For many veterans, starting a conversation about the struggles they face is a difficult first step.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) report released last year, as many as 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States. This is almost one death an hour.
The report is based on data provided by 21 states, representing around 40% of the population, with only 77% of recorded suicides analyzed, meaning that the actual number may well be higher.
Currently, one in five suicides involves a veteran, even though they make up only 10% of the population, with death rates significantly higher for men. The numbers are telling: around 30 veteran suicides versus 14 among the general population per 100,000. Some 30% of veterans have considered suicide, while 45% have said that they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has committed suicide. Given that, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), there are almost 3 million recent veterans in the US, with a further 8 million “Vietnam Era Veterans,” the numbers are a shocking statistic.
Compare this to America’s close ally in both wars – the United Kingdom – where, according to the Ministry of Defence data, 11,000 out of 177,000 serving personnel have been diagnosed with a mental disorder since 2007. Yet, only 123 suicides have been officially confirmed since 2003. Even if this number is inaccurate, the gap between the two countries is incomparable.
What lies behind these numbers? First of all, it needs to be mentioned that not all of these deaths are a result of combat trauma; stresses at work and in personal life affect veterans as much as they do the general public, and often lead to tragic results. But the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) play a major role when talking about veteran suicide, with at least 20% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans estimated to suffer from either PTSD and/or depression. Of those, 50% did not seek treatment and, according to a 2008 study by the RAND Corporation, of those who do, only about half receive “minimally adequate” treatment.
A recent groundbreaking documentary, The Invisible War, drew attention to another major factor in the equation: sexual assault in the military. According to the VA, 55% of women and 38% of men have experienced sexual harassment while on duty, and the Department of Defense estimates that as many as 26,000 Service members have experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012 alone.
It is easy to become overpowered by statistics and lose perspective on the people who suffer the many different consequences of war. This is why Tim Lawson, a US Marine Corps veteran, has created the 1, 2, Many: Veteran Suicide project. He talks to veterans about their everyday struggles, from feeling isolated, unneeded, and misunderstood, to being unable to cope with the confounding comforts and endless choices of civilian life.
Anna Pivovarchuk talks to Tim Lawson about the most pressing issues veterans confide in him, and the ways to help them overcome these – at times seemingly impossible – problems.
Anna Pivovarchuk: So, how did 1,2, Many begin? What was the inspiration behind the project?
Tim Lawson: I had just recently seen some articles on veteran suicide on CNN or the Washington Post, which really focused on the statistics and how horrible the numbers were, and I started to get upset with how we were dehumanize the whole thing by focusing on what accessible percentages and numbers may mean, and not necessarily talking about the people this is truly effecting.
A lot of people hear “veteran suicide,” and they make an assumption that that guy must have seen – he must have PTSD from his time in Afghanistan. That’s not always the case.
So I wanted to create something that provided an outlet for people to tell their own stories and change the conversation that we have about mental and emotional health and suicide, and what it means to go through all that. Since podcasting is my medium of choice, it was a natural direction to go with. I started reaching out to people, and I was really surprised with how many veterans and family members were willing to come forward and tell their story.
Pivovarchuk: You yourself are a veteran.
Lawson: Yes, I served in the US Marine Corps for five years.
Pivovarchuk: So it must be easier for you to relate to these kinds of problems, to know firsthand what these people are struggling with, and what they’re going through.
Lawson: Absolutely. I definitely saw the hardship that comes with being in the military – you make a lot of sacrifices you make when you join. It’s not just about your time in Iraq or Afghanistan or on deployment, but it’s also not being able to be with family during the holidays. I saw a lot of guys that missed the birth of their child because they were on an exercise. It’s tough, and a lot of people deal with it right there, but then down the line things pile on, and it becomes more difficult.
And transitioning out of the military is something that so many veterans struggle with. I struggled with it myself. That’s a part of this whole progress that I wanted to highlight as well. A lot of people hear “veteran suicide,” and they make an assumption about what he must have seen, that he must have PTSD from his time in Afghanistan. That’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s relationship issues. Sometimes it’s sexual trauma. Or they get out of the military and they can’t find a job, they can’t put food on the table, so now there’s troubles at home and they resort to suicide as an escape from that. There’s a lot more difficulties, challenges and sacrifices that veterans go through outside of combat, and I wanted to be able to speak about that.
