According to Dr. Ira Katz, chief of mental health at Veterans Affairs in 2007, there were about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans. Today, 18 of us kill ourselves every day.
With more people than ever before thanking veterans for our service, why are so many of us attempting suicide? Why are we joining the service?
After Sept. 11, 2001, many of us joined the service because terrorists attacked us and we wanted to bring their leaders to justice. Some who couldn't afford college joined because jobs were sparse as companies installed robotics or moved their operations overseas. Some joined for the excitement and travel opportunities, others for the traditional rite of passage to proven valor.
As volunteer soldiers, we surrender our freedoms and become subservient to a civilian commander in chief while duty, honor and discipline are drummed into us. We represent the people of our country. You and I, veterans and Americans, are one. You remain home. We go to war and kill for you.
We place our trust in you and the decisions of our elected leaders. Once again, that trust is being questioned.
When liberating Iraq, we were told to expect adulation and flowers. Instead, improvised-explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades were heaped upon us. We were so unprepared for battle that we had to scrounge junkyards for steel plates to protect our vehicles and write home for body armor. We used weapons firing .223-caliber ammunition with tolerances so tiny our rifles jammed in battle, a fact proven in Vietnam 43 years ago. Our tactics still included walking around towns in uniform until someone shot at us or dangling like bait in Forward Operating Base camps until the enemy massed into groups large enough to attack us, then waited in ambush for the rescue helicopters. We didn't know the language, the culture, who our opponents were or what they looked like.
We killed the enemy as well as innocent women and children. Ninety percent of the people our medical personnel cared for were Iraqi or Afghani non-combatants, many of them young kids, badly burned, injured or killed. The enemy also killed us and maimed us at will. Yet we went back -- again and again and again -- without time to repair, physically or emotionally. Besides the horrific violence, we watched looting, chaos and rampant corruption while our doctors prescribed "poly-pharmacy" to keep us going.
At Abu-Ghraib, the CIA encouraged us to dehumanize prisoners by photographing them in pornographic poses before administering physical abuse and torture. We in the military were the only ones tried, convicted and sent to jail. We took all the blame. Enraged people from around the world came to Iraq willing to blow up their bodies next to ours.
Last year, 20,000 military homes faced foreclosure. More veterans are living on the streets, unable to find jobs or reacclimate to civilian life.
No one has been brought to justice for the lies, the faulty intelligence and the arrogant hubris that sent us to Iraq. No one has been brought to justice for the billions of dollars stolen by contractors through overpriced services. No one has been brought to justice for the total incompetence that caused thousands of veterans to die and lose limbs.
We could have been better used at home. Every day and night, Americans are shot, killed and wounded in every major city because we can't afford enough police officers to protect our citizens. Our youth are killing each other.
There is no justice, no peace and no evidence that what we're trying to establish in other countries exists here at home.
Serving in the military is a soul-sucking experience. We veterans have been betrayed. That's why so many veterans commit suicide. The stigma of mental illness is so strong and so negative that some veterans would rather shoot themselves than seek psychological help. Every soldier is at risk.
Suicide can be triggered at any time by an emotional break-up, physical pain, financial problems, easy access to weapons, drug overdose, deadly adrenaline-inducing events, mental anguish or strong feelings of abandonment by those we trusted.
Is there an alternative to all of this anger and violence?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a practitioner of engaged Buddhism whom Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, says we can look inside ourselves to discover the seeds of anger and address them as one would comfort a wounded child. We can meditate, breathe deeply and live mindfully in the present moment. We can attend spiritual retreats with wounded combat veteran and Zen Buddhist monk Claude AnShin Thomas. What can these enlightened people teach us?
When we become still, remain quiet and really listen, we will learn that violence, including suicide, is never the answer.
Fred Tomasello Jr., of Cheektowaga, is the author of "Walking Wounded: Memoir of a Combat Veteran."