Thursday, October 15, 2015

Veterans, Narratives, and Suicide

I hate that anyone commits suicide.  My very young great nephew did just that a couple of years ago when he was informed he would have to return to prison; and that single act still ramifies with pain throughout the family.  The reasons people do this are manifold, but I want to write something about veterans of the armed forces and suicide, because there are a couple of narratives out there that have legs, and they are deceptive narratives.  I am a veteran, and I can't seem to escape that category (much as I'd like to), so I suppose I'm writing as a veteran.

Let me start by saying this:  Suicides among military veterans are not concentrated among combat veterans, and most suicides by veterans are not caused by combat PTSD.  This is a demonstrable, statistical fact, and it ought to give us pause, because one of the predominant narratives about "veteran suicides" (as if this is somehow a hermetically sealed category) is that "our heroes" have suffered trauma on our behalf, and we owe them.  This is a classic cause of correlation not being causation, as well as a fallacy of definition (the category "veteran" is too broad); and it is stacked onto a bandwagon fallacy that over-values military service against pretty much everything else (a nationalistic phallacy).

Rape is one of the most common reasons for severe PTSD, and thirteen percent of rape victims will attempt suicide at some point after they are assaulted (often many years later). Ninety percent of women are mothers by age 40.  This can be wrangled into all sorts of statistical prevarication, too.  So aside from the fact that combat PTSD does not correspond significantly to veteran suicides, we might be able to declare an emergency about rape victims (mostly women, mostly who will be or are mothers), but it wouldn't gain much traction in the public square, because motherhood is not as valued as having been a soldier (would that it were, we'd have achieved a social revolution).  You can see how sticky this all gets.

There are few messages more misleading and manipulative than the one posted in the picture above.

This figure was extracted from a 13 year compilation of statistics in twenty-one states. Over that period, there were 147,763 suicides recorded.

Within that population, an average of 22 people per day (I can't determine who first published this) were veterans, even though the actual math shows an average of seven suicides by "veterans" per day in those twenty-one states.  Moreover, among those classified as veterans, the greatest concentration of suicides was among white men who were more than fifty years old (69% of veteran suicides) - and the percentage of adult males who fall into the veteran category increases with age. Among them, there was no attempt to determine what other problems might have led to the suicide (mid-life crises?  illness?  marital issues?  loss of loved ones?  unemployment?  mental illness?), what the length of service was, whether there was combat duty, etc.

Few of these people (four men commit suicide for every woman, probably because men attempt it with guns instead of pills) served in combat, because that demographic only marginally overlaps with the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001 and 2003 respectively; and there was very limited ground combat prior to that for more than a decade.

States themselves have widely variable suicide statistics, with Connecticut at a mere 5.3 per 100,000 and 38.2 in Alaska. White people kill themselves more than any other "racial" demographic in the US. About nine out of every ten US suicides are white folk.

The veteran status of more than 23% of the statistics reported in the twenty-one states was unknown, but among those whose death certificates were available, about 18% had some form of military service on record - again, the blooded infantryman with four tours to Ramadi was counted exactly the same as a tuba player with the Illinois National Guard who never left Springfield.  And in the US, 24% of men and 2% of women are veterans.  18% of suicides are veterans.  24+% of the adult population are vets.  The idea that veterans, per se, are more at risk from suicide than the rest of us is, to say the least, highly questionable.

One statistic that does seem to suggest a strong correlation between military service and suicide is gender.  Women who successfully attempt suicide account for 3% of deaths in the US, whereas among female veterans, that number jumps to 26%. Whether that is related to the experience of being female in a hostile gender environment or familiarity with firearms or some other cause was not something about which I could find data.  One thing I can say with some certainty is that - with men committing suicide at almost four times the rate of women - the US military is more than 85% male (that number was even higher in earlier years).  This alone could account for the app. 50% higher rate of suicide among "veterans" than among the rest of the population.

An interesting (though still not illuminating) statistical comparison.  Suicide rates among veterans exceed the general rate among married and divorced people, but among single people non-veterans are almost three times as likely to kill themselves.

If you think military experience puts you at risk, don't go to med school. Doctors are far and away the most common group - by job - to do themselves in.  Followed by dentists, financial workers, lawyers, cops, real estate agents, electricians, farm workers, pharmacists, and research scientists.  What the common denominator is there I have not a clue. But military folks don't even qualify for the top ten.  White women doctors do the deed far more often that other white women. Black male cops do it far more often than other black men.  We can speculate about any of these, but this doesn't support the veteran-as-victim narrative.

Calling this "an epidemic" is certainly overstating it.

Combat does not make military personnel either heroes or victims.  This is cheapened language, polemical language, self-congratulatory or self-pitying language; and it is the language of a militaristic society that idolizes military "service."

Almost 40% of US troops never deploy to a combat zone.  Not one out of ten who actually deploys ever fires a weapon during an actual "enemy contact."

85% of veteran suicides never went into a hostile fire zone.

Make of this what you will.  To me - and I am not dismissing veterans, people with PTSD, or rthe terrible toll of suicide - this is another narrative in support of our civil religion and our worship of the military.