You often hear the statistic that more than 20 veterans take their own lives every day. This is an indication of a systemic problem in the way we support veterans after they have completed their service.
A few months ago, I interviewed the current director of the Veterans Administration, Robert Wilkie. He told me that finding a solution to veteran suicides is a major focus of the VA. He explained that they are now conducting mental health screenings of every veteran that comes in for services. At the point of the interview, they had screened more than 900,000 veterans and were actively following about 3,000.
The problem, he said, was that about two-thirds of the veterans who take their own lives are not in the VA system. More significantly, the majority of those are from the Vietnam war era. As he said, they have had problems festering for 50 years without help.
Wilkie’s father served in Vietnam and he said the veterans of that era were not encouraged to talk about what they had gone through, instead being told to bottle it up. Today, that attitude is changing somewhat, but it needs to change more.
I have a number of good friends who are veterans, as well as my father, my father-in-law and my former father-in-law. Some served in times of combat and others didn’t.
Every one of them is proud of their service and fondly remembers their time and the people they served with, even if they didn’t always agree with the policies that put them in harm’s way.
Every one of them also ascribed to the idea that they were writing a blank check, payable up to and including their own lives.
Several years ago, I interviewed Medal of Honor recipient and World War II veteran Woody Williams. He said the very nature of having received the Medal of Honor forced him to talk about his experiences and helped him get past the difficult memories.
As a nation, we generally failed the veterans who served in Vietnam and Korea. Over the last 30 years or so, we’ve made efforts to change that. But still, there are a lot of men and women suffering — both from those earlier conflicts and more recent ones.
We need to do a better job of taking care of our men and women when they come home. That’s where the work really needs to happen and what Veterans Day needs to be about. It’s not a celebration of battles or famous people.
For some, it seems like that blank check they wrote is still hanging over their heads and is coming due when they can’t take the memories of their service any longer.
Next Monday is Veterans Day. Go to a parade. Celebrate the veterans in your life. That’s wonderful and they appreciate it. But ask what else you can do. If you know someone who is struggling, buy them a cup of coffee and listen. Just be there for them.