Chewed Up and Spit Out: What Happens to Veterans When They Retire?
22 million Americans have served in the armed forces. While the military is constantly glamorized in public life, the reality for many is that, once they are no longer of use, they are dumped like trash on a curb.
MPN– The phrase “military-industrial complex” is thrown around a lot. But the fact remains that the United States spends almost as much on war as the rest of the world combined. American troops are stationed in around 150 countries in around foreign 800 military bases; nobody seems to know the precise figure. Depending on the definition used, the United States has been at war for up to 227 of its 244-year history.
Endless war, of course, requires an endless torrent of warriors, sacrificing their liberty, safety and blood in the pursuit of empire. These soldiers are lauded as heroes, with constant parades and ceremonies across America to “honor” and “salute” servicemen. But once enlisted, for many, the profession does not seem so heroic. The brutality of the job – being sent around the world to kill – takes its toll. Only 17 percent of active duty members of the military stick around long enough to earn any pension whatsoever. And once they leave, often with terrible physical and emotional scars, they are frequently completely on their own to deal with it.
A consequence of permanent war is an ongoing epidemic in veterans’ suicides. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 6-7,000 American veterans kill themselves every year – a rate of almost one every hour. More soldiers die from their own hands than in combat. Since its inception in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered nearly 4.4 million calls on the topic.
To understand the phenomenon, MintPress spoke to David Swanson, Executive Director of World Beyond War.
“Veterans disproportionately suffer from physical injuries, including brain injuries, and moral injury, PTSD, and lack of career prospects. All of these factors contribute to homelessness in a heartless capitalist society. All of them contribute to despair and misery. And they especially lead to suicide when combined with another thing veterans disproportionately have: access to and familiarity with guns,” he said.
Suicide with a firearm is far more likely to succeed than other methods like poisoning or suffocation. Figures from the VA show that fewer than half of non-veteran suicides are with guns, but well over two-thirds of veterans use a firearm to take their own life.
“What the VA, and other studies and research has shown, is that there is a direct link between combat and suicide in veterans and that issues of guilt, regret, shame, etc. occur over and over again in these studies of veterans. Links certainly exist between traumatic brain injury, PTSD and other mental health issues in suicide in combat veterans, but the primary indicator of suicidality in war veterans seems to be moral injury, i.e. guilt, shame, and regret” said Matthew Hoh, a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2009, he resigned his position with the State Department in protest over the escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan. Hoh has been open about struggling with suicidal thoughts since leaving.
Killing does not come naturally to human beings. Even working in a slaughterhouse, where employees kill endless lines of animals, takes an extreme psychological toll, the job is linked to far higher rates of PTSD, domestic abuse and drug and alcohol issues. But no amount of military training can truly inoculate humans from the horror of killing other people. Data suggests the longer you spend in the military and the more time in war zones, the higher the likelihood that you will eventually take your own life. Like a virus, the longer you are exposed to battle, the more likely you are to succumb to the illness of depression, PTSD and suicide. There appears to be no sure cure, only prevention in the first place.
While male veterans are 50 percent more likely to take their own lives than men who have never served, female veterans are over five times more likely to commit suicide on average (the disparities between veterans and non-veterans used to be greater, but a steep rise in suicides across America has reduced the ratios). Hoh suggests a contributing factor could be the high rates of rape and sexual assault in the military. The figures are indeed startling: a Pentagon study found that 10 percent of active-duty women were raped, and a further 13 percent were subjected to other unwanted sexual contact. Those figures are consistent with a 2012 Defense Department survey that found nearly a quarter of servicewomen had been sexually assaulted at least once on the job.
