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  • Dan Connors

Wreaths for dead veterans? How about better care for living ones?

Updated: May 11

“All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety. Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war." Daniel Somers, Iraq War veteran who committed suicide in 2013

The statistic is shameful and alarming- according to a Veterans Administration study, some 22 veterans commit suicide on average every single day. That number has been challenged, with some claiming it is too low and doesn't count self-destructive behaviors like drugs and alcohol that lead to early deaths. More US veterans have died by suicide in the 21st century than have died in the line of duty in war zones. Think about that.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. War is a traumatic experience that very few veterans are capable of handling on their own. Due to exposure to extreme violence and hazardous materials, they are prone to both physical and mental problems that leave them more likely to experience depression, substance abuse, and homelessness. After leaving the US Armed Forces, veterans must try to re-enter a civilian life that will never seem the same to them after witnessing war in all its ugliness.

I thought about all of this when I read about the group Wreaths Across America. This ostensibly well-meaning charity sponsors the laying of wreaths at the graves of veterans to honor their service. Nominally a non-profit, it turns out that Wreaths Across America is closely tied to a wreath company that is the sole supplier of the millions of wreaths that get bought, laid, and eventually tossed away. How does any of this help the living, suffering veterans with real needs who aren't dead yet?

Then there is another popular charity, Folds of Honor, that collects donations using a symbol of fallen servicemen. That money goes mostly for scholarships for the children of dead or wounded veterans, but nothing for the veteran themselves if they are still alive.

People like to feel good, and giving to honor dead people is more comforting than dealing with the existence of fine young men and women who are struggling in most cases because of the dangers we asked them to face on our behalf. We place war veterans up on an impossible pedestal, but they are human just like we are. If they end up homeless, that's on them is the inevitable conclusion of many. It feels good to place a flag on a grave, but to help someone in need now is uncomfortable and complicated.

Our culture of toxic individualism doesn't believe in helping those who are unable to cope. They need to "toughen up", "get over it," or "seek out a professional"- just don't bother us- we've got our own problems. We'd rather idealize the sainted martyrs in the ground with memorials they can't use and don't want. The dead don't ask for tax money. (I'm not saying don't honor the dead, I'm just saying honor the living first and foremost to truly honor those who died.)

My father was a veteran of the US Air Force. He was shot down over Europe and sent to a German POW camp during WWII. He rarely discussed his experiences, but I heard later that he was tortured and suspected of being a spy. Dad was one of the lucky ones, able to marry and start a business and have a relatively normal life, but I recognize that he was also haunted by what he saw and couldn't talk to anyone about- because his generation of men didn't discuss any of that. He did write about it though.

We want soldiers who act like killer robots- unfeeling, unthinking, and unemotional. Human beings just aren't wired that way. Sooner or later the thoughts, feelings, and emotions have to re-emerge and be dealt with, which is why so many choose the easy way out of suicide.

22 suicides a day??? That should be totally unacceptable, and springing for a memorial doesn't absolve any of the guilt that we all share for accepting it. So what can we do about it?

If you know anybody who is a veteran that has seen combat, be there for them. Ask them if there is anything that they need and help them find it. They risked their asses for us, and it's about time we returned the favor. There are wonderful groups out there helping veterans, including the Veteran's Community Project, a great organization that is building communities of tiny homes for homeless veterans all over the country, including a new community here in St. Louis. If a veteran is homeless, they have fallen a long way from integrating back into society, and they need a safe place from which to start over. I am not a veteran myself and far from an expert on non-profits, but there are many that claim to help veterans, including DAV and Wounded Warriors.

Veterans, especially male ones, are often reluctant to seek help or admit they have a problem. Their troubles may be masked behind a brave, emotionless face or a bearded, homeless one, but we have to be better at following up with them after they leave the service. They deserve much better than a damned wreath.

And of course if you or someone you know is considering suicide, there are many great resources out there for you. Dialing the new nationwide hotline, 988, can link people to all sorts of resources. And for veterans, there is the Veterans Crisis Line, which uses the 988 hotline and option 1.

Watch this video from the Army for a chilling story about one man's struggles.

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