Heartbreakingly Common: Suicide Among Veterans
by Sarah Terzo
Here are more statistics that show how large the problem is:
- Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have the highest suicide rate.1
- Twenty-five percent of people who die by suicide in the US are veterans, but veterans make up less than 1% of the population.
- Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the suicide rate among veterans has increased by 600%.2
- In 2020, there were 6,146 veteran suicides. This was on average 16.8 per day.
- In 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% higher than for non-veteran adults.
- Veteran suicide deaths rose from 6,001 in 2001 to a peak of 6,796 in 2018, to 6,146. However, from 2001 through 2020, the veteran population decreased by 24.6%. The number of suicides hasn’t decreased in proportion.
- The suicide rate for veterans was 23.3 per 100,000 in 2001 and 31.7 per 100,000 in 2020.
- In 2020, suicide rates were highest among veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 (52.3 per 100,000 among men and 19.5 per 100,000 among women.)
- 71% of veterans who died by suicide used guns.
Veterans Give Possible Reasons for High Suicide Rates
In the New York Times, veteran Shannon P. Meehan writes:
War erodes one’s regard for human life. Soldiers cause or witness so many deaths . . . that it becomes routine. It becomes an accepted part of existence. After a while, you can begin to lose regard for your own life as well. So many around you have already died, why should it matter if you go next?
That is why so many soldiers self-destruct. The deaths that I caused also killed any regard I have for my own life . . . I fell into a downward spiral, doubting if I even deserved to be alive. The value, or regard, I once had for my own life dissipated.
Veteran Phil Ditto give some possible reasons for high suicide rates:
[T]here is a tremendous loss of purpose when one leaves the military . . . [T]he loss of camaraderie and the loneliness that follows. You pair these factors with the stress of service, combat, unstable home environments, guilt, and a lack of strong support, and we might as well load the guns ourselves.3
Ditto lost a friend and fellow veteran to suicide. ‘Joe’ was a veteran of Iraq who Ditto calls a “stellar soldier, leader, and friend . . . loyal to the core.”
Ditto noticed that Joe was acting strangely when they were driving one day. Joe had a loaded handgun and seemed on edge and paranoid. Joe ranted that “they” were everywhere.
Ditto was alarmed, but the next time he saw Joe, he seemed fine. Joe was sent to another military assignment, and they lost touch.
A few years later, Ditto learned of Joe’s suicide. Ditto writes:
[H]e had killed himself near the memorial to those killed in the war on terrorism of the fabled unit he had been a part of all those years ago. Stricken with what I am sure is an undeniable grief and guilt at the loss of the friends he could not save, etched into the marble wall in front of which he now lay dead . . .
[M]any of us, far too many, have such similar stories. We are tragically and unbelievably connected by the exponential guilt that bonds those left behind.4
Ditto now wonders if he could’ve intervened. He will live with his grief and uncertainty forever.
The Attitude Towards Suicidal People in Boot Camp
S.M. Boney joined the military after 9/11. In his memoir, he writes, “I wanted to help . . . to do something to help my country. Too many innocent people lost their lives on 9/11. I was ready to serve; to do my part.”5 Wanting to protect America and help people, Boney became a medic.
Boney wrote about his struggles with PTSD after his deployment. He had vivid flashbacks and hallucinations where he saw attacking enemy soldiers and thought he was back in combat.
But it’s his observations about boot camp that give insight into the military’s attitude towards suicide. Boney explains how in boot camp, when one recruit made a mistake, all of the recruits were punished. One boot camp soldier couldn’t seem to learn the proper way to march. Every time the recruit, who Boney called Baker, made a mistake or misstep during a marching drill, the drill sergeant forced everyone in the unit to do grueling physical exercises for hours or punished them some other way. After each terrible punishment, the drill instructor had the other recruits shout out, “Thank you, Baker.”
No matter how hard Baker tried, he couldn’t get the steps right, and the other members of the unit began to hate and harass him. Baker couldn’t take the hostility, and attempted suicide by jumping off a roof. As Baker lay there with a broken leg, the drill sergeant screamed:
‘What the f*ck? … Now I’ve got to deal with your sh*t Baker, you f*cking pussy!’
