As I watched the bodies of fleeing Afghanistan citizens fall from escaping C-17s, my mind raced back to the Americans who leapt from the World Trade Center on 9/11, preferring one form of death over another.
The Taliban, an oppressive and brutal force we fought for 20 years, now parades through the streets of cities where American blood was spilled to secure them. We watch as the Afghan people, who fought beside us and broke bread with us, are now left with risk and uncertainty. After more than two decades of sustained combat operations around the globe to keep those who seek to harm this nation from gaining an advantage, there are no words for the horror this new reality evokes.
These are challenging times for the brave men and women who served in our nation’s long wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other battlefields. We know the horrors that war brings, though not all of us experienced them personally. For the many who did, knowing that their sacrifice meant something can be the most powerful mechanism for coping. We must not forget that.
In the challenging days ahead, I ask that all my fellow veterans, family, and friends of veterans “stand to” and remain at a heightened level of alert. This is our time of highest risk. We must be alert, focused and ready to engage, lest the wars claim new victims.
Death by suicide has become an epidemic among U.S. veterans. To quote Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) from July of this year, “Twenty to 22 veterans a day died from suicide 20 years ago. Today, 20 to 22 veterans a day die from suicide.” Our nation has invested billions of dollars into the search for a solution, but we have not succeeded in flattening or reducing this curve: the number of veterans in this country has decreased from 26.4 million in 2000 to 18.8 million today, but their suicide rate has not.
The current moment creates new pressure and stresses on veterans. The impact and uncertainty of the Delta variant of COVID-19, just as we started to emerge from self-isolation and social distancing, has generated new fears. This month, inflation hit 5.4 percent, the highest it has been since the recession in 2008, and the cost of everyday goods continues to rise. The continuous divisive comments tearing us all down on social media and in the news add insult to injury in a situation already fraught with tension.
And if that weren’t enough, the rising crime rate and increased attacks on law enforcement, where many veterans continue to serve, only exacerbates this sense of gloom. Against this backdrop of increased stress, the number of veteran deaths by suicide continues to climb.
Even as we “stand to,” we must also check up and down the line and make sure those fighting beside us, to our left and to our right, are secure. We are seeing this today with the many veteran service organizations and Veterans Affairs (VA) reaching out to let veterans know they are not alone. While this is a good start, it is not enough.
As the first line of defense, we veterans must check in with our fellow comrades in arms. We must be proactive, even when much of our national response is reactive. If you are or know a veteran who is seeking help with mental health issues, the Veterans Crisis Line is available at 800-273-8255, press 1, or by text at 838255. Help also is available through Vet Centers or the VA’s website at www.MentalHealth.va.gov.
The above static public service announcement is a great example of our national stance — and an indication of why we are failing to save the lives of so many veterans. These call centers and hotlines dictate that the effort must come from the person in crisis, who must call or text to take the first step. There is a tremendous amount of capability and desire to help in this country, but until a veteran asks for help, those who need it remain invisible and silent.
Most veterans who will die today by suicide are not on the VA’s radar, and this must change. The information is there, out in the open. As veterans struggle to pay bills, become homeless, have their cars repossessed, or turn to negative coping activities such as substance abuse, or simply withdraw completely, there are tangible ways for us to identify these as signs of imminent risk and intervene before it’s too late. It is inexcusable that we do not see their wounds until, tragically, veterans die by suicide.
It is long past time for us to band together as one, stand to and save our heroes. Don’t wait for a veteran to ask for help — act. Look for the small changes and continue to be on the lookout for risk factors. We must take action at the first sign of change and proactively reach out, based on events and behaviors that we see veterans exhibit. This is the time to get together with our fellow veterans to celebrate their service and sacrifice, and to remind ourselves that our service mattered and our lives do, too.
Col. Michael Hudson (Ret.) is vice president of government solutions at ClearForce, a risk management organization. He served in the Marine Corps for 30 years, including commanding a helicopter squadron, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and, in his last active-duty billet, as the Marine Corps’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response lead.