Greater connectivity can help turn the tide on military suicides
The Department of Defense recently created a committee to analyze alarming suicide rates among military service members and veterans, underscoring the severity of an issue that has persisted for far too long.
“One death by suicide is one too many,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in announcing the committee. “And suicide rates among our service members are still too high. So, clearly we have more work to do.”
Recent episodes that have captured national attention — suicides onboard a Navy aircraft carrier and a wave of deaths in Alaska in the Army — put a finer, more human point on the issue. The recent deaths follow a tragic year. A Defense Suicide Prevention Office report last month concluded that the Army suffered more suicides in 2021 than any other year since the Sept. 11 attacks.
A committee might be helpful, but it won’t solve the issue. This is abundantly clear given the time, money and attention the government already has given to the problem — particularly in the post-9/11 era.
For many of us at the grassroots level working with troops and veterans every day, our observation is that we must focus on heading off their isolation. Indeed, isolation appears to be a precursor to suicidal patterns, so much so that many are struggling in silence outside the Veterans Administration network of services.
“What we found is that two-thirds of these veterans who take their own lives have had no contact with the VA,” said Sen. Mark Warner, (D-Va.) Peer-reviewed research notes that loneliness ranked higher than post-traumatic stress disorder, disability or psychiatric problems in contributing significantly to the risk of developing suicidal thinking.
Put simply, service members and veterans are all too often disconnected from peers, friends, family and support systems. The Warrior Call initiative, a project of the Troops First Foundation, is designed to create greater connectivity through simple yet meaningful action.
The campaign’s motto calls on Americans but especially those who have worn or are wearing the uniform, to make a call, take a call and be honest. Pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face and ask how a service member or veteran is doing. And, if needed, point this individual to resources, such as those hosted by Vets 4 Warriors. It may not be an easy conversation, but my experience is that it could save a life, particularly if done habitually.
The idea is born out of years of touring military bases and speaking to those in service, who repeatedly tell us that conversation and a sense of togetherness is what keeps them connected and focused on a hopeful future. Warrior calls empower families and communities to know what to look for — and more importantly what to do — before their family member or friend is in crisis.
Last year, federal lawmakers introduced resolutions to commemorate a Sunday close to Thanksgiving as “National Warrior Call Day.” We understand Warrior Call is no panacea, but we also know from firsthand experience it helps people from descending into isolation. Congress must do its part to get the day across the finish line in 2022. Governors and state legislatures can also help in spreading the word.
The past few years have been uniquely challenging for all Americans, but especially in the military. Invisible wounds linked to an underlying and undiagnosed traumatic brain injury can mirror many mental-health conditions. At the same time, vets can be burdened with moral injury from their experiences. The traumas and undiagnosed traumatic brain injury can impact and erode a person’s sense of hope, leading them to disconnect from friends and family and causing some to see suicide as the only way to relieve their pain and loneliness.
Commissions might help with the long game, but reducing suicides means helping right now through initiatives like Warrior Call, and getting warriors connected and steering them to services — and to hope.
Frank Larkin is COO of the Troops First Foundation and chair of the Warrior Call initiative.