When I think of veterans returning home from war, I am reminded of tearful reunions at the airport, signs reading "Thank You for Your Service," and parades celebrating the individuals who have sacrificed so much for our country. But little is said about the daily struggle these men and women will face upon returning home. Our nation now has another fight: the war on suicide.
In the past, rates for military suicide were well below those for civilians. Now, men who have served in the military are twice as likely, while female service members are three times more likely than their civilian counterparts to commit suicide. Each branch has implemented multifront strategies to combat these rapidly rising rates. The military has even tried to alter social norms, emphasizing that seeking mental health treatment is not a weakness. Despite these efforts, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 18 veterans a day die from suicide.
Regrettably, this is not the only concern plaguing the military. A recent documentary, "The Invisible War," has brought another tragedy to light: military sexual trauma (MST). It is estimated that in 2010 alone, 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred. That figure is more than all the students at Canisius College and Buffalo State combined. The statistics are staggering, as one in five women and one in 100 men have experienced MST while serving.
Research among the civilian population has long demonstrated the link between sexual assault and suicide. According to the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network, one in four individuals who experience sexual assault contemplate suicide. Yet, the Department of Defense and the VA do not list MST as a risk factor for suicide.
In "The Invisible War," several interviewed victims of MST attempted suicide. Kori Cioca, a young woman raped while serving in the Coast Guard, had planned on overdosing until she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter. "Maybe her life will be better than mine. I've got to make sure of that."
Our heroes deserve better.
In August, President Obama signed Executive Order 13625 to aid suicide prevention efforts by the military. Beyond simply expanding treatment options for those who are suicidal, the order instructs the Pentagon and the VA to research and develop more effective treatments for the mental health conditions linked to suicide. But MST is absent from this order. It should be amended to include MST.
So this holiday season, while we celebrate what we are thankful for and enjoy time spent with friends and family, let's also remember the men and women who have served our country. We must address the link between military sexual trauma and suicide. It's our turn to be the heroes.
Sarah Mye, a Buffalo native, is a masters of public health student at the University of North Carolina.