I’ve had my head in the sand as much as possible this month, a rather nice (and terribly necessary) place to be as a writer. But emerging for air—or simply to attend to surrounding noise—tends to create something akin to whiplash or vertigo. This was my experience this morning when I came across Letters (“Risking Death in War, and Back Home”) in the New York Times reacting to (supporting) an Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof this past weekend drawing needed attention to issues of suicide among veterans.
Head buried in sand (or paper), I missed Kristof’s valuable piece, “A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame.” While I don’t have time for a full reaction now, I want to at least draw attention to the article and a few of its points on suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the (often ignored) costs of war, all subjects I’ve addressed here previously.
For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.
An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.
A brief perusal of the comments (and there are many) following Kristof’s piece, shows gratitude for light shed on this shadowy subject, and, of course, some criticism of the handling of this or that, or the spotlight shone in a different direction than a particular reader wants to look or focus on. One point that stood out for me, is that these numbers likely include all veterans, not just those from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. If this is the case (which does seem likely), perhaps it should be made more clear; and yet it serves to illuminate and intensify the force of Kristof’s arguments, rather than diminish. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide are long-standing issues, reactions and complications of war that precede current conflicts.
My first exposure and readings on the subject arose in studies of World War I veterans, studies that went on to prove useful in treating traumatic experiences in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II. The long-standing reality of traumatic effects of war makes the issues no less insistent in their need for attention right now. Recent research illuminates the added complications and terrors of traumatic brain injury in the pool of concerns. (Similar to football injuries, as discussed in an earlier post about Dave Duerson, “‘See that my brain’—a suicide note’s mixed message.”)
Novelist and playwright Kate Wenner, writing and producing material on this under-presented topic, had an excellent Opinion piece last month in the Times (“War is Brain-Damaging“) on traumatic brain injury as it relates to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a toxic mix when combined with post-traumatic stress disorder, shedding light in particular on the tragic case of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accused of killing sixteen Afghan civilians, a story which has been much on my mind.
Here is a brief explication of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from Wenner’s article, how it occurs and its effects:
These vets suffer from a particular kind of brain damage that results from repeated exposure to the concussive force of improvised explosive devices — I.E.D.’s — a regular event for troops traveling the roads in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s Russian roulette,” one vet told me, “We had one guy in our company who got hit nine times before the 10th one waxed him.” An I.E.D. explosion can mean death or at least a lost arm or leg, but you don’t have to take a direct hit to feel its effects. A veteran who’d been in 26 blasts explained, “It feels like you’re whacked in the head with a shovel. When you come to, you don’t know whether you’re dead or alive.”
However we may feel about the validity of the conflicts, the soldiers serving shouldn’t be the ones penalized for American involvement. As Kristof notes,
We refurbish tanks after time in combat, but don’t much help men and women exorcise the demons of war. Presidents commit troops to distant battlefields, but don’t commit enough dollars to veterans’ services afterward. We enlist soldiers to protect us, but when they come home we don’t protect them.
And then we all suffer.
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On a related topic, suicide rates for Russian teens, already high, have seen an uptick in the early months of this year, as discussed in the recent NYT article, “A Spate of Teenage Suicides Alarms Russians.”
Though growing prosperity has tamed Russia’s high rate of adult suicides, the rate of teenage suicides remains three times the world average. Experts blame alcoholism, family dysfunction and other kinds of fallout from the Soviet Union’s collapse, as well as the absence of a mental health structure and social support networks to help troubled young people. [...]
But Kirill Khlomov, who heads Crossroads, a Moscow center that provides counseling for at-risk teenagers, said that the problems run deeper. “When the media talks about suicide, it always sounds like the answer’s right there,” he said. “Just shut Facebook and then everything will be fine. It is just not so.”
Mr. Khlomov pointed to the vacuum left by Soviet youth organizations like the Young Pioneers, which used to provide social structure for adolescents.
Mr. Khlomov said Russian parents and teachers all too often dismiss teenagers when they express suicidal thoughts, treating such talk not as a cry for help, but as an attempt at manipulation. This further isolates young people, he said, reinforcing the conviction that no one will ever understand the way they feel.
Russian media has been grappling with how to cover the topic, as they’re faced with “copycat” suicides. I’ve previously written about media guidelines for suicide coverage (along with coverage of football player Dave Duerson). My own take is similar to Mr. Khlomov’s above: we do harm by ignoring suicide and its precursors, but it needs to be clear that suicide is not a solution to a problem (depression, grief, feeling cornered and without choices). Suicide ends all choices. The underlying feelings and problems demand discussion in order to prevent the horrible loss, and wasted life, that suicide produces. The wounds that precede suicide only beget more wounds if left to isolation, pain, and silence. Preventive measures are essential.
I’ll wrap up here with a few lines from Countries of Lost Things, the novel I’m editing (finishing, interminably working on, sick of, reveling in…), some of which immerses in Russia, as icon, as place of mystique and longing.
But I was taken by the stone figure: a life-like woman, naked, one leg stepping onto a small box, a pedestal of sorts. Her body was smooth, well-curved, its solid expressiveness arresting. Maybe it came from being made of stone—her force and solidity were awesome. Her right hand was raised, her mouth half open, as though about to speak. I circled her, admiring the smoothness of the line of her waist, her buttocks, the detail of her spine, tendrils of hair near her neck. How did one do this?
I heard David’s dry laugh off to the other side of the room. ….
. . .
Secrets are the fertilizer for despair.
Yes, these are some grains of the sand my head has been buried in.
Enjoy that spring weather!
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~ Need a good book to read? Last month, I sped through far to go, by Canadian novelist and poet Alison Pick. If you never thought you’d find a page turner about the Holocaust (Czechoslovakia, 1938), here it is: a beautiful and moving novel with a compelling story and much to think about. ~