The Fourth of July

Thursday, July 4, 2019

In February 2013, as American-led wars in the Middle East were drawing down, the British newspaper, The Guardian, ran an article under the banner headline: “US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic among war veterans.” Even as combat deaths were declining, the Pentagon had begun to notice that its soldiers kept dying anyway—by their own hand. The Pentagon did not use the word ‘epidemic,’ but The Guardian was probably well-sourced when it noted, “after a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse.”

The next day, however, British economic writer Tim Worstall clapped back at The Guardian in Forbes, contending: “But There Isn’t an Epidemic of Suicide in the US Military.” Worstall made some good points. The Guardian’s hook had been that suicide deaths were eclipsing combat deaths—but that’s hardly surprising in a conflict that is winding down. The Guardian also made the mistake of comparing suicide rates among soldiers to those of the entire U.S. population. American soldiers skew wildly male, and males have higher incidence of suicide generally. “Before deciding that there’s a problem,” Worstall concluded snippily, “we do in fact have to go study the numbers [and] I just don’t see it.”

Except that The Guardian had been right. In August 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) did exactly what Worstall had called for—they studied the numbers. The resulting massive report is the nation’s largest and most thorough review of veteran suicide based on more than 55 million veterans’ records from 1979 to 2014. The VA concluded that “after controlling for age and gender” the risk of suicide is “21 percent greater for Veterans.”

The more we study it the more we learn that war is not just a destructive but a self-destructive force, taking a psychological toll on many who wage it. Many, but not all. And not all in the same way. Every human mind is its own intriguing hall of mirrors; no one’s maze, or path through the maze, is the same. If, prior to Vietnam, the popular mind failed to appreciate the psychic wounds war could inflict, the contemporary mind overcompensates, acting as if all soldiers automatically have PTSD and are therefore potentially suicidal.

Suicide is most often the product of simultaneous internal and external pressures; the suicidal individual has a predilection (social/cultural/historical/biochemical/personal/medical) and a set of accumulating circumstances that culminate in a totalizing sense that the only escape from existential assault is the escape from existence itself. Precisely because suicide is multi-causal, however, there are often more opportunities to avert catastrophe than there might seem.

The veterans in the CSI:D sample who committed suicide offer an interesting collective portrait of just how complicated it can be to determine what role, if any, combat service plays in any one veteran’s suicidal ideation. For W. A. McConnell, a former private in the First Georgia Infantry, financial pressures appear to have been the primary driver. McConnell spent his last day on a train. “We sat together the a great part of the day,” said W. H. Trescott, “although he seemed much worried, he was sober and did not manifest any noticeable excitement during the day. He told me that he had a been drinking a great deal of the day before [and] that his nerves were completely shattered.” McConnell apparently owed a great deal of money to one Willis D. Chishold. He had determined to ride to Charleston to adjust matters, then decided to return home, and then decided on a different course altogether. When Trescott got up, McConnell ducked into the conductor’s chamber and “cut his own throat with a small pocket knife.” Did his military service have anything to do with his decision? It is impossible to know.

Pleasant Gossett, a veteran of Company B, Eighteenth South Carolina Infantry, presents a more typical case as his private demons go utterly unnamed and unnoticed in the historical record. His daughter remembers being in the yard, doing the wash and having a long, utterly normal conversation with her father. Then he left, as she understood, to go get a wagon-load of wood with her brothers. When they returned home without him, she wondered where he was until she looked over her shoulder to see her father hanging from the barn door, in full view of all of his children. We will never know why Pleasant Gossett decided to end things this way.

A link to combat service seems more possible (though by no means certain) in the suicides of veterans P. W. Morris and James P. Moore. Morris, a veteran of the Forty-Fourth Georgia Infantry, appears to have returned from the war with a chronic alcohol problem. He was, as witnesses said on the day he died, perfectly fine … until he failed fatally to stab himself in the neck and ran head first into the local well.

Moore, a veteran of the Second South Carolina, likewise returned home with a drug habit—though this did not prevent his establishing a lucrative career as a lawyer and a judge. Moore had seen a great deal of combat, including on the second day of Gettysburg, where his regiment suffered 41% casualties. Whether this had anything to do with his dependencies on chloroform and laudanum is hard to say. The members of his community knew he was an addict, even as he claimed to be buying all the medicine for his wife, who suffered from chronic headaches. As in most cases, there also appears to have been a triggering event for Moore’s ultimate overdose: the record whispers vaguely of some “trouble” that Moore was in and of a warrant being issued for his arrest (though no warrant can be found). These are exactly the kinds of mounting and overlapping pressures—former trauma, drug dependency, financial reversal, legal, marital, or professional troubles—that can lead one to suicide. For Moore, as for many who end their lives, it is never any one thing—it is everything. Which means that anything could make a difference.

This Fourth of July, sure, thank veterans for their service. But then ask them how they’re doing. And then really listen. And, then, if you see an opportunity, be of service yourself.

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