22 Per Day: Veterans Suicide

Format: Open Speaker Talk
Date: 04.27.2022
©2021-2022 Bob Cristello

My name is Bob Cristello. On August 16, 2017, my son Anthony James Cristello took his own life at thirty-five.  I now speak and write about the effects of suicide on those left behind.

According to the World Health Organization, one human life ends every forty seconds due to suicide. In the country where I live, twenty-two US Military Veterans will take their own life today.  I am a US Army Veteran, though I am not a Combat Veteran.

VA 2012 Veterans Suicide Data Report 

The 22 Per Day statistic originally came from the Veteran’s Administration 2012 Suicide Data Report and was quickly used as a rallying point for politicians and activists.  It is one of the most argued about reports available, and both supporters and detractors can find merits or problems with it.  My concern is neither political nor activist concerning the military policies of my own or any other government.

Veteran’s suicide occurs at a rate of 50% higher than those with no military history.  The rate of suicide is, as the LA Times reported, “…slightly higher among veterans who never deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, suggesting that the causes extend beyond the trauma of war.”  I would postulate that reporting certainly skews any public conversation on the topic.

Economic Disparity

The actual issue is the options available for younger people to advance within society. We learn to accumulate wealth, provide for others, and serve our country in Western culture. We know to be beholden to flags, governments, and belief systems. We learn that we have enemies who would take our way of life.

The worldwide war brought global conflict to the forefront of the 20th century.  From a modern-day perspective, it seemed like the entire world was impoverished.  I was born in 1959. I grew up in a time when the Veterans of the last World War had achieved peace and prosperity. They did it together because everyone. had been in the war.  I matured during the Sixties and Seventies and watched my country send its poorest and least educated members to fight a war in a land called Vietnam.  I watched my country gun down students who protested against this idea at home.

When people who argue against the veracity of the VA 2012 Suicide Data Report use the argument that most of those people were over 60 and never served in Iran or Afghanistan, I feel sick to my stomach that the truth of their own words was never more apparent.  Since I was born, every military action of my government involved taking the least educated and most impoverished to fight that war. As a soldier, I felt my country saw this as a necessary form of population control in exchange for real estate, power, or practicality.

The fact is that $34K Is The Misery Line, according to Business Insider, where you are twice as likely to commit suicide as someone making $75k would be. The fact that I can qualify for Social Security at $33k a year in three years when I turn 65, my suicide potential increases by 50% simply by aging.

Post Traumatic Stress

I believe the whole world is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but my personal feelings are not necessary today.  My mission is to share my experience, strength, and hope.  To tell my story within the walls of locked units in the VA would only serve as a context in this process to talk about Jesse.

Each day when I would return from breakfast, Jesse would stand at attention and salute me.  If you have never seen a man salute at full attention while wearing a uniform set of pajamas, robe, and terrible footie socks with pads to grip the floor, it looks like a man in full uniform wearing all of his medals. Jesse went off a ramp in a plane over Vietnam performing a HALO jump. He collided with the fuselage in a severe malfunction yet completed his mission.  He was a United States Army Green Beret, and he had been living inside of this VA since I was probably ten years old.

If you have never seen an empty man’s eyes, they will change you.  Each day he would hand me papers that were scribbled on with crayons, depicting that final mission.  Pleadingly, he would look deep into my eyes to see if he had pleased me.  He called me Lieutenant quite sharply and with great respect.  I often wondered if he saw me wearing the same pajamas that he was and felt it was unimportant.  Today, when I write, I momentarily wonder if I am handing someone a work of crayon and hoping for approval.

I know of no way to convey to you how PTSD feels. You will either know or, at a minimum, possess the ability to empathize.  When young men and women choose to enter the military, they know the deal.  There is no way to get around that.  Each of us contemplated our deaths at some point in the military experience.  That could have been when you raised your hand and swore allegiance to an idea.  It could have been the day the military shaved your head, dressed you, and turned you into a maggot so they could rebuild you.

For some of our brothers and sisters, that moment came and passed, and we felt guilty because it was not us instead of them.

VA 2021 Veterans Suicide Prevention Report

The 2021 National Veterans Suicide Prevention Annual Report gave this summary:

“Given this background, this report includes the following updated information and data: 

  • There were 399 fewer Veteran suicides in 2019 than in 2018. 
  • There was a 7.2% overall decrease in the age- and sex-adjusted Veteran suicide mortality rate in 2019, as compared to 2018. 
  • The unadjusted suicide rate for male Veterans decreased 3.6% in 2019 from 2018 while the unadjusted suicide rate for female Veterans decreased 12.8% in 2019 from 2018. 

Decreases in Veteran suicide across multiple fronts and methods of measurement in 2019 were unprecedented across the last 20 years. “

When seeking information within the document concerning the average number of Veteran Suicide Deaths Per Day, I came across this section located on page 5:

“Suicide Average Per Day 

The average number of suicides per day among U.S. adults rose 55.0%, from 81.0 in 2001 to 125.6 in 2019. Across the same 18-year period, the average number of Veteran suicides per day rose 4.5%, from 16.4 in 2001 to 17.2 in 2019. In 2019, among the average 17.2 Veteran suicides per day, an estimated 6.8 suicides per day were among those with VHA encounters in 2018 or 2019, whereas 10.4 per day were among Veterans with no VHA encounter in 2018 or 2019.”

I believe the salient difference between these two statements from the same report does drive out that the VA did publically state at the end of 2021 that the number of Veterans is 17.2 Per Day.

I feel it is a positive move for the Veterans Administration to start looking into this issue deeper, intent on heading off possible suicide proactively.  I do, however, take the case with their inability to prepare troops for PTSD at the time of enlistment.  The current policy of allowing someone to elect to publically declare they have a mental health issue at the time of discharge, or if they are okay to return to society, is just not the best approach, in my personal opinion.

Help, Hope & Awareness

Organizations such as The Veterans Crisis Line are critical to support and help in their mission to aid Veterans in distress.  They are available via chat and text, and you can even call directly at 1-800-273-8255 and press the number 1.

I implore my military brothers and sisters to be open to the possibility that hope is there for you.  Each day, I meet with and speak to parents of young men and women who had taken their lives.  Military men and women long returned from places in Iraq or Afghanistan who had returned as healthy human beings by all measures.  Yet, for some reason, they chose to end their existence in this world and leave behind devastated human beings who could only ask the question, why?

The best possible way to help in any situation is to bring about awareness.  It is important to tell our stories to each other.  When we do that with each other, we find significant change can come into our lives if we allow it to.  Once this change is within us, we cannot help but reach out to others.  Once we accept this is our path, we enter into it willingly and without reservation.  We can share our experiences, strength, and hope with the world.

My name is Bob. Thank you for letting me share today.