Veterans need, deserve better


Members of Oregon's congressional delegation and U.S. military leaders should be deeply troubled that this state's returning servicemen and women are more likely to die of suicide here at home than from action overseas.

In fact, Oregon veterans of all wars are killing themselves at alarming rates when compared with the rest of the population.

This disturbing problem was reported in last week's Portland Tribune and is an issue that deserves the immediate attention and assistance of the nation that sent these servicemen and women into conflict.

Reporter Peter Korn's article discovered that several factors contribute to this trend:

• For soldiers involved in the current wars, the length of deployment - up to 15 months - is longer than other modern wars. That fact - plus the constant state of hypervigilance that must be maintained in this type of war - can leave soldiers with shattered nerves.

• The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are being fought with heavy use of National Guard and reserve troops. Typically, when these citizen soldiers entered the National Guard or reserves they did not necessarily have an expectation that they would be involved in violent conflicts. And when they return home, they don't come back to a military base that's equipped to handle post-combat issues. Instead, they are immediately reintegrated into their families and communities.

• For older veterans, the images of the current conflicts are re-igniting memories - especially of the Vietnam War - and triggering more cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Greater awareness can spur action

While the reasons for the rising cases of suicide are becoming better understood, we don't believe there is yet enough awareness - and certainly, not enough help - for war veterans who are at risk of suicide. These servicemen and women performed their duties at the request of the government and for the benefit of all Americans.

That means everyone, but especially the federal government, should feel a responsibility to take more aggressive action to prevent veteran suicides. An important first step is to increase public awareness of the issue.

Veterans' families in particular should be alerted to the warning signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And, they should be educated about counseling and other resources that are available for veterans.

Government must do more

The Veterans Administration bureaucracy that's supposed to assist veterans coming home from war has been under intense scrutiny the past few years for its inability to deliver health care and its slowness in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems. Certainly, those criticisms of the VA have a direct bearing on the issue of suicide.

The need for our government institutions to do a better job will only grow in the future. Vietnam veterans are reaching an age when they are at even greater risk. For the past four decades, they've been busy with life - raising children and working. Now that they are approaching retirement, experts warn that they may begin dwelling on their war experiences once again.

The psychological trauma of war isn't a temporary condition that diminishes with time. It is an ongoing threat to mental stability that can reappear decades later - and that requires ongoing and assertive programs for prevention.