by John Roberts
I’m tired of it. I’m so tired of receiving phone calls and emails from family members devastated by the suicide of their loved one. Sons. Daughters. Husbands. I’m tired of it because I was almost one of those suicides. As a Wounded Warrior myself and someone who used to believe everyone’s life would be better without me in it, I take this issue personally.
The most recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reveals that 22 veterans take their own lives per day, or one suicide every 65 minutes — a 20 percent increase from 2007.
The suicide epidemic among active duty service members and veterans does not stem from one area alone, and there is not one simple fix, pill, or type of treatment to address all the complex issues the incredible servicemen and women now face.
Part of the blame lies squarely with the media and its portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It seems the only time this issue is given credence is when the story is sensational enough to garner ratings. Yet, close to half a million returning service members struggle every day with the symptoms of combat stress, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD. We are not “damaged goods.” We are Wounded Warriors; human beings experiencing a natural reaction to unnatural situations. Like everyone else, we have our ups and downs and strive to live our best life.
Every day we see young men and women with families completing multiple combat tours with very little downtime in between deployments. When they do return home, they are faced with the growing fear — often times driven by media — of how those facing the challenge of PTSD can be detrimental to the workplace and their communities. They struggle not to let their families, friends, and battle buddies down, when in reality those people are their greatest supporters. Most of us mistakenly believe that confusion, depression, and guilt are weaknesses and personal failings.
With 34,000 more men and women getting ready to end their campaign in Afghanistan, the work on the home front to help these warriors in the reintegration process will only become tougher. Yet, we know the current landscape — a complete lack of sufficient mental healthcare providers in the VA, geographical challenges for warriors not near a VA facility, and an overall system ill-prepared for the number of veterans seeking effective treatment.
As executive vice president for Warrior Relations at Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), it is my hope to raise awareness for the multitude of issues these incredible individuals face, in hope that a real impact can take place. Earlier this year, WWP presented its legislative priorities on Capitol Hill, pressing for a collaborative effort by the VA, Department of Defense, the House and Senate Committees, as well as the Executive Branch, to ensure Wounded Warriors successfully transition to civilian life. We urged the closing of gaps to improve mental healthcare of warriors and their families while helping to ensure access to optimal, long-term rehabilitative care for severely Wounded Warriors, and needed support for their caregivers. The VA cannot do this alone and must start to use the available community resources to implement meaningful and effective change.
We are not simply offering solutions — we are also taking action. Over the next six months, WWP will launch several pilot programs, including peer-facilitated support groups, a unique telephone helpline providing non-clinical, emotional support for Wounded Warriors, and an insurance program that will provide private mental health services.
We know PTSD and other war-related mental health conditions can be successfully treated. It is my hope that we, as a nation, start to take this seriously — that we stop repeating mistakes from the past. If you can help a warrior or their family, please take the first step. If you cannot personally help, please support those who are and urge our leaders at the local, regional, and national level to put aside parochial interests and take the lead. Help us prevent them from falling through the cracks and being forgotten. This is a problem for all of us, and together we can help those who served our nation.
John Roberts is the Executive Vice President of Warrior Relations for the W.W.P.