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Doane: Veterans and suicide

04/22/09 7:55AM By Larry Doane
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(HOST) The Army has recently announced that suicides within its ranks have reached the highest level in 28 years.  It's a statistic that neither shocks nor surprises commentator Larry Doane.

(DOANE) The American military, and particularly the Army, has been under an unprecedented level of strain since 2001.  This is not a complaint or a cry of alarm.  America's fighting forces are all volunteers, and they're well aware of just what they're volunteering for.  But we all must understand, citizen and soldier alike, that when our country goes to war a price must be paid - and not only in the visible "blood and treasure" so often referred to in politicians' speeches.

During my military service, I've lost as many fellow soldiers to suicide as I have to IEDs or ambushes or mortar attacks.  And suicide leaves me nothing to maneuver against, no hostile position to suppress and destroy.  Instead I grapple with unseen demons - frustrated by an enemy that holds no ground save the shifting terrain of a troubled soldier's mind.  And while the long war we are engaged in is certainly a factor in every one of our suicides, it is almost never the only factor, or even the primary one.  Instead, soldiers find themselves on the dark path towards suicide for the same reasons that anyone might.  Events like the failure of a marriage or relationship, financial strain, or the death of a loved one are often at the core of a soldier's depression - as they would be for anyone.

I can understand how an overwhelming sense of isolation and hopelessness can put the idea of suicide in a person's mind.  But these feelings are especially dangerous to a soldier.  From the day we put on our first pair of boots we are taught that every one of us is a member of a team, first and foremost.  We learn to always watch each other's back - to go nowhere alone, and to leave no one behind.  From the first day of service to the last, soldiers are always part of a unit, an organization greater than themselves.  To lose this camaraderie - this feeling of belonging and purpose - is a terrible thing for a soldier.  It's easy to see how tempting it would be to escape through suicide.  

But it's a hard subject to bring up - and harder still to convince a soldier that seeking help is not synonymous with weakness. Still, it must be done - not just by the military or the government - but by all of us.

There are veterans struggling with isolation and depression in all of our communities.  And they need more than just counseling centers and the VA. They need support from friends, neighbors and the community at large.  We must honor their courage with our own and find the words to persuade them that seeking help is a sign of strength.  We must step forward, just as they did, and offer our hand when it's needed - and not wait until it's asked for.  We must keep the promise made to them on their first day of service - that no matter what we will not leave them behind.
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