“The findings are troubling,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in response to a September report on the shocking number of military suicides. “Suicide rates among our service members and military families are still too high, and the trends are not going in the right direction.”
The defense chief — and all Americans — have plenty of reason for concern.
Suicides in the armed forces jumped by 15 percent in 2020 — from 504 suicides in 2019 to 580 the following year, with USA Today recently reporting that suicides are particularly pronounced at Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg and Fort Carson.
And then there are the nation’s veterans. More U.S. veterans have died by suicide in the last 10 years than service members who died from combat in Vietnam. The suicide rate for post-9/11 vets is especially high. And compared with civilians, the rate for veteran suicides is far greater.
Numerous administrations have tried to arrest the tragic trends through stepped-up programs. Some positive signs are emerging. For example, the suicide rate among veterans fell modestly in 2020, for the first time in years.
The Biden administration is now jumping in with its own priorities. Calling suicide among active-duty forces and vets “a public health and national security crisis,” the White House released a new plan promising “a more coordinated response.” It contains plenty of solid ideas — about enhancing access to care, improving crisis care, mitigating the factors that lead people to consider suicide, increasing research and better training on the safe storage of firearms and medications.
The White House provided the caveat that suicide “is a complex problem with no single cause and no single solution.”
That is true enough, though one other solution is needed in the approach — a far greater focus on promoting the one-on-one human connection, on reaching those vets and service members who don’t raise their hands.
Many vets who take their lives are terribly isolated, a trend that worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Veterans Affairs stresses that isolation is “arguably the strongest and most reliable predictor of suicidal ideation, [suicide] attempts and lethal suicidal behavior.” That helps explain why approximately two-thirds of those vets who die by suicide have never stepped into a VA center.
A growing and important grass roots effort know as Warrior Call focuses on overcoming that isolation and reaching people before they slip into an abyss. Think of Warrior Call as a national day of connection.
Warrior Call is asking that “all Americans make a call to a warrior, with a vet or active-duty service members, and connect them with support, if necessary,” said Frank Larkin, a former Navy SEAL and Warrior Call co-chair, whose own Navy SEAL son died from suicide. “We are asking people to connect and have an honest conversation. Check in with that vet or service member, see how they are doing.”
The effort has the backing of all seven living former VA secretaries.
“With its simple mission to implore Americans — but especially active-duty service members and veterans — to connect with someone who has worn or is currently wearing the uniform and let them know they care — Warrior Call can foster greater connectivity, compassion and better outcomes,” they recently wrote to U.S. lawmakers.
Following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that has sparked anguish and anger among many of the 700,000 veterans who served there, “such an awareness campaign is especially timely and a valuable non-government tool to put into action,” the former VA chiefs added.
The first National Warrior Call Day is on Nov. 21. On that day, all Americans should make a call to a warrior — the first of several such calls throughout the year — and connect them with resources such as Vets4Warriors or the VA.
Serving the nation in uniform is among the most noble of callings. And so is saving a life.
Leroy Petry is a Warrior Call co-chair and a 2011 recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.