Humans have an inherent capacity to care for each other – when we are able to pay attention to others. When we don’t pay attention, we don’t care. This is how horrific suffering can take place in our midst with our indifference. It’s not that we’re callous - it’s that we’re not paying attention. Not paying attention to who is going to war, why we are going to war, what is happening at war and what happens to veterans.
The attention we do pay to war often comes packaged via news corporations, coming to us a bit like fast-food. It’s snappy, on-demand, easy – but, crucially, lacking in real detail.
Perhaps, even more ignored than the active servicemen of the forces are the veterans. The relentless flow of deaths on our screens sometimes breaks us out of our avoidance of thinking about our foreign wars. We are forced to shed a tear and shake our heads at coffins. But psychologically traumatised veterans rarely appear on TV. They are not “glorious martyrs”. They are not victors either, because the wars have no end. They are merely players who drop out to the side-lines and disappear.
We have to pay attention. If we don’t, the evidence shows, no-one will. The life of a post-traumatic stress disorder suffering veteran who now hates war and spends his time drifting from job to job and playing violent computer games to shut out reality does not often make it onto the shiny screens of news corporations. It’s not “glorious”, “noble” or “patriotic”.
But we have to follow that veteran and all like him. An average of 18 veterans commits suicide a day, according to figures from The Center for Disease Control’s National Violent Death Reporting System. The true figure could be even worse because data collection on veteran deaths is incomplete. Only this year has the Department of Veterans’ Affairs reached agreement with 49 States to compile accurate death records on veterans.
1 in 5 suicides in the US is a veteran. In the fiscal year 2009, 1,868 veterans attempted to take their own life. The statistics show that it is more dangerous to be a US army veteran than an active service member. Being at home is more dangerous for these men and women than being in Afghanistan or Iraq.
No wonder that the situation is being called an “epidemic”. Veterans return home with mental health issues, particularly, post-traumatic stress disorder, following, often, multiple tours of duty. From an existence of, often, high anxiety, danger, barbarism but camaraderie, they find home lonely and oppressive. The memories haunt them. Unemployment, now touching 12%, swallows them.
The stats show that veterans are more likely to engage in and die from destructive, risky or lethal behaviours. Veterans are much more likely than US civilians to die from drug overdose and vehicle or motorcycle accidents.
We have to pay attention. Once our young men and women sign up to the military, they virtually give up their voice, except in the service of their seniors. They don’t have much leeway to protest about where they are deployed or what orders to carry out. Many soldiers go to war believing what their seniors told them – they are fighting for democracy and freedom. Once in Iraq or Afghanistan, they realise that the locals abhor them and that their seniors had been lying. But, there is little they can do except carry out their orders and endure the mental imprisonment and physical suffering.
The veterans are victims of the military system, like the occupied populations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why governments are slow in helping them. Veterans know more than any people what war is and if they are given a voice, they will often condemn their government and military leaders. This can’t be tolerated, so veterans are left to languish. The fact that only serious national data on veteran deaths is being organised this year, 2012, is stark and painful evidence of the authorities’ half-heartedness.
Civilians and veterans need to unite, form mutual aid and solidarity groups, to save the most vulnerable from self-annihilation. Society can truly be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. Veterans with mental health problems are amongst these people. If they are saved and rehabilitated, with the wisdom and humility that the first-hand experience of war imparts, veterans can be genuine leaders for peace and prosperity in our society. We need them as much as they need us.