While enjoying some Saturday afternoon college football, I was treated to about a dozen reruns of a commercial produced by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Let me paint the scene for you:
A lone figure rests upon his pickup truck beside a lone oak upon a ridge in an otherwise rolling green prairie. The sky is a canvas of orange and purple as the sun sets on a peaceful day in the foothills of rural America. Suddenly, the imagery fades to a small silver case: a gun case for a pistol. Notably unloaded, the hands of the otherwise off-screen figure emerge to affix a lock to his sidearm, as even the case and separated magazine wasn’t enough to keep this soldier safe.
But safe from what? The voice over then chimes in:
“A simple lock puts space between the thought and the trigger. Learn how securing your firearms can prevent suicide.”
Look, I get it. The message they’re trying to convey is most suicides are an act of impulse. A veteran’s life may be saved if a little patience and deliberation is introduced into the equation. But it’s really hard to receive this advert as anything but a hollow gesture when the prescription provided by the VA is a gun lock without an ounce of reflection on the root cause of the crisis.
According to estimates, a little over 7,000 soldiers have died during military operations since the start of the “War on Terror” following the attacks of September 11. Meanwhile, suicides among both active duty and veterans of those conflicts have exploded to over 30,000, or more than four times those lost in combat. While these numbers are sobering, and possibly even erring on the conservative side, the real focus should be on what is driving the dilemma and how best to put an end to it. With the War on Terror now exceeding two decades, experts’ reasoning for the cause of the veteran suicide epidemic has evolved just as the wars themselves have evolved over those 20+ years. The most avid participants in regime apologism blame the diminishing public support for the terror wars for the rise in veteran mental health issues. While it’s true that Americans’ appetites for forever war is reaching all-time lows, as evidenced by the support for withdrawal from Afghanistan no matter how mismanaged, this explanation lacks an ounce of self-awareness for how long and costly the wars have been. Others have put forth that a rash of sexual assaults among personnel and a culture of “toxic masculinity” has led to increased mental health issues among service members. Nearly 1 in 4 servicewomen have reported cases of sexual assault, an embarrassment and a disgrace to the institution. The “boys club” may be to blame in equal parts for betraying its sisters in arms and convincing its brothers that they are weak to feel ill at ease. However, the weakest and most deceitful reason suggested may be that veterans are at severe risk of suicide because of their access to firearms. The rate of suicidal persons electing to turn to a firearm to commit the act has been used as fodder by gun prohibition advocates to attack the 2nd Amendment. This tactic not only belies an agenda totally divorced from concern for military veterans, it also implies veterans are among the least qualified to possess firearms for personal use rather than among the most qualified.
There’s another explanation worth considering, and it was perfectly illustrated right as the American occupation of Afghanistan was coming to a close. In an attempt to straddle the fence between bringing the War in Afghanistan to a long-overdue end while appeasing hawks who consider “withdrawal” to be synonymous with “surrender,” President Biden signed off on a drone strike against an alleged ISIS-K target. The unfortunate victims of said drone missile were not militants, but rather one Zamarai Ahmadi and his children, as even US military officials have openly admitted. Despite this admittance, no disciplinary action is expected as senior officials continue to “stand by the intel leading to the strike.” This is quite a callous and remorseless defense of “the intel” that ultimately concluded that Ahmadi, an aid worker who helped Americans during the occupation, deserved to die for the crime of loading his white sedan with jugs of water for his family. This incident is merely a microcosm of the role Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) have played in the War on Terror. According to a recent report, upwards of 90% of the people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia were “not the intended targets.” In other words, nearly 9 out of 10 people executed by the American government were likely innocent civilians. Service members returning home are being confronted with reports of American atrocities and war crimes; actions that they may have been party to. For some, the guilt of being responsible for creating terror abroad when they believed themselves to be in a war to end terror is overwhelming.
It’s certainly a welcome change to acknowledge the suicide epidemic among American service members. But acknowledgement of the problem without any meaningful introspection on the cause signals that the US government is more concerned with its PR problem than with stemming the creation of more psychologically damaged veterans. There may be several reasonable explanations for the trauma American troops are experiencing, but no list is complete without a willingness to confront the damage that US forces have caused, as well as the damage they have received. Regardless of your position on the cause of the crisis, or of America’s foreign policy generally, it is disrespectful and offensive to the nation’s veterans to recommend that their best foot forward against depression is to secure their firearms.