News and Tribune

May 19, 2014

Suicide on the rise among veterans

Rate is twice as high as civilian, according to project


— You’ve seen the candid videos on the news and social media. A soldier returns just in time for a white Christmas with his loved ones or a sailor after a long absence surprises her daughter during the school play. Homecomings for our men and women in uniform are supposed to be filled with joy and relief.

So why are an estimated 22 American veterans committing suicide every day?

A 2013 study published by the Department of Veterans Affairs compiled that statistic, but the actual number could be higher due to researchers having 2010 data from only 21 states to extrapolate the figure.

Although incomplete, the study still provides valuable information about a health crisis that few outside the military understand. More veterans are killing themselves now than a decade ago. If the statistic holds true, approximately 3,050 have committed suicide since the beginning of this year alone.

Not only soldiers returning from war face this problem. Nearly 70 percent of veterans who took their own lives in the study were over the age of 50. In addition, male veterans who die by suicide are older than non-veteran males who do the same.

Perhaps the most striking difference between veteran and civilian suicide deaths is their rates. According to a 2013 project conducted by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, veteran suicides are twice as high as civilians. While those who served in the military only comprise 10 percent of the U.S. population, almost one out of every five suicides is a veteran, or roughly 20 percent.

The growing research only confirms what many who served in the military already have faced. Aware of the trend, the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) conducted a 2013 survey of its members. Forty-five percent of respondents knew a fellow veteran who had taken his or her own life, while 30 percent admitted to having thoughts of suicide themselves.

While a difficult subject, some of these veterans are sharing their personal experiences so that others may find the help they need.

“When it comes to veteran suicide, I was almost a causality of that war,” said Indianapolis resident Zach McIlwain.

Combat isn’t unfamiliar to McIlwain. In the Army for eight years, the 27-year-old served two tours in Iraq, finishing his military career as an infantry platoon sergeant. Once he left the Army, things didn’t go as easily as planned. Figuring out employment and other matters in the civilian world can be tough for those recently out, especially for veterans harboring mental and physical problems from their years in war zones. Missing their support group of friends from the military also takes a toll. For McIlwain, a 980-day Veterans Affairs backlog and processing problems with his injury claims didn’t help either.    

“Nothing was moving forward. Nothing was really going the way I wanted. I was missing something from my life and I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he said. “I got to a point almost like ... if this is what life has to offer me, I don’t want to live it.

“Luckily my wife is fantastic. She said, ‘Look, you’re down in the dumps. You’re really struggling. You need to go get some help.’”

And he did.

Using the Post 9/11 GI Bill, he finished his degree in economics with cum laude honors from Ball State University and works in the banking sector. But McIlwain’s passion revolves around assisting other veterans overcome their mental health struggles through his position as a Veteran Leadership Fellow for the IAVA.

In March, McIlwain participated in the IAVA’s Storm the Hill initiative as one of 32 advocates for veteran’s affairs. This year, the group focused on suicide prevention. More than 1,000 American flags were placed on the National Mall lawn to remember those veterans who had killed themselves thus far in 2014.

In addition, throughout their time on the Hill, members of the organization met with Congress about legislation that could reduce the number of veterans who take their own life. One bill called the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act received its full support.

Filed by Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), the legislation would expand mental health services to veterans by extending VA eligibility from the current five years to 15 years. To help with the availability of medical services, psychiatrists could also receive college loan reimbursement for a set term of service.

“Part of that accessibility problem right now is there are 1,000 jobs open, available and fully funded for mental health professionals in the Department of Veterans Affairs, but they can’t fill them,” McIlwain said. “We’re trying to find incentives to bring those people into the void.”

Another aspect of the bill deals with wrongful discharges of servicemen and women. Some of these dismissals may have been caused by post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and can restrict veterans from receiving VA health care access.

“Some of those discharges are legitimate and we understand that, but what we want (the VA) to do is due diligence and go back through and rectify the discharges of somebody who may have been suffering from an emotional or mental injury, an invisible wound where now they don’t have access to care,” McIlwain said.

While championing for fellow veterans, McIlwain gives them hope that life can get better. There’s no one avenue leading to prevention, he said, but breaking the silence and talking about mental health issues could go a long way.

“I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I was almost in the same exact spot. I could have been one of those flags,” McIlwain said. “But it can get better if you try, if you go get the help, if you get the accessibility and the availability. It’s there. Then it can be done and you can move forward. Your life can be so much better. That’s the message I brought with me.”