Pivovarchuk: You said you wanted to highlight personal struggles rather than the statistics. But the numbers are terrifying. The VA estimates about 22 suicides a day, which means that at least 80,000 veterans committed suicide since the start of the Iraq War. Has there been enough public pressure to address the scope of this problem?
Lawson: I think it’s beginning to build. I still need to read it, USA Today apparently did a cover on suicide in general across America, and how horrible it is for so many different demographics. The elderly are suffering from it a lot right now, veterans of course, teenage suicide is still of concern. When you look at the responses across the board, it’s how they address it: It’s sort of like a simple shrug. It’s something that has so much stigma attached to it, and it’s so awkward, that I think it makes it very difficult for people to try to talk about it on their own account, or to approach someone who they think maybe also is suffering from suicidal behavior. I think there’s a lot of passive stress on the issue, people addressing mental health, but I don’t think there are many actionable items that we’re giving society to be able to truly intervene on suicidal behavior.
And I don’t think the stress is in the right place, that’s probably what the problem is: No one’s really coming up with little practical solutions. My biggest pet peeve is how suicide prevention occurs when you first see the warning signs. If you try to prevent anything else in your life, like heart disease, you eat right, you exercise, you do things before your doctor tells you you’re at risk. But for suicide prevention, we wait until someone shows signs of suicidal behavior, we don’t show people how to implement empathy and purpose in other people’s lives before they start walking into that dark space. I think the public stress is coming down on the awareness aspect and not necessarily a true resolution aspect.
Pivovarchuk: Given the recent VA scandal, and the fact that the Congress failed to pass the bill for veterans assistance, how effective is the support system for veterans?
Lawson: I think it’s difficult for me to speak on the VA for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t personally have to deal with the VA, so everything I hear is all secondhand accounts. I am fortunate enough that I don’t have any disability that I have to see the VA for and I’ve been medically fit enough that I don’t have to go to a VA hospital. I actually have friends that use the VA on a regular basis, and while it is difficult in the same way that the DMV is difficult, they’ve gotten everything they’ve needed. I have friends who are double amputees, and I have friends that are paraplegics, and they got what they needed from Veterans Affairs. I think the system is broken, in a sense that there is that backlog. And there are a lot of people who, when there’s a problem, want to highlight it and throw the VA under the bus – there’s too much stress on all the ways that the VA and that system is messing up.
One thing you hear from a lot of veterans is: “They don’t know what we’ve been through, so there’s this mental isolation whether or not the public’s there.”
And I think a case to case basis is – like Chris Kyle and some of the others – it’s difficult to say what their true problem was, because it’s difficult to really pinpoint people’s demons, but I think when it comes to mental health, this is a part the VA is really messing up on. If you’re sitting in the VA hospital waiting for your back problem to get dealt with, if you have to wait – you have to wait. But if you’re dealing with PTSD and other mental issues, time is against you and the fact that there is such an extreme backlog that some vets are waiting up to six months to get put into a room with a psychiatrist or a therapist that’s paid for by the VA, then that’s obviously where a huge part of the problem is.
Fortunately, there are many nonprofits that are starting to come up, and I think there needs to be a lot of stress on the VA to try outsource to these organizations. Places like Courage Beyond and The Soldier Project offer free therapy to veterans who reach out to them, and they get them in a room with someone within 72 hours. It’s of little to no cost to the veteran. I think organizations like that are very valuable, because it’s an alternative to the VA. But one thing that it isn’t is that it isn’t an official resource of the VA, so it doesn’t necessarily get put into their files and it’s not backed by their veterans’ benefits, so that’s where the disconnect is there.
Pivovarchuk: I think at the moment, there’s only something like 0.5% of active service personnel out of the general population, which is a huge drop from the Second World War or Vietnam. Also, the whole idea of the military being somewhat isolated from society, in the sense that most personnel live on the base, while technological advances have in many ways insulated the public from what war actually means. Do you think this divide between the public and the military compounds the problems that veterans face when they do come back from war?
Lawson: That’s a really great question. I hadn’t really thought about the separation – the veteran/civilian divide. There’s definitely a case of that, because for many veterans, when they get out of the military, not being around other veterans is a culture shock for them, because they’re so used to living on these bases, in these military towns. One thing you hear from a lot of veterans is: “They don’t know what we’ve been through, so there’s this mental isolation whether or not the public’s there.” It’s really hard for me to say, because I can make an argument for both sides on how there is too much isolation, but at the same time there’s still a lot of engagement. Many communities try to recognize veterans and military service members in their community. I don’t know how I would have answered this question five or ten years ago, but I think in the past couple of years we’ve seen a real attempt to reach out to local veterans and families, to try to get them involved and bridge that divide.
