of Derek Henderson, who threw himself off a bridge at the age of 27. Since I used the example of dead servicemen and women in that talk, I feel obliged to put some of these statistics out here.

Those without relatives or friends serving in active military duty often ignore the wars entirely. Those on the left without such acquaintances often make the horrible mistake of blaming soldiers for the wars they are sent to fight. Neither group, and occasionally even those who do have acquaintances in the military, are usually aware of the relationship between casualties in combat, and casualties at home.

The numbers are hard to come by – like the pictures of flag-draped coffins coming home, they have been deliberately obscured, hidden, and sometimes straightforwardly lied about. Still, it is clear at this point that the following numbers are accurate, at least as of last year:

  • Since combat operations began, the U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed 4116 deaths in Iraq (this excludes Afghanistan, which recently began to exceed the combat death tolls of Iraq) [link].
  • Every year, approximately 12,000 U.S. veterans attempt suicide in the United States. [link]
  • Of those attempts, 6256 took their lives ‘successfully’ in 2005. [link]
  • That amounts to 120 suicides a week, or 17 a day; this out of a total of 230 attempted suicides a week, or 32 a day. [link]
  • In other words, for those who need to be beat about the head to understand this, the soldiers and veterans of the U.S. Military, taken as a single group, have thus far lost approximately 7.5 times more the number of human beings to suicide in the United States, than they have to operations in Iraq.
  • And that doesn’t even begin to include the loss of life represented by the deaths of non-U.S. forces, or the civilian deaths, which are documented at between 85,865 – 93,675, in Iraq alone. [link]

4 thoughts on “PTSD, Suicide, and Combat Deaths

  1. Great points, but I have to say I disagree with you that lefties without kin or acquaintances in the military blame the soldiers themselves. In fact, the current anti-war movement not only makes a big point of NOT saying any such thing (memories of the urban legends of hippies spitting on Vietnam War soldiers, apparently apocryphal), Vietnam War Vets, Gulf War Vets, and many other former military are deeply involved in today’s anti-war movement.

    Anyhow, my answer was too long, so I posted it on my blog. That’s what I have it for, right?

  2. erikwdavis says:

    @Kate. Thanks for your message. I had a lengthy one in response, but comments doesn’t save automatically, and my computer died. Ah well. Search the phrase “Fuck the troops,” and you’ll find (anecdotal, to be sure) evidence to the contrary. Main points: (1) most importantly, it is the right not the left, that is Fucking the soldiers. (2) nevertheless, the left, where I live, and while significantly more nuanced than it used to be, still tends to take manichean positions that are both unnecessary and unhelpful, as if opposing war was the same thing as opposing the troops, or as if each and every soldier were an autonomous kantian being.

    Zimbardo happened a long time ago. We still haven’t learned our lessons. What soldiers need, perhaps, to lead them away from the militarism that destroys their souls and the lives of those they murder, is not judgment (though we shouldn’t withhold that either), but organization, and a way out.

  3. As a Theravadan Buddhist, a retired veteran, and someone who writes extensively on veteran issues (and occasionally Buddhist issues)– I can say that suicide has always been an issue in the military. It is a hard life of constant leavings. When you work, you focus so clearly and then find yourself in a post-work vacuum of solitary confinement when it is over.

    Luckily, you are sharing that lonely experience with 50-5,000 of your closest friends.

    When that combines with the mental stress of war, something fundamentally changes. A box of nails at Home Depot looks like firing pins. The ceiling fan reminds you of the blades on a Sea Stallion helicopter. Your mind drifts unmindfully to those who are still “in country” and the guilt that you are not doing your duty to stand by them tears and shreds the fabric of your mind.

    Add that to the kammic discord of killing and it is amazing that anyone survives the stress and suffering.

    I have been fortunate to have never needed to take a life. I have also been fortunate to take refuge in the three gems and learn to liberate myself from heavy dukka such as the guilt of leaving fellow warriors behind.

    There are definitely times that I think that the VA would benefit from a Bhante, Bhikkue or Ajahn’s assistance in dealing with suffering.

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