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Question: What is behind the recent spike in army suicides?

Paul Rieckhoff:  There are a number of factors, but here's the bottom line: we lost 32 active duty soldiers to suicide in the month of June.  That's just the Army, that's just active duty, that's just in June.  If we lost 32 troops in Fallujah today, the national media would be focused on it, the President would be moving hell and high water, Secretary Gates would be saying, “Get to the bottom of this.”

But over the last few years, suicide rates have continued to climb.  Earlier this year, for a month in the winter, we lost more soldiers to suicide than we did to Al Qaeda.  So I think that's an important framework to understand going in.  The military does not have the suicide issue under control, and it's getting worse.  And there are a number of factors that go into this kind of cauldron that leads to suicides, but a big driving factor is that our people are tired; they are worn out.  They are not robots.

You can't send people back to Iraq and Afghanistan for 20th tours.  The President spoke at the Disabled American Veterans this week and brought up a soldier as someone who is inspiring, a soldier who was wounded.  The soldier was on his 10th tour... ten times to a combat zone, and he was 27 years old.  So at some point, the American public has to stand up and go, “Enough.”

We need to re-evaluate the situation.  Now, it doesn't have to be a draw-down in Iraq, it doesn't have to be a draw-down in Afghanistan.  It may be.  But it may be increasing the pool and addressing the fairness issue that is really hitting our community hard.  So when you take into account the fact that they're going back for repeated tours, there's a lack of family support, which is always going to be critical.  Divorce rates are very high, they're coming home to tough economy, there is a lack of public support for the war, which we know contributes to the stress, the combat tours are long.  Some folks in the Army have done 16-month tours, come home for a year, go back for another 16-month tour—that's a long time to be in a combat zone worried about whether or not you're gonna die.

So I think a lot of that has just started to stack up, and over time we've seen these suicide rates increase dramatically.  We need a national call to urgency.  I think the President has really been negligent in addressing this issue.  He needs to stand up and say, “This is a top issue for my administration.  This is a top issue for me,” and be specific in what he's gonna do about it.  It's great for him to talk about stigma, it's great for him to say, “If you need help, come and get some.”  But we also have to provide that help for when people do step forward, and right now that help is really lacking.

Does one party care more about veterans’ issues?

Paul Rieckhoff:  No.  I mean, right now, neither party is doing enough for veterans.  We, as an organization at IAVA, were extremely aggressive in criticizing the Bush administration and holding them accountable, and we're doing the same thing with the Obama administration.  I don't think any party has a monopoly on veterans.  I don't think any party loves veterans more than the other.  I think everybody has a moral obligation to support veterans. However, we need more action from both of them.

Just as an example, under President Obama's watch unemployment has risen.  Suicide has risen.  The disability backlog at the VA, which is close to a million, has stayed solid.  We're not making the progress we need, and the thing I'm most disturbed by is the continuing rhetoric out of the White House where they give the impression they've got everything under control.  It reminds me of the way people talked about Katrina.  It reminds me of the way the Bush administration talked about the insurgency in 2004 in Iraq when my guys were getting shot at.

There's a disconnect with reality that is really troubling, and that's where military families, veteran groups have to be more involved, have to be more vocal, and the American people need to pay attention to what we're saying.  We're kind of a canary in the coal mine here.  We're trying to call out and say, “Look at what's happening to our families.  Look at what's happening to our equipment, on a more basic level.”  And I think some of those calls for help and some of those flairs that we're sending up haven't really been addressed with the kind of urgency that we think is necessary.

Recorded August 2, 2010
Interviewed By Max Miller


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