Citadel cadets learn veteran suicides outpace combat fatalities
In 2007, at the height of these now 10- and 12-year-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 1,000 Americans died in combat during a single year. Since 2001, more than 6,600 servicemen and women have died in those countries — nearly 100 of them from South Carolina.
But these numbers pale against those of veterans returning from war who kill themselves. According to a 2013 report published by the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the U.S. That’s more than 8,000 per year.
“We’re more dangerous to ourselves than the Taliban,” said Richard Brewer, a former Marine sergeant who spoke to a group of Citadel cadets and graduate students Tuesday night.
“We are going to lose an entire generation to suicide, not war — suicide,” he said.
Brewer stood in front of The Citadel group and admitted he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Four years ago, he tried to commit suicide by taking a Glock .40-caliber pistol to his head.
“As I’m telling this story, I taste the metal in my mouth,” he said. “I don’t think what I have to say is all that powerful, but no one is talking about it.”
Brewer shares his story with groups around the country as president of Battling B.A.R.E. One Warrior Won, an organization he launched to help returning veterans and law enforcement officers cope with PTSD.
“We’ve got to stop failing these young men and women,” he said.
PTSD is a mental health disorder “that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster,” according to The National Center for PTSD.
The Center estimates as many as 8 percent of the total population will experience an episode of PTSD at some point in their lives. The rate is much higher for veterans. The National Institute of Health reports that 31 percent of Vietnam veterans alone are afflicted with it.
Citadel Cadet Phillip Martin, 21, a junior studying criminal justice, said the statistics shocked him and changed his perception of PTSD.
“It was definitely an eye-opener,” Martin said after he heard Brewer’s presentation, hosted by The Citadel’s Criminal Justice Society. “(PTSD) is one of these things you turn your back to. I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal.”
Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the VA, said the recent study found the average age of veterans who commit suicide is nearly 60, suggesting many fought during the Vietnam War, although he said the VA did not specifically track where the veterans served.
The study averaged suicide data over a 12-year period from 21 states, not including South Carolina.
Ballesteros said South Carolina data is being processed and will be included in the next report, although he could not say when that report will be published.
The S.C. Office of Veterans’ Affairs said it does not track how many veterans in the state commit suicide.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.