Veterans need more than a ‘thank you for your service’
Lee County marked Veterans Day this year with a parade along Cape Coral Parkway, a luncheon at the Military Museum & Library, and a nighttime run over the Midpoint Bridge.
With Southwest Florida having more of the state’s 1.5 million vets than any other area, our residents treat current and former military personnel with respect and gratitude. as well we should: We are still a country at war and we still have service personnel deployed and in harm’s way.
We loved the parade, we’re always open to barbecue and a beverage in good company and well, some of us were even up for a 5K for a good cause.
But after we celebrated the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the time and date of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I — after we enjoyed lunch, ate dinner and maybe took part in that run from Broadway Palm to Veterans Memorial Parkway and back; after we tucked our loved loves in bed and got some sleep ourselves, we lost another 17 military veterans to suicide.
The suicide rate among military personnel is 1.5 times the rate of non-veteran adults — 16.8 every day — according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Of the 45,390 adults who died as a result of suicide in 2017, 6,139 were veterans, who collectively comprised 13.5 percent of all deaths by suicide.
Meanwhile, last year was the worst year in eight for the number of suicides of active duty personnel: 321 took their lives in 2018 — 138 soldiers, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and 57 Marines.
How are we, as a country, as a community, failing these veterans?
The VA reports that the answer is not an easy one to ascertain — there is “no all-encompassing explanation for suicide,” no single path to or away from suicide, no single medical cause.
What the statistics do show is that among the commonalities are economic disparities, including those caused by the inability to use skills acquired in the military in the civilian work force; homelessness (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that, as of January 2017, 40,000 veterans were homeless with 15,300 of them living on the streets on any given day); lack of social connections; and health issues, both physical and mental.
Still, despite efforts, ready access to treatment remains an issue. This hit close to home in August when a 72-year-old veteran shot himself in the parking lot of the VA clinic in Cape Coral. There were seven such deaths at VA facilities as of May of this year. There have been 25 since 2017.
A couple of things.
One, the most obvious step toward mitigation, is making that much-promised, much-touted reform to the VA health care system a reality. Advocacy groups report that too many vets still do not have ready access to treatment while others cannot get the medications they need due to new anti-opioid policies that handcuff VA physicians from prescribing drugs their peers in the private sector may deem appropriate. The family of the 72-year-old Cape vet who died here cited both in interviews with local broadcast media.
The new partnership between Lee Health and Home Base Southwest Florida, which will offer mental health services for veterans and military families at no cost, is a good start to the easier-access, better services goal.
Two, we can support veterans outreach groups with time and money. We have some good ones in Lee County.
Lastly, we can reach out and share these numbers everywhere:
Military personnel who need help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. Suicidal troops and veterans can call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, press 1, for assistance, or text 838255. Confidential online chat session are available at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
Veterans need more than a “Thank you for your service.”
They need thanks for that service in terms of the health care promised. And continued support. Yes, on Veterans Day, but every other day, too.