Because of the added stress of military service, veterans were the first to begin to take their lives by suicide at an alarming rate in America. In 2012, twenty-two veterans succumbed to suicide daily (Kemp & Bossarte, 2012). Currently, healthcare providers are well aware of the rising suicide trends in college students, veterinarians, and Caucasian men (Centers for Disease Control, 2020; David, 2019; Tomasi et al., 2019). Why is suicide a growing cause of death in many demographics in America? Are we dealing with this loss of human life because our belief systems lack a more significant meaning than postmodernism and consumerism could or can provide?
I am a founder of a veterans’ organization that focuses on suicide awareness and prevention. In 2012, I believed, as did most, that veterans’ alarming suicide rate was attributable to combat operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. However, that was not entirely true; many of the individuals who chose to end their lives were not combat veterans of these recent and current wars. Many were Vietnam veterans, and another significant portion of these service members had never seen combat (Kemp & Bossarte, 2012).
Vietnam veterans took their own lives more often when their children left home, and they were retired (Kemp & Bossarte, 2012, p. 16). They often believed that they were no longer needed or of no community value and thus chose to end their lives because of a perceived lack of meaning and purpose. Stated simply, they held on to life until they felt that they were no longer needed. When the nest was empty and they achieved retirement, they reflected on their lives and found them empty. Vietnam veterans are at an age when reflection and integration of purpose and meaning are needed badly. The pain of life is endured when we are protecting and providing for others. When the demand to serve is removed, we must reevaluate who and what we were and are. When meaningful, mutually appreciated service is lost from our lives, our sense of personal worth is too.
The other demographic that has an alarming suicide rate is veterans who never saw combat. It is almost as if the shame of being uninitiated or failing to test oneself in war drives these individuals into utter despair. Why do humans kill themselves if they cannot fulfill or reconcile their perceived meaning and purpose? It is somewhat true that the consequences of war damage the human psyche. As a Special Forces combat veteran, I can say that there is truth in that, but it is not the entire story. I have met thousands and known hundreds of veterans, and the actual cause of suicide is not participating in combat alone. It is its lack of meaning to our civilian counterparts. Humans have been fighting wars since the dawn of time. War itself is not the catalyst of despair; it is a life devoid of meaning and purpose.
Suicide can be a choice of those who have not integrated spiritual meaning in their physical lives fully. Integration of purpose must be achieved internally and derive in part from our communities. We are not separate, and we are not purely logical mental constructions. We are shared heartbeats, co-creators in the drama of consciousness. When one of us places our sanity and health on the sacrificial altar and is not honored or acknowledged, our individual and shared life force dwindles. Examples of this range from the mother expected to return to work immediately after giving birth or a veteran assumed to be relieved that they have employment after war.
We are even witnessing a rise in suicide in children, some as young as ten years old (Dastagir, 2020). These seemingly unrelated statistics appear not to be a coincidence; do they share a common theme? We are beginning to witness that everyone is susceptible to suicide, not merely veterans. While it is true that military service is another straw on the proverbial camel’s back, it is not the sole cause. Civilians are beginning to succumb to the despair of existence without collective meaning and value. The cure for this lies not exclusively with academics, therapists, or experts. The treatment for the ailment is a conscious effort to ascribe, create, and engage in our meaning, symbolically, emotionally, and physically. The mother of children is a bringer of life. The elderly are our dispensers of wisdom. Our students are our hope. Our warriors are our heart.
A common theme in the cause of suicide is beginning to emerge. Postmodern materialistic societies do not prioritize inherently transitional phases of human existence that reconcile who and what we are. We do not care about the elderly, the sacrificed, the sacred, or the innocent. We care about profit, prestige, power, and our groups or selves. My warning: Modern veterans are the canary in the coal mine; the rest of us should notice these alarming suicide rates and abandon the environment we are excavating and supporting. We are going too far in the wrong direction.
We cannot forget that we are in this together. As a nation, we have separated ourselves from the modern warrior, our elderly, and our children. Our focus is on the superficial and the empty. If we wish to preserve life, then we must honor meaning and purpose individually and collectively.
Centers for Disease Control (2020, March 1). Suicide Statistics. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved February 8, 2021, from https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/
Dastagir, A. E. (2020, September 11). More young people are dying by suicide, and experts aren’t sure why. USA Today. Retrieved February 8, 2021, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/09/11/youth-suicide-rate-increases-cdc-report-finds/3463549001/
David, E. (2019). Rising suicide rates at college campuses prompt concerns over mental health care [Article]. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/rising-suicide-rates-college-campuses-prompt-concerns-mental/story?id=66126446
Kemp, J., & Bossarte, R. (2012). Suicide data report, 2012. Veterans Administration . https://doi.org/https://www.va.gov/opa/docs/suicide-data-report-2012-final.pdf
Tomasi, S. E., Fechter-Leggett, E. D., Edwards, N. T., Reddish, A. D., Crosby, A. E., & Nett, R. J. (2019). Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 254(1), 104–112. Retrieved March 8, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.254.1.104