Pivovarchuk: You do hear a lot more about it now than you had previously. PTSD was only added to the medical books in the 1980s, but now there’s a lot more openness about the topic. Yet, compared to Britain, for example, where the official statistics are just over 120 veteran suicides since 2003, the problem in America seems disproportionate. Why is it so prevalent?
Lawson: When I do my live presentations, two things that I point out to my audience is one: a quote-unquote veteran suicide is reported as anyone who has committed suicide who also holds a DD214, which is the form they give you when you exit the military. So you can be out for 40 years and you could find your wife cheating on you and kill yourself and that’s still considered a veteran suicide. So that’s one way that the numbers may be skewed. As to whether it’s a military culture problem … so many people happen to have this DD214 that it creates these big numbers.
On the other side one thing that’s not being accounted for are the guys that are being overmedicated and dying in car accidents. Whereas it may not be a suicide, it probably stems from some part of their military experience. So those are the two factors that the numbers don’t represent, and misrepresent in some ways.
One thing that the military really fails on, at least in America, is that PTSD doesn’t wait until you get home to set in.
Why I think it’s so bad in the military culture in America … That’s a great question. I don’t know what the stigma is in Britain, but we’re told that we’re ruthless, indestructible beings, that you’re not weak, you’re not soft, you don’t have problems, you fight through every bit of pain inside your body. But, you know, it’s not that easy. It’s not simple. A couple of the close-shave things you hear from service members is, “Oh, I don’t need the help as badly as someone else does.” And so they don’t seek help because their friend who probably had it worse isn’t seeking help. And then, I don’t want to lose my job – that’s a huge one. Service members can get separated from the military, they can get discharged if they’re diagnosed with any sort of mental health or emotional health issues, so a lot of guys don’t want to lose their jobs, they don’t speak up.
Then of course there’s the stigma of having something wrong with you, being told that you’re broken. All these sort of things – so it’s just pushed down inside of them. And then they go and they are ready to talk, or someone reaches out, there’s the idea that a person doesn’t know what I’ve been through, so how could they possibly sympathize with me if they’ve never served in the military, never been deployed. So there’s all these excuses that we make for ourselves that tell us that we shouldn’t get help, or we don’t need to get help, or that we shouldn’t reach out to people, that end up festering, and sooner or later you get PTSD, you become depressed, you start facing irrational thoughts and irrational behavior. And when you finally do start talking to people and they tell you how much they love you and how much you matter you’re already thinking so irrationally that you can’t really digest that information and it becomes lethal.
Pivovarchuk: So how do you break this cycle down? You need to be aware of your problems before you go and seek help, because you can’t be forced into medical treatment. How do you raise awareness of this, to preemptively act on more serious development in a situation of suicide and severe depression?
Lawson: From the moment I told the Marine Corps I wanted to be a Marine, all the way until I was officially on my first duty station, it was a good six months’ time. They invested a lot of time and money in me, to teach me how to be a Marine and how to be a killer, how to use all my weapons, how to save people’s lives, all that sort of stuff. And then when it came time for me to discharge, there was about two weeks’ preparation with a few classes I was required to go into, and none of those classes really provided any true value to prepare me properly for separating out of the military. The resources that are available to me that I’m unaware of because they weren’t represented well enough, all of the opportunities that I may have, things to do, to be aware of – that stuff just wasn’t touched on. So that’s one place where we really fail, especially in the military community, is convincing the military that they really need to invest in the personnel – not just those entering the military, but those leaving as well.
And then in the communities I talk about empathy, I talk about renewed purpose, I talk about mentorship – and this can apply to both veterans and to people in general. Providing someone with empathy is a great way of preventing suicide. Letting that person know that they matter is so powerful. It saved my life plenty of times. When I have become depressed, I am reminded that as horrible as this is, I matter to someone. It’s something that needs to happen long before someone goes into depression, because you go into that irrational state of mind, you can’t really process rational thoughts.
