Lies, Damn Lies, and Casualty Statistics

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Grab a drink, this is going to get worse before it gets better. I’ve chosen whiskey to assist in the writing, I’d recommend something similar for the reading.

My typical Sunday morning includes walking the dog, making egg in a basket, and eating it while watching This Week with George Stephanopoulos. The show ends with a list of American casualties from the previous week. Four weeks running now there have been no names on the list. It was only the first time since July of 2002 there were no US combat casualties anywhere overseas for a calendar month.[1]

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That is a good thing. It is indicative of how much we have started pulling out of the middle east and how much we’re letting the local forces in Afghanistan and Iraq take over the processes involved in securing their own countries. Everything I’m going to say from here shouldn’t overwrite the fact that zero US combat casualties globally is a good thing and something worthy of celebration.

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As with most any given single number, it doesn’t tell the whole story. That isn’t the fault of the number, the number is true enough by itself. It falls on us to look deeper when a statistic is presented to us, particularly if that number might come with political baggage. There are plenty of directions to go from here. You could ask how many foreign troops the US engaged with over that time. You could ask about foreign civilian casualties over that period. You could ask if there were any US contractors in the region who died who don’t technically count as soldiers.

You could ask how many US casualties occurred domestically. Last month there was the shooting at the Navy Yard in Baltimore. There was the shooting on that same base last September too. Now just today there was also the shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. I understand it’s on US soil, but if you’re active duty and you die on a military base while we’re at war, that needs to count. On a side note, if we haven’t entirely pulled out of Afghanistan by this October, there will be teenagers who have lived their whole lives with the US at war.

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There’s one other question to ask though, what about non active duty? What about veterans? How many of them died in the month of march, not from enemy fire, or heroically in combat, but by their own hand? 682. March wasn’t an isolated spike. So far in 2014 there have been an estimated 1892 suicides among veterans. That comes out to 22 a day and that has been a roughly steady pace since 2009.[2] It is also three times the national average. I came home today(Wednesday April 3rd) and started writing this entry at 9pm EST, that means it’s fair to guess at least one more veteran has committed suicide since I started writing. What time are you reading this at?

With all these deaths, someone must have taken notice right? Someone in our government must have recognized that some form of care is drastically necessary. Turns out there was a bill going through the senate in February that would have added 24 billion to veteran education and healthcare(including mental health) programs. It needed to pass a procedural hurtle of 60 votes. The vote was 56-41, so the legislation failed. All 41 no votes were republican senators.[3] Their reasoning was that it cost too much money.

You want to argue that war shouldn’t be an economical decision, fine. If you want to tell me that accountants shouldn’t get to determine what moral rights are worth upholding with the force of arms, ok. But there is a cost, you can’t just put a war on a credit card and complain that the interest rate got too high so you don’t want to pay it. We asked these men and women to put their lives on the line, to kill others and risk being killed themselves. Now they’re home and suddenly it is the time to worry about whether or not we can afford the war we already had them fight for us?

They agreed to make sacrifices. Now it’s your turn. If there isn’t money in the budget to do it then you need to raise taxes. I’ll even come up with a pretty color for the ribbon for veteran support that go on the back of your car next to the yellow one. Unless of course ‘support the troops’ was just a political catch phrase. Unless you’re comfortable with our healthcare system being a bigger danger to former military than any IED or religious extremist ever was while they served. Unless you really can look yourself in the mirror while thinking, “If only that person would have died during war because then I would only have to call them a hero instead of treating them like one.”

John Walsh is a democratic senator from Montana who commanded a Montana National Guard battalion in Iraq. He’s teaming up with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and introducing the Suicide Prevention for American Veteran’s Act. The bill, according to the IAVA, would,

…extend eligibility for Veterans Administration health care, create a pilot program for student-loan repayment if health care professionals work for the VA, instigate a review of certain behavioral discharges, and mandate a review of mental health care programs at the VA.

He plans on pushing for a passage of the bill on Memorial day. That’s 53 days from today which means 1166 veterans could take their lives between now and when it reaches the senate floor.

Once again, I’m not trying to downplay the meaning of the 0 US active duty combat casualties. It’s just the health problems, and specifically the mental health problems, veterans are facing these days require more attention and as long as we’re focusing on military casualties this seemed like as convenient time as any to talk about absurdly high suicide rates.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number in the US is 1-800-273-8255. If you know anyone who could use it, don’t be afraid to pass it on. Mental health is certainly a problem that doesn’t just affect veterans. Maybe once we start admitting even those we idolize need help it could become more acceptable for the rest of us to reach out when we need it as well.

As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.

 

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