Veteran Suicide: The False Narrative of the Number 22
Words by Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor, InMilitary.com. Wes is a Professor of Leadership and Predictive Analytics at Baker College. He is also a documentary filmmaker and recently spoke at the US Air Force Academy on Veteran Empowerment in February. Most importantly, Wes is a veteran and believes that when all 21.8 million of us are united, we can change the world. Connect with Wes on LinkedIn.
There is one number that defines the way many Americans think about military veterans. That number is 22 per day, as in, 22 veterans commit suicide daily in the United States. This number has been blasted across the outlets of the mainstream media as a call to action for the advocates of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans; the group that seems to be the most at risk. In addition, several non-profit organizations with the number “22” in their name, have sprung up to assist this group and draw national attention to this crisis.
The problem is that the number 22 is built on a false narrative.
First, this number is based on a Veteran Affairs report from 2012 using numbers reported from only 21 states from 1999 through 2011. This represents only 40 percent of the U.S. population. The other states, including states with massive veteran communities, like California and Texas, don’t report suicides to the VA. As you can deduce, we should be using the number “22” as a starting point or bare minimum.
Second, the entire generation of veterans that have been implicated in “22”, that is, the Post-9/11 or Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, are NOT the group that is committing suicide. In reality only about one veteran from that group takes their own life daily (which is still one too many). But if the media and charitable organizations are going to focus on this number, they need to make sure that they are targeting the right generation. According to the report, the majority of veteran suicides are committed by Vietnam-era veterans, yet the media is surprisingly quiet on this point.
The question is “Why?” Vietnam-era veterans need outreach, education, prevention and treatment just as much as the younger generations, and when we hide them in the numbers, they may not be getting the help that they need. Furthermore, there is another harmful side effect. Having such a big, inaccurate number attached to the younger generation of veterans perpetuates a destructive stereotype about Iraq and Afghanistan vets: That they are somehow broken, and unable to compete for meaningful opportunities in the civilian world.
Admittedly, even the Veterans Affairs authors of the report caution against using the number 22 as a solid metric. The issue is how a number of media organizations, as well as some members of Congress, twist the number to meet their own agendas.
“Having such a big, inaccurate number attached to the younger, post 9/11 veterans perpetuates a destructive stereotype: that they are somehow broken”
Thankfully, a more accurate report is on the horizon. According to the LA Times, a massive new data trove is being assembled by the Pentagon and the VA. Known as the Suicide Data Repository, it links national death records to military and healthcare data. This should eliminate at least some of the “fog of war” and allow for a more detailed accounting.
Until then, the number “22” is a great starting point to raise awareness about this ongoing crisis, but let’s make sure that we report it accurately and responsibly, and in the process, honor our nation’s heroes.
And see Wes O’Donnell talk about “22” in this Vietnam special of Heroes From History: Heroes From History- Episode 2- Milton Olive, III, Vietnam from Wes O’Donnell on Vimeo.