That’s how Judie G. Holmes described the number of active duty and veteran military suicides in the United States when speaking with the Columbus Exchange Club on Thursday. Given what the numbers are, that language might be a little mild.
A service veteran dies at his or her own hand once every 80 minutes, she said. An average of one active duty soldier per day commits suicide, with one per week suffering either an intentional or accidental drug overdose.
Ninety-five percent of those deaths are males, ages 18-24, snuffed out in the prime of life. Each death also represents grieving loved ones left behind to tortuously wonder if they could have done something to stop it.
While all these numbers matter to Holmes, one hurts her the most. Her son, Richard E. Holmes Jr., died from an overdose a few years after his military service ended. He had sought help for substance abuse, and even received some, but it proved too little, too late.
Over the past five years, a memorial foundation named after Holmes’ son has provided assistance for veterans like him. This foundation’s efforts have undoubtedly helped save lives, but this very real and very large nationwide problem needs all hands on deck.
There’s no magic fix for military suicide. Part of that comes from there being no one clear reason why it happens.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the reason most people associate with these instances, but that is dangerously oversimplifying the issue. In fact, Holmes said many of these victims hadn’t even been deployed overseas.
Depression and despair, especially with reintegrating with civilian society after serving in the military, comes in many different forms. Some we can’t begin to truly understand unless we experience them ourselves. And, to say these soldiers and veterans are weak or they can’t hack it not only disrespects their service but exacerbates a false cultural view that “strength” equals either not acknowledging a problem or trying to fight it quietly alone.
Many do reach out. Many do get help. But Holmes said some of those soldiers or veterans take their lives waiting for an appointment — or, as in one specific case she noted, after 45 minutes waiting on hold to talk with someone from a help line.
These soldiers, these heroes, found us all worthy of their time when they enlisted to risk the horrors of war for our freedoms. As such, these men and women are worthy of our time and, if possible, a portion of our resources in coping with war’s aftereffects.
Any little thing we can do to show our veterans we care, that they’re not forgotten, may help extend a life. Even if it doesn’t, it’s worth the effort.
Just ask Mrs. Holmes.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.