The horrifying, continuing veteran suicide rate is where I’ll begin this Veterans Day. The lesson for any education? Wars do not end.
For those we, the people, send to war, (as spelled out in U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8), the wounds, the suffering endure. Consideration, thinking, feeling on this was ignored in my most highly selective education. I write these columns each year because of the overwhelming evidence that such thinking is absent still, on campuses and everywhere.
Reports, all alarming, vary, and 20 veterans still, now, commit suicide every day. The suicide rate in 2017 among veterans was 1.5 times higher than that for "non-Veteran adults," according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report by the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the same report, suicide rates are highest among veterans ages 18 to 34. From 2005 to 2017, the suicide rate for veterans ages 18 to 34 increased by 76 percent, and in 2017 this age group had the highest suicide rate (44.5 per 100,000) of all veterans.
“I’ll take any help I can get,” a Marine Iraq veteran told me one afternoon, crying in my windowless basement office at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. He had returned after dropping out because two more of his buddies from his unit in Iraq had committed suicide. Twelve of his buddies had committed suicide, he told me.
We found help. Staff from Home Base at Massachusetts General Hospital came to meet the Marine. We failed to find enough help. Every time this Marine was resettled into school, another buddy committed suicide or threatened to commit suicide. The pact among Marines at least is to respond to a buddy’s cry for help at once, no matter where. At once, no matter what.
This Marine had been as far as North Carolina. Home Base, several other programs for wounded veterans, the BHCC Veterans Center, BHCC colleagues, the Afghanistan veteran who ran the Harvard labs where the Marine had been a star -- eventually this Marine left again, and we could not track him down. Twenty of his buddies had committed suicide, the Marine told me the last time I saw him.
Twenty? I asked another Marine, an Afghanistan veteran. The second veteran knew too many suicides, but not 20. The factor for the first Marine, the second Marine explained, was that he had been in Walter Reed. “You have to be in pretty bad shape to end up there,” the second Marine explained. “If you have been to Walter Reed, you know more who are likely to be in trouble.”
Again and again since I found this story in 2008, I have failed to convey that I cover the veterans’ enrollment story as an education issue, not an admissions problem. My aim is at the whole education. No takers on my question last year: How could the self-proclaimed best colleges in the world educate graduates who can solve problems without sending other people’s children to war?
Turning out the lights at military bases in distant lands, bringing other people’s children home, is not the end of wars. The suffering of the other people’s children we have sent to war is forever. Why can’t we create an education that solves complex problems without sending other people’s children to war?
This year, then, I will apply my most highly selective education. What is behind the low enrollment numbers?
Take a look.
Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury, starting with Vietnam, is the only mainstream writer to cover again and again and again the eternal suffering for veterans and civilians we cause with wars. The character in the bed here is BD, who served in Vietnam and again in Iraq, where he lost a leg. Doonesbury described BD’s recovery, and the strip shows BD’s new leg. In the strip above, BD’s nightmares have caused his wife, Boopsie, to bring him to the hospital.
The Vietnam War continues in the emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital, usually late at night. My friend Dr. Stuart Harris, a doctor there, said the haunted veterans are from Vietnam, Korea and still a few from World War II. Part of the treatment, Dr. Harris said, is often listening to the veterans, who want to tell someone their memories of the wars.
How long, then, will the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continue, late at night in emergency rooms? Crazy me. An education should show us all to see, to consider the implications before we, the people, send other people’s children off to war.
No luck, still, proposing that all colleges, community colleges to Ivy League, require every year reading Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Jonathan Shay. The traumas, the emotions of the characters in The Odyssey and The Iliad are with combat veterans today. Shay spoke at the opening of the BHCC Veterans Center. To heal, veterans need a place to be with other veterans, Shay said.
Perhaps these poems can make my point that we must learn to solve problems without sending other people’s children to war.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces
Are still silent. He looks on shock-pried faces.
History, even, does not know what is meant.
You would feel that after so many centuries
God would give man to repent; yet he can kill
As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
No farther advanced than in his ancient furies.
Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?
Is God by definition indifferent, beyond us all?
Is the eternal truth man’s fighting soul
Wherein the Beast ravens in its own avidity?
Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
But they are gone to early death, who late in school
Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.
By Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. --
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Note: This Latin phrase, an English World War I recruiting pitch, is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”