After Afghanistan, Veterans Face Another Hidden Enemy. Suicide.
As much as they try, soldiers returning home from combat don’t always manage to leave the war behind on the battlefield.
That’s why, as the Taliban militia rolled with surprising ease into Afghanistan’s capital on Aug. 15 and took over the government, a top Veterans Affairs official fired off an email to the department’s senior staff.
“We should monitor suicides and see if we see an uptick,” Veterans Affairs chief of staff Tanya Bradsher said in the email, as reported by Politico. “The news is triggering.”
No joke, as President Joe Biden often says. As Kabul fell, veterans’ mental health crisis hotlines reportedly were lighting up like Christmas trees.
“My veteran network is reeling and I am sure yours are as well,” Bradsher wrote in the Aug. 15 email, which Politico said was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. “Can we highlight in our comms (communications) channels that VA has resources available? I am thinking of the vet centers in particular but open to all resources. This is devastating to so many.”
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As shocked as I was to hear that after 20 years of fighting the Taliban, America’s longest war had screeched to such an inglorious halt, it was reassuring to hear that the VA in this triggering moment was taking mental health and the prospect of increased suicides seriously.
So was Paul Rieckhoff, who founded the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America after serving as an Army first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq from 2003 through 2004.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years now,” he told me by phone, “and I’ve never seen the military and veterans community under more stress than they are right now.”
Although the vast majority of service members exposed to combat do not report post-traumatic stress disorder, much less commit suicide, a June report from Brown University startled experts with this statistic: Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks 20 years ago, military suicides have grown four times higher than deaths in war operations.