You know, what these people did was amazing. Think about what they did in the military. It’s truly remarkable that human beings can do such things and take such high responsibility and do it with such tact and professionalism, saving people’s lives with complete disregard for danger and risk to their their lives. And then they come back and become middle management at some shopping mall. They don’t have that same purpose anymore. It’s necessary for us to bring that service member back into society and provide him or her with a real purpose. It doesn’t have to be some fantastic, amazing job, but making them the deacon of their local church, or having them join a motorcycle club and making them the treasurer, because they need to feel that other people rely on them – that’s such a strong feeling inside the military.
I personally don’t think there’s been any substantial changes made through political involvement. Clearly we don’t actually care about the effects of war, because we’re about to go right back into another one.
One thing that the military really fails on, at least in America, is that PTSD doesn’t wait until you get home to set in. If someone’s in combat, and they get put into a firefight, or they get hit with an improvised explosive device (IED), the next day they’re going to experience PTSD, even if it’s month one of their deployment. They go through the rest of their deployment – they’re carrying out missions, they’re accomplishing the task, and then they come back and they want to talk about it, and the military treats them as if they’re mission capable, even though they’ve just spent all this time in combat. I think this is something that the military needs to realize: that having mental and emotional issues does not mean you’re mission incapable, it just means you have some things to work out before you get put in that scenario again. Because the military doesn’t respond that way to it yet, you see a lot of discharges. And now you have this place that so many people feel like they belong to, and so the military telling them “nope, you don’t belong here anymore,” it’s just like being kicked out of your family. There’s so much camaraderie in the military that when you’re forced to leave it can really do real damage.
Pivovarchuk: But how much political will is there to change things? Every politician will always pay lip service to the military, but I think at this point there’s something like 20% of Congress members have had active military experience. It was a much higher number back in the day, and this brings up back to the issue of a disconnect and perhaps a lack of understanding among the political class. Do you see any positive change? What needs to happen from the government side?
Lawson: I think that waiting for politics to make a strong movement on suicide is probably going to work against us. I think a lot of it is a minimum viable solution to make people feel like something’s happening. Because it’s not as simple as signing a bill making it easier for people to get help. I think it just removes one layer, one barrier. But it still requires removing stigma and changing the conversation. We have all this data, we have these numbers, politicians are talking about it, which is something. So we have this great signal, but now it’s all just starting to become noise. We’re talking about the same thing and we need to stop relying on the VA for everything that a veteran has to deal with. I personally don’t think there’s been any substantial changes made through political involvement. Clearly we don’t actually care about the effects of war, because we’re about to go right back into another one. So I don’t personally believe, especially with this new conflict with the Islamic State (IS) on the horizon, that anything’s really going to change. A lot of this really needs to be done at the community and local levels, because that’s the only group you can really rely on, and you can actually control what happens there versus waiting for the right bill to be passed.
Pivovarchuk: Is this really frustrating for you as a veteran? Obviously you’ve sacrificed a lot for your country, and then you turn on the TV and the president and everybody else are saying how grateful they are for your service, yet nothing seems to change.
Lawson: It is frustrating. I was fortunate enough to never go to combat, so I spent most of my time as a marine security guard, guarding embassies. I was put in a different, serious role, but never saw imminent combat. But for example, when Fallujah got taken over again late last year, I heard it was horrible. A lot of my friends were like saying, “Yeah, I lost a lot of friends taking over that city, I’m glad it was all done in vain.” There’s this huge frustration that we’re just sacrificing American lives for nothing, and even the things that did get accomplished are no longer true.
But a lot of it gets excused by the fact that Americans were executed, so let’s go sacrifice a few thousand soldiers to teach them a lesson. I think that we haven’t solved the problems of the veterans that suffered the last war, that we haven’t solved anything on this side of the war. But we’re going into another one. And for some reason that’s OK. So that’s what has me furious, is all the implications that all of this conflict has on our society isn’t really being considered. But we’re still complaining about how bad PTSD and veteran suicide is.
Pivovarchuk: You’ve obviously talked to many people, your podcast has almost 30 episodes. What are the main problems people talk about? What are the main issues that come up, the common theme?
Lawson: There’s a lot of root emotional problems: sexual trauma, PTSD, depression, people who can’t find a job, people who get separated from their family – the list goes on and on. But the common themes that I’m seeing from people is that they weren’t getting to help them resolve those issues, and number one was empathy. A lot of people admit that they didn’t know other people felt the way they did. It’s been really remarkable how many veterans message me saying: “I started listening to your podcast, I had no idea other people felt this way.”
