There could hardly have been a more heartbreaking lead-up to this Veterans Day than last Sunday's News story about suicides by American military men.
The story, by Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel, focused on four Western New Yorkers who preferred death to the demons that wouldn't let them be. It offered grim evidence -- as if more were needed -- of the American government's ongoing failure to serve the men and women who have been wounded, physically or psychologically, as they served their country.
Indeed, those terrible decisions by American servicemen to kill themselves stand parallel to the shamefully poor medical treatment that the American government has provided to troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or just about anywhere else in the military health care system. Injured troops were, and to a great extent still are, afterthoughts.
A similar sense of the abandonment of servicemen is shared by many Americans, including two especially prominent ones: former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. Writing in the Washington Post, the co-chairs of the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors credit the government with some recent improvements, but diplomatically note that "While progress has been made, more work remains. And the clock is ticking."
Regarding servicemen at risk of suicide, that work begins with ensuring, as best as possible, that the men and women who go to war can tolerate those intense pressures. The military must also set up systems, formal and informal, to track veterans once they've come home.
Of the four servicemen in last week's Buffalo News story, one was already suffering mental anguish as he was preparing to go to Iraq. Two others came home from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, and one of those men started drinking heavily. The fourth knew he was in mental distress, but as a military man, was ashamed to seek help.
Clearly, this is not entirely the fault of the military or the government. Some of these men had personal relationships that were falling apart, for example. But little in life can be as traumatizing as war. It is purposeful brutality: killing others while trying not to be killed yourself. When that unrelenting pressure goes on for days and then for months, and tours of duty are endlessly repeated, it's a wonder things aren't worse than they are.
They're bad enough. The rate of military suicides rose to 17.3 per 100,000 last year, up 40 percent from the rate in 2003, when the Iraq War began. For physically wounded soldiers, treatment at Walter Reed was pathetic, verging on degrading. And even today, as Dole and Shalala complain, injured servicemen face a confusing and intimidating process in applying for disability compensation and benefits.
Some of that, they say, is because of infighting between those who want to overhaul the whole system and those who want, first of all, to help the servicemen and women who are coming home today and who will come home tomorrow.
That has to be the priority. Help these men and women now, when they need it, not 10 years from now when it may not matter anymore.