After the streamers have been swept off Times Square and we have gorged ourselves on the highlight reels of 2012 celebrity mishaps and departures, an unceremonious event will occur that will do more to define 2012 than anything proffered by those that sculpt news for our entertainment.
The event is the release of the Department of Defense 2012 military suicide accounting know as DoDSER. This annual report summarizes fatal and non-fatal suicide “events” during the calendar year. Included statistics will be revealed with little fanfare. The perfunctory news reports covering the release will skim the safe harbors of honoring the heroism of service and the tenets of patriotism. Cursory nods will be given to the VA’s abysmal failure at processing disability claims and to the suffering of families left behind. Ultimately, 2012 will set the record for the highest number of military suicides since the start of the Afghan war, yet coverage will no doubt be sandwiched between the more sensational scandals of the day. Our collective conversation will be one that exists, then dismisses itself. There is no benefit in wallowing in a pit of unfortunate but unavoidable consequences.
This conclusion, that these casualties of war are somehow unavoidable consequences of our nations well intended but sometimes poorly executed policies may very well be the most haunting legacy of a decade of war.
When war is normalized, people adapt. And we have adapted to a state of continuous war. We have adopted the image of the brave soldier fearlessly protecting the freedom of our country and the enemy of superhero movies, soulless terrorists who are solely motivated by pure evil or unrelenting hatred.
We have no concept of war.
The trauma of war is a breakdown of the very constructs of humanity. Feelings of rage, undirected anger and depression that can be precursors to suicide are not evidence of mental illness but the very human and sane responses to the unreconcilable horror of war.
Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, author of “The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan” describes the following:
“Here you are in a humvee, which is not mine resistant, you see your buddy get blown to bits, you’re picking up pieces of his body, putting them in a bag, cleaning up the humvee. You’re watching your buddies die in terrible circumstances day after day after day and what happens is that the membrane between life and death kind of disappears.”
For us civilians, able to tune in and out of reports that occasionally blot our headlines it is hard to understand the reality of veterans. The stories of war that reach our senses are largely sanitized accounts by embedded journalist who fill in the squares of comic strip news. Rouge reports and images that bring the horrors of war to extreme focus do surface from time to time but only occupy the fringe of our consciousness. Mainstream reports touting General Petraeus, surge success or the latest defeat of Al-Qaeda dominate our discourse. But as our wars wage on under the more palatable misnomers of drone warfare and private security operations, we are still in the business creating real human suffering.
Beyond the temporary headlines and statistics are the military lives that didn’t boil over. The returning men and women who occupy each day with the distractions and activities that keep them off the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report. Their often silent suffering is compounded by the very reason they enlisted in the military in the first place. According to Pentagon data, many of today’s recruits are financially strapped, with nearly half coming from lower-middle-class to poor households. Upwards of two-thirds of Army recruits come from counties in which median household income is below the U.S. median. Military service presents to soldiers an opportunity the American dream was unable to provide in their hometowns. It is the opportunity to provide for themselves, to earn a living wage, to learn a marketable trade, for security and to live with dignity.
As soldiers return home they face internal turmoil, underemployment and a civilian narrative that prefers the virtues of individual responsibility over self examination. Together we cast the silent shadow of perpetual war. Civilians that largely ignore the events of the Middle East and the veterans who are regulated to walk as ghosts among our illusion.
The final 2012 military suicide report will provide a somber reminder, we are still a nation at war. It may also draw our attention to the over 800,000 veterans currently waiting for rulings on disability claims. But true support for our troops will require higher taxes, increased spending on veteran services and a huge investment in the infrastructure projects that will support living wage jobs across our country. At this moment, the monetary price of our aggressions necessitates more than lip service. The financial burden from ten years of war can not be pushed forward, forgotten and shoved on the poor and lower-middle-classes through austerity measures. The dispassionate and simple reason is sustainability, maintaining the perceived balance of an equitable democracy. Civil societies are fragile systems with long memories. They require a semblance of fairness. The consequences of falling over a fiscal cliff pale to the risk of going over a cliff of common decency.
Addressing the socioeconomic concerns of veterans by investing in work projects and funding social programs goes a long way in addressing the needs of all workers throughout our country. Doing so would be the minimal honor we could show to the men and women who died this year waiting for us to rise to the occasion.