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Veteran suicide and the mission of the church

Combat, community, and COVID-19

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February 19, 2021

You have probably heard that veteran suicide is alarmingly high. The oft-cited statistic which has become a rallying cry to end veteran suicide is that 22 veterans take their lives each day. While some have helpfully chimed in to bring context to this number, suggesting that the number is probably much lower, the reasoning behind why veteran suicide is so high has remained unchanged.

The misconception 

As it is understood, the commonly held belief for why veteran suicide is so high is typically distilled into this line of thought: 

  1. Our troops are deployed to situations wherein they see and do terrible and perhaps even horrific things in combat.
  2. Exposure to abnormal and traumatizing experiences is what brings about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  3. PTSD is nearly impossible to cope with which eventually leads to suicide.

In short form, this line of reasoning makes sense and, for the most part, it has been the accepted narrative as to why things are the way they are. But there’s more than ample evidence that this narrative, this combat-PTSD-suicide chain, is mistaken. What’s more, if we assume suicide is mostly related to combat and PTSD, we may fail to help those most in need.

Breaking the combat-PTSD-suicide chain

In a paper published in 2015 by the Annals of Epidemiology, it was demonstrated that veteran suicide is substantially higher than their civilian counter parts. The unsettling finding of the study, however, was that among military personnel, suicide was higher among noncombat roles suggesting causes beyond combat exposure. The conclusions drawn from the study stated, “Veterans exhibit significantly higher suicide risk compared with the US general population. However, deployment to the Iraq or Afghanistan war, by itself, was not associated with the excess suicide risk.” This measured conclusion could be strengthened. If someone did not see combat, then the suicide could not have been because of PTSD derived from combat exposure. 

In 2019, The Air Force Times, likewise, published its discontent with the increase among its ranks for suicide. At the time, a mandatory stand-down was ordered for all personnel across the branch to focus on suicide prevention in this “resilience tactical pause.” Suicide for that year was significantly higher than the previous year jumping from 50 in 2018 to 78 in 2019.

This increase in deaths deserves more attention. The Air Force, though it possesses some MOS’s (military occupational specialty; one’s job) that do experience combat, is predominately non-combative in its roles; they are not a branch of the military that comes to mind with the combat-PTSD-suicide narrative. Yet disturbingly and tragically, they too, are witnessing an increase in suicide.

Finally, the past year has brought about new challenges. Suicide in the military has seen yet another wave of increases, rising 20% from the previous year. What was different from 2019 to 2020 that would significantly affect the rate of suicide? COVID-19. Many are reserved in giving an answer and avoiding labeling the correlation of COVID-19 and added stress to be the causation behind recent deaths. When looking at the pattern of evidence, though, it seems to suggest that combat-PTSD-suicide is not necessarily the dominant reason behind veteran suicide. Likewise, the increased isolation that lock-downs and prolonged quarantines have brought about are worthy of a closer look.

PTSD

PTSD itself is a bit of a quagmire. It is almost inescapably tied to the belief that only someone who experiences combat can unwittingly acquire this diagnosis. This is false. Many may see combat and never experience a single symptom. Cited in an article appearing in Task & Purpose, the Pentagon’s Inspector General put forth a report that shows sexual assault is “[M]ore likely to result in post-traumatic stress disorder than going into combat.” Combat is not a necessary link to PTSD nor the only way to experience its effects. But in the commonly held belief and discussions around veteran suicide, PTSD from combat sucks the air out of the room.

Though PTSD is a serious problem that has been connected to increased rates in suicide among veterans, there are at least two studies, one published by the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2009, and the other by the National Center for PTSD in 2017, that suggest the link is not as definitive as most believe. PTSD simply does not account for enough deaths to satisfactorily answer the unsettling questions behind why veterans are taking their lives. In light of this line of evidence, where should we be looking for why suicide is so high among veterans?

The complicated truth

A more complete answer as to why veteran suicide is so high nests more neatly under the heading of sociological factors. Stated differently, it has more to do with culture, isolation, and lack of shared experiences and values when comparing a veteran population to their civilian counterparts than combat and PTSD. Those who serve in the military are grafted into a subculture with its language, communities, duties, judicial system, boundaries and contours of honor and shame. The sum of these differences and experiences is something that is unshared by the majority of the population. The second world war had approximately 9% of the population serving directly in the military. The rest of the country, while not wearing the uniform, was still aiding in the war efforts in ways that the whole of society was oriented toward. Today, less than 1% of people serve on active duty.

Serving in the military brings about experiences that will never be shared by the majority of the nation. This lack of shared experience and values isolates and exacerbates the problems our society is already plagued with in the veteran’s personal life.

It isn’t only that sharing a relationship with a service member is now less likely, but also that our relationships look drastically different than they did a generation ago. The average Facebook user has 338 friends. Contrast this with the fact that some research indicates that 75% of people are not friends with their neighbors, 26% of people don’t know their neighbors, and social gatherings with neighbors before COVID-19 were already relatively rare. If we are desiring to find a place we need to dig deeper as to why veteran suicide is high, community disconnect is a prominent factor that demands further investigation.

We are already detached from community more than we consider. Geographically, we live in one place, work in another, shop on one side of town, go to church on the other, and pursue our weekend hobbies and recreation in someplace different than the rest. This description of our disparate lives is not an anomaly, but the norm for many. The only thing we have in common with neighbors is that we live next to them. Other than that, we are different people with different lives who rarely intersect.

Exacerbating our own problems

New York Times bestselling author Sebastian Junger struck a chord with many in his recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger provocatively suggested that the problem of PTSD was not a matter of “what’s wrong with them,” referring to our troops, but rather, “what’s wrong with us”, referring to our culture outside of the military. While there are areas in which Junger does not fully deliver on his thesis, his impulse is correct: the issues our culture and society has are no different than what the military possesses. Serving in the military brings about experiences that will never be shared by the majority of the nation. This lack of shared experience and values isolates and exacerbates the problems our society is already plagued with in the veteran’s personal life.

For every specialty and niche interest that exists today, community options abound. But this menu list of choices has not brought people together, it’s divided, subdivided, and distanced people into communities based on hobbies, shopping preferences, media consumption, and even our places of worship. Yet we do not need more of the same, we need more of each other. Where we would once pursue relationships with those in our communities, we now seek the friendships of others through social media. Where personal friendships could serve as a kind of “general practice” for struggles with anxiety or depression, veterans are now outsourced to experts when what they need is not another visit to a therapist or a prescription refill, but authentic relationships that are abiding, meaningful, and faithfully attended to. If one believes the problem with veteran suicide is something that only a trauma specialist can address, they will disqualify themselves from any sort of help they can give through genuine friendships.

Suicide and the mission of the church

The trends of suicide in the United States reveal some alarming trajectories. Before the prolonged isolation and social restrictions that COVID-19 has added, suicides in the U.S. had increased 33% from 1999-2017. If the factors listed above are truly more decisive in suicide than combat or PTSD, then we should expect suicide to continue to increase. Moreover, veteran suicide will also continue this trend based on the expectations of our non-communal and increasingly isolated society. If this can be stated differently, veteran suicide is a sneak peak at where we are headed as a culture as a whole. If we desire to combat suicide, the place to do it is within community that seeks to disrupt isolation by loving one’s neighbor. The vehicle that is best equipped with a mission and purpose for reaching communities across our country is the church armed with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Josh Holler

Josh Holler is an associate pastor at First Baptist Church Duncan in Duncan, Oklahoma. He is a husband, father, and author of Redeeming Warriors: Veteran Suicide, Grieving, and the Fight for Faith (Christian Focus). Josh is pursuing his Ph.D. in Ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More