The true cost of war

Third Way Wider ViewJanuary 16, 2015

Washington Comment

There are an estimated 20 million veterans in the United States today. Veterans are frequently lauded for their service in many corners of our society and, particularly by government leaders. However, public praise cannot fully alleviate the steadily increasing suicide rate among U.S. veterans, now at a historical high.

In each of the past three years, more active military personnel have lost their lives to suicide than were killed in combat in Afghanistan.

An average of 22 veterans take their own lives every day in our country. The suicide rate of male veterans 24 years old and under is triple that of the average man who is not a veteran. In each of the past three years, more active military personnel have lost their lives to suicide than were killed in combat in Afghanistan.

These alarming statistics are given heart-wrenching faces in the individual stories about veterans who have killed themselves.

One such person is Clay Hunt, a former Marine who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hunt took his life in 2011 and his family stated that he had struggled with a number of mental health issues after leaving the Marines.

One of the many tragedies surrounding Hunt’s death was his repeated struggles with paperwork through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In 2014, the VA reported a backlog of benefit claims for nearly 900,000 veterans.

Stories like Hunt’s are, tragically, all too common. 15 percent of recently returned veterans are estimated to suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and many are haunted by moral injury. Recently, legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress in an effort to help millions of similarly affected veterans.

On January 12, 2015, the House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act. The bill, which moves now to the Senate, would help increase access to mental health care and capacity at VA hospitals by creating a new, interactive website that offers a clearinghouse of information on services; it would also offer a student loan repayment program to attract psychiatrists to work at VA hospitals.

While the legislation is an important step, much more needs to be done.

The war in Afghanistan officially ended last year, but for many veterans, the legacy of war never truly ends. Veterans carry invisible injuries with them that in some cases have caused irreparable damage. We should all consider the human costs of war and be mindful that those bearing the costs walk among us. Would that our elected leaders would bear these costs in mind when they consider pursuing military answers to problems, as we have so often seen our country do.

Urge your senators to pass the Clay Hunt SAV Act. You can also continue exploring these issues with “Returning Veterans, Returning Hope” a six-week Sunday School curriculum produced jointly by Mennonite Central Committee U.S. and the Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA.

Joshua Russell is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator in the Washington Office of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

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