We started laughing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; he didn’t care about him one bit.6
The sergeant mocked Baker while the other soldiers stood around and laughed. The drill sergeant yelled at Baker some more, told him to stay put, and walked away. Boney recalls the conversation among the soldiers:
‘Where the f*ck is he going to go, Sergeant?” Bauer joked. We all chuckled.
‘Why the f*ck would he do that?” I asked . . . “That’s f*cking stupid . . . Why wouldn’t he just try to stick it out. What a pussy. Who tries to kill themselves?’ . . .
‘I’m glad he jumped, at least now we can do drills without getting smoked,’ Miller said jokingly. We all laughed.7
When the sergeant came back, he said, “For any of you little sh*ts that want to pull a stunt like that, go ahead! I don’t care. Kill yourself . . . If you want to die so bad, you might as well.”8
He then told the following story:
Last year I had a cadet who was going through some family shit. One day I was walking over from the DEFAC and saw this fucker jump off a two-story building . . . He was crying on the ground, fussing about how much he didn’t want to be alive. He said he wished that he was dead.
I told him that next time, he should jump headfirst, if he really wants to die so bad . . .
Three days later I’m walking through the CP when I hear an ambulance. I see people standing around a body on the ground. It was the same troop lying on the ground in a pool of blood . . . He took my advice.
If you really want to go, you might as well do it the right way so you’re not a problem for other people.9
He finally stormed off, complaining about the paperwork he had to do because of the “sorry piece of sh*t” Baker.
There was a second suicide attempt in boot camp. Private Bauer attempted to shoot himself in front of two drill sergeants. One sergeant kicked the gun out of Bauer’s hand, and the other shoved him to the ground.
‘What the fuck are you doing, you piece of shit!” Drills Thompson and Dickens snatched him off the ground by his collar, forcing him to stand.
‘You stupid f*cking kid,’ Drill Thompson barked in his face, ‘Trying to kill yourself?’
Bauer fell back to the ground and cried. The Drills put him in handcuffs and dragged him off to the side. He sat on the ground red-faced, bawling like a baby.
I lay on my stomach watching the Drills rag on Bauer as they dragged him off the range.10
Neither of these two suicidal men received anything but abuse and mockery from the drill sergeant and their fellow recruits.
Veterans who experience this kind of attitude while in the military, who witness officers mocking and insulting suicidal people, who are surrounded by an attitude of hostility and condemnation of those who struggle emotionally, may be far less likely to seek support or help either from the military hierarchy or their fellow soldiers/veterans.
During boot camp, Boney couldn’t imagine why anyone would die by suicide. When he came home struggling with PTSD, however, he contemplated suicide himself and even says, “I almost became a statistic.”11
A “Toxic Environment” in the Barracks
Boney isn’t the only veteran to comment on the heartless attitude of military personnel towards suicidal soldiers.
Veteran Gabe Merigian writes:
I lost my friend Jon Gee to suicide two months after I got out. Jon was experiencing mental health issues and took his own life in his barracks room, largely because of the toxic environment that existed there at the time.
There were two other suicides in that barracks while I was living there. It just felt like you couldn’t rely on the higher-ups to care about your well-being.12
Between the trauma of war and the hostility of military culture toward those who are struggling, it’s no surprise that the suicide rate among veterans is so high.
- Robert Gebbia “Military Suicide—The War within Our Ranks” appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 28, 2020. Cited in Marguerite Guzman Bouvard The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2012) 127.
- Bruce Shapiro “Casualties of War” Nation January 28, 2008, pp. 7–9.
- April E Brown and Ethan Casey Voices of America: Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories (Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press, 2020) 314.
- Ibid., 314-315.
- SM Boney IV Combat Medic: A Soldier’s Story of the Iraq War and PTSD (2016) 17.
- Ibid., 53.
- Ibid., 53-54.
- Ibid., 55.
- Ibid., 55, 56.
- Ibid., 74.
- Ibid., 296.
- April E Brown and Ethan Casey Voices of America, 293.
For posts on similar topics, see:
For a website that delves into how killing can be traumatic for those who do it, see: