In what has become an annual tradition, volunteers join Paul Monti, whose son died while serving in Afghanistan, to plant flags at each gravestone at the Massachusetts National Cemetery.
It’s estimated that more than 20 veterans kill themselves every day. A new survey of men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that mental health is the most important issue they face.
According to the poll conducted by the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), 30 percent of these vets have considered suicide and nearly 40 percent know an Iraq or Afghanistan vet who has committed suicide.
“It’s epidemic, and I think it’s something we’re not talking enough about in this country,” IAVA chief of staff Derek Bennett told Here & Now. “The number of veterans and the number of active duty individuals who have committed suicide is actually higher than the number of folks we’ve lost lost to the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. A new survey of thousands of men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that suicide is the biggest issue they are concerned with. Almost 40 percent say they know a vet who killed themselves. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America conducted the survey, and its chief of staff is Derek Bennett. He is a former Army captain who served two tours in Iraq. Derek joins us now from NPR in New York. Welcome.
DEREK BENNETT: Thank you very much for having me.
HOBSON: Well, let's start with these suicide numbers, just shocking if you think about it. Thirty percent of respondents to your survey have thought of taking their own lives. Forty-five percent know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide.
BENNETT: It's epidemic. Both of those numbers are frightening. It's not new. We've seen similar trends in the previous three years that we've done the survey. And I think it's something that we're not talking enough about in this country. The number of veterans and the number of active-duty individuals who have committed suicide is actually higher than the number of folks we've lost to the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
HOBSON: Well, what's going on? Because the military has upped its suicide prevention programs. These have been an issue that's been around for a while. People have been talking about it.
BENNETT: It's been around for a while, but like so many things in this space, there's not a lot of reliable good data, which is why this survey, to us, is so important. The Army specifically didn't really start consistently and methodically counting suicides until about 2002. And that only counts active-duty folks. Since they've started counting, now they've implemented some suicide prevention work, and there's still a lot more that needs to be done. They need to better understand the problem itself, who's most at risk.
They have the National Institute of Health and some other folks who have done a lot of research that indicates that deployments actually in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically may not be correlated with the increase in suicide. But that's all the data that's available for active-duty individuals. Once someone transitions and leaves the DOD and they become a veteran, no one counts whether or not a veteran commits suicide. So we actually don't have a reliable number for how many veterans are committing suicide. We believe - some of the best research in this right now indicates it's somewhere around 22 a day, which is unbelievable.
HOBSON: And is it still this issue, in part, of stigma of going to mental health care and trying to get help when there are psychological problems?
BENNETT: I will give the military and the VA a lot of credit. They've done some work on reducing that stigma, and I don't think it's nearly where it was at the turn of the century. I do think that the stigma remains, and I think that folks are reluctant to say that they need help, reluctant to say that they might have post-traumatic stress and to raise their hand and ask to see a mental health care professional. This - that stigma, I think, we're overcoming, but we have not yet overcome.
HOBSON: One of the other problems that veterans face, and you talked about it in this survey, is unemployment after they come back from their tours of duty. Sixteen percent of the vets who responded to your survey are unemployed, which is twice the national unemployment rate.
BENNETT: That's right. The new veterans fit into a demographic age that traditionally - and I guess across the country - is underemployed. The 18-to-24 young men and women find it difficult to be employed. I think veterans, it's a little bit more of challenge. Part of it is their difficult in translating what they've done in their service into civilian terms, and it's difficulty in civilians understanding the business folks translating back sort of business jargon into military terms. I think the country, though, has a bit of moral obligation to ensure that veterans are employed.
This is not just a regular population. Only about 23 percent or so of the entire population of 18-to-24-year-olds are qualified to actually be in the military. So the group of veterans that we're studying - particularly those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan - have leadership skills, et cetera, have already been vetted and then trained. So they are someone who should be more employable than their cohort. And what we see is, later on in life, we see that veterans in their 30s and 40s actually are more employed than the civilian population.
HOBSON: And the jobs that they tend to go into, it looks like, are government jobs, and then health care and telecommunications.
BENNETT: Yeah. That's - and that's sort of a reflection of the new military in how high-tech things are and, you know, the role that information technology plays in the conflicts that we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unfortunate part is so many of our veterans want to continue to serve in a meaningful way. They've served their country in uniform, and now out of uniform. They seek out government service opportunities. But as the government shrinks, as sort of starts to downsize - both the DOD and other agencies, as a result of sequester and some other things - then those opportunities are less prevalent for vets.
HOBSON: Derek, this is the first time you have done this survey since the full implementation of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." How are service members feeling about that?
BENNETT: You know, what's interesting about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," it sort of was news when it was decided and then the implementation took a little bit longer. And it is a, for the most part, non-issue. You know, it's a bit of a generational thing. There are certainly folks, you know, in 18, they'll call it 40-year-old range who, for them, it's a non-issue. And then there are some later generational individuals, typically, at the top of the leadership structure who've been in the service longer, and they're, you know, in their 50s-ish. And for them, it tends to be more of a policy question.
But it's striking to me how much of a, uh, it's not really a big deal. Like this is - these are regular people. This is the person that I served with. I'm not - you don't hear a lot of the horror stories that we heard that were going to come out if "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed. What we do see is that in the military, people value their comrades based on their competency. It's a real meritocracy.
HOBSON: I want to finally ask you, Derek, about presidential performance. This is kind of an incredible number that you've got here.
HOBSON: How would you rate the president's performance on improving the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans? 44 percent say poor, 31 percent say fair, only 5 percent excellent. And the numbers are even worse for congressional performance, 55 percent poor, 36 percent fair. Why is there such animosity toward Washington?
BENNETT: Part of that is a reflection of how the country is feeling towards Washington in general, and the idea that there's constant gridlock and nothing is being done. And I think the other component of it is, veterans in particular are clients of VA, and 560,000 of them are sitting in a backlog, which means, they've been waiting for more than 125 days...
BENNETT: ...to get their VA disability benefits. And so we have been tracking what the backlog looks like. We've been trying to hold the VA accountable and ensure that they are reducing the backlog on a weekly basis.
One of the things that we've done to help do that is a website called The Weight We Carry, and it talks about who's in the backlog as people. What is the story of an individual who is in the backlog, and how much emotional strain and financial strain? And it really begins to put a face on what otherwise is just a very large number. These are people whose lives have been impacted adversely by the service that they did to their country and now adversely impacted while they're waiting for their country to give them their due result.
HOBSON: Derek Bennett is a former Army captain who served two tours in Iraq. He's also the chief of staff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which just released a new survey. You can get a link to it at hereandnow.org. Derek, thank you so much.
BENNETT: Thank you so much, Jeremy, for having me.
HOBSON: And up next, you don't see ads for regular cigarettes on TV. But in the unregulated world of e-cigarettes, anything goes. That is next. HERE AND NOW.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
There was dramatic testimony in court today from Michelle Knight, the only one of three victims to speak at the sentencing hearing of convicted kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro. It was Michelle Knight's first appearance in public since her rescue from the Cleveland home where she was held captive for more than a decade. With tears streaming down her face, the 32-year-old Knight stood facing the judge, her back to an emotionless Castro as she described crying every night during her captivity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHELLE KNIGHT: You took 11 years of my life away, and now I have got it back. I spent 11 years in hell, and now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all this that happened, but you will face hell for eternity.
YOUNG: Castro has pled guilty to charges that he repeatedly raped Knight and forced her to miscarry. Family members of the two other young victims, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, also testified today and Castro spoke. His house is set to be demolished with a park being considered in its place. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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