The Walking Dead
The homeless vet has been a staple character in American life and society for over a century. Although the VA claim their numbers are decreasing, an estimated 37,085 veterans still experienced homelessness in January 2019, the last time the figure was counted. “I think the same issues that give rise to suicide in veterans also contribute to homelessness,” said Hoh, suggesting that many who thrive in a regimented, cohesive, team-driven environment like the military face huge problems to do with isolation and a lack of structure once demobilized. And having to deal with often-undiagnosed trauma alone can be devastating. Hoh was only diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and a neurological-cognitive disorder in 2016, many years after leaving the armed forces.
“The military glorifies alcohol use, which may lead to later substance abuse, and, despite its recruiting propaganda, does a poor job of providing many people who join the military with a skill or trade that can be utilized upon leaving the military,” he told MintPress. “People who are mechanics or vehicle drivers in the military find that when they leave the military their qualifications and training in the military do not transition into civilian certifications, licenses or qualifications. This can have an impact on finding or holding employment,” he said, accusing the armed forces of intentionally making it difficult for former soldiers to transition into civilian professions to aid retention.
Disabilities also contribute to a lack of employment opportunities, further adding to the risk of homelessness. Overall, Hoh says, the military does a great job of shaping and disciplining young people of all races, teaching them skills and responsibility. “But the end result of it all is to kill people.” For that reason, he recommends young people with a thirst to prove themselves and a passion for adventure join the fire department or perhaps become a rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard.
Where will the next American war take place? If you could bet on such things, Iran might be the favorite. At a recent anti-war rally in Los Angeles, former U.S. army veteran Mike Prysner warned the crowd about his experiences:
My generation went through the Iraq War. What did they teach us that you need to know now? That number one: They will lie. They will lie about why we need to go to war, just like they did then. They will lie to you. And guess what? When that war starts going bad for them, as it inevitably will, and a lot of us start dying, what are they going to do? They are going to keep lying and they are going to send more of you to die, because they don’t want to take responsibility. But they’re not getting their legs blown off or have any kids on the battlefield, so they don’t care.”
He also cautioned those listening to what awaited veterans like him when they returned:
When you come home wounded, injured, traumatized, what are they going to do, are they going to help you? No. They’re going to punish you, ridicule you, kick you to the curb. These politicians have shown they don’t care if you hang yourself in your closet when you get back. They don’t care if you go out to the woods and shoot yourself. They don’t care if you end up on the streets right here in Skid Row. They have proven they do not care about our lives and they have no right to dictate any control over our lives.”
On January 3, Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general and statesman Qassem Soleimani via drone strike. Iran responded by firing a number of ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq. Despite the Iraqi parliament passing a unanimous resolution demanding all American troops leave, backed by a demonstration of 2.5 million people in Baghdad, the U.S. announced it would send thousands of more troops to the region, building three new bases on the Iraq/Iran border. In the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic racking the Islamic Republic, Trump has announced new sanctions that further block Iran procuring life-saving medicines and medical supplies.
“The US, backed by the UK, Israel, Saudis and the other Gulf monarchies, will use any reason to launch attacks against Iran,” Hoh said. “The best thing the Iranians can do is wait for November. Don’t give Trump and the Republicans the war they can use to distract from COVID–19.” Swanson was equally condemnatory of his government’s actions. “The United States is behaving as the worst neighbor in the global neighborhood,” he said. “Perhaps the U.S. public, observing the Senatorial insider trading and presidential sociopathy, will gain some inkling into the true depths of the evil behind U.S. foreign policy.”
An enormous 22 million Americans have served in the armed forces. While the military is constantly glamorized in public life, the reality for many is that, once they are of no use to the military-industrial-complex, they are dumped like trash on a curb. With little support, once they leave, many, unable to deal with the realities of what they have had to endure, end up taking their own lives, chewed up and spat out by a relentless war machine, hungry for more blood, more war, and more profits.
Feature photo | Rain falls on statues at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, March 25, 2020. Patrick Semansky | AP
Alan MacLeod is a staff writer at Mint Press News and a contributor to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Canary, The Guardian and others. His latest book is “Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent”. A member of the Glasgow University Media Group, he completed his PhD there in 2017.