Another thing is renewed purpose. That’s probably one of the most common themes. Guys that experience PTSD, dealing with their own demons, having a hard time overcoming that through getting the right job, finding the right role, finding the right purpose in life. Especially with their families, they’ve been gone for so long on deployments, now they come home and the wives run the household, the kids have their own lives, stuff like that. They no longer serve the purpose in their own family that they were hoping to. Mentorship is something that I see a lot of success stories had access to. So whether it’s through empathy, whether it’s through providing them with a purpose, through mentorship, whatever it may be, really communicating to someone and helping them understand that they matter before they start experiencing this behavior and going into this dark space.
Pivovarchuk: It seems that in your experience, a more open debate on the topic, more engagement with the veteran community could make a huge difference. From the local communities, and the general public as well, just to bring the issues to light and to make them feel like they’re not separated from society.
Lawson: Absolutely. Absolutely. Just the other day, one of my friends who is overseas was telling me that he started listening to my after he got put on suicide watch. He felt like he was feeling empathy towards what he was hearing. Just the past couple of days I was like “Well, would you talk about your own experience,” and now hopefully in the next week I’ll get him on the show and he’ll talk about his own experience, and hopefully what he talks about will resonate with someone else who’s listening. The more we have of this conversation the more we realize that it’s normal.
People want to listen. I think it’s easier for people to say that than for people to accept that, but there really is someone in your life who wants to talk to you. … It starts with making the decision to talk to someone.
Imagine if you weren’t allowed to tell people that you were sad. That would be horrible, right? We had this suggestion of people asking people: “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” That’s a really awkward question to ask. It sets such a weird dynamic between two people. But if you can just talk to people, it doesn’t have to start with “I’m really in a bad space right now.” As much as we want to feel like all of our lives are unique, there’s a good chance that other people are experiencing the same thing, and those people probably aren’t too far from us. The more we have this conversation the more we realize we’re not alone in some of these issues, and we can build and learn from each other.
Pivovarchuk: There is one more element I really wanted to touch upon. When you think about veteran soldiers, you usually talk about men, but now there’s an increasing amount of women in the military, upwards of 200,000. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film The Invisible War, which came out a few years ago, that highlighted the problem of sexual violence in the military: one in five women has been sexually assaulted. One in five out of 200,000 is a lot. The film shows how the sexual trauma compounds combat stress to an unprecedented degree. Have you come across this yourself? How do you begin this conversation?
Lawson: It’s probably one of the grossest things that I’ve ever heard of. Because you would really think that a place of so much belonging and camaraderie would be able to take care of each other. And the fact that there have been so many men that have mistreated their fellow service members like that, it really disappoints me that I’m even associated with people who do that, and that we haven’t found the best way to rectify it. Fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at it, I am yet to have someone talk to me about sexual trauma in the military related to suicidal behavior. I have had a couple friends talk to me about a non-military related sexual trauma. But nothing that happened in their unit or with fellow service members.
Sexual trauma in the military was three or five years ago what today’s suicide is. Veteran homelessness I think is actually going to be put on the rise here, and pretty soon that will overshadow everything else. People care about buzzwords, people care about what the cause of the year is. I almost fear that once we start making headway on veteran suicide, that veteran homelessness is going to take over. I can already see it, I can see more organizations coming up talking about it, I can already see an effort towards it. While people still are concerned about sexual trauma in the military, it’s definitely taken a backseat to veteran suicide. But when I’m ready to take on something other than veteran suicide, sexual trauma may be the next thing that I touch on. I personally think that sexual assault in any case, military, college, wherever it may be, it’s going to be one of the biggest challenges for our society to overcome.
Pivovarchuk: I think you are doing an amazing job by opening up this conversation. Is there anything you want to stress for those reading this who might be experiencing any of the issues we discussed?
Lawson: Thank you. I think if there’s anything I want people to take away from it, it’s that there is no harm in talking about it. People want to listen. I think it’s easier for people to say that than for people to accept that, but there really is someone in your life who wants to talk to you. There’s really no problem you’re facing that someone else hadn’t at some point in their lives. Reaching out to someone, or at least searching for that sort of connection and empathy, is much more realistic than we think. It starts with making the decision to talk to someone.
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