Words by Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor, inmilitary.com/inmilitary. Wes is a Professor of Leadership and Predictive Analytics at Baker College. He is also a documentary filmmaker and recently spoke at the U.S. 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 or at WesODonnell.com.
Jamie Brunette was the very definition of “success”. She was forward-thinking and had a solid family support structure, close friends and 11 highly productive years in the U.S. Air Force. This beautiful young woman was planning for the future. She had recently purchased an Orangetheory Fitness franchise to satisfy her passion for both fitness and business. After all, why not get paid doing something you love?
In a required essay that she wrote about why she wanted to become an Air Force officer, she stated: “Hard work, a strong focus and a great attitude have proven to be key components to accomplishing my goals and continued success. I try to stay busy with positive ambitions in my life. I do not believe that there is a limit on the knowledge in this world and I hope that I am never fully satisfied with myself.”
But Jamie was never able to fully realize her goals. The 30-year-old was found dead in the back of her car on February 9, 2015. Law enforcement stated that she killed herself with a Smith & Wesson .380 handgun that she had purchased about six months earlier, according to The Tampa Tribune.
Jamie was deployed with the Air Force to Afghanistan in August of 2012. One of her closest friends, Teresa Davis, 25, told People Magazine that “some questionable things happened to her over there”. To another close friend, Jessica Aguiar, 31, “she mentioned a few times in passing that she had a slight case of PTSD, but she was so strong-willed that I think it upset her to rehash anything negative.”
In the case of Jamie Brunette, the warning signs were there. They were, perhaps, eclipsed by an otherwise stunning life of success and positivity.
In addition, Jamie’s life and tragic death lead us to a shocking statistic that has been, until now, overlooked. Female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women.
In fact, the suicide rate of women veterans approaches that of their male counterparts. Women veterans aged 18 to 29 kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of non-veterans.
The most alarming thing is that officials are not clear on what factors are driving these suicide rates. For example, women were not allowed in combat arms positions within the military until very recently. The majority of women deployed before this regulation changed did not have direct contact with the enemy, so it is difficult to make a blanket statement like “PTSD” and move on.
Women veterans ages 18 to 29 kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of non-veterans.
Some Veterans Affairs researchers who reviewed the data question if perhaps the military had disproportionately drawn women at higher suicide risk or whether sexual assault played a role.
Certainly, sexual assault is an ongoing problem in our armed forces. The Pentagon states that 10% of women in the military have been raped while serving and another 13% are subjected to unwanted sexual contact. However, it’s worth noting that the number of rapes is likely much higher, due to a percentage of women not reporting sexual assault for fear of reprisal.
But why is there a huge gap between the suicides of women veterans and their civilian counterparts? According to a VA report released last year, female veterans die by suicide at higher rates than civilian women because they often choose more lethal means.
According to Military Times, 40% of female veterans who committed suicide between 2000 and 2010 used a gun. Patricia Kime from Military Times states that “Drug overdosing tends to be the method of suicide more favored by civilian women, increasing the likelihood that they might be found and survive.”
It’s clear that Veterans Affairs needs to do a better job of understanding the staggering statistic of female veteran suicide. In fact, a new bill referred in the Senate last February, HR 2915, tasks the VA to do just that. Sponsored by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif, the bill would require VA to identify mental health and suicide prevention programs that are most effective for women veterans.
But the VA is only half of the solution. The other half lies with us, the citizens. We need to spread awareness because in awareness we find responsibility. Indeed, it is our responsibility to check in on our fellow veterans, both male and female, encouraging them to seek help if help is needed.
Furthermore, we need to make others aware that our bravest warriors and the most patriotic among us, those who have served, may be fighting the war still. They are fighting against an invisible and insidious enemy: the enemy within.
Veterans or family members experiencing a mental health crisis can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and pressing 1, by texting 838255 or going online at www.veteranscrisisline.net.