There have been many stories about the vast majority of Americans being insulated from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that only a small percentage of Americans-the families of those fighting overseas-are shouldering the brunt of these wars. We predict that In the next couple of years this will all change as the war comes marching into US communities from coast to coast. How? If history is indeed the great predictor, then we will soon find that the nightmare of war will show up at our doorsteps, not in the form of Al Queda, but in us dealing with the demons of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who have spent multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CBS News dropped a bombshell last week when they reported on a 5 month investigation that found more veterans have killed themselves in one year than have been killed in battle in Iraq. 100 returning soldiers a week, 5,000 a year are committing suicide, that is more soldiers that have died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
Let that sink in.
All the car bombings, shootings and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan added up, have killed fewer Americans than have veterans that have killed themselves. Suicide is the most extreme form of collateral consequences from our war in Iraq, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
What is it like to be shot at during war and know that any day may be your last? How do you deal with the pain of having friends killed in your arms? What does killing other human beings do to your emotional stability? It's not hard to imagine how such experiences could lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome, which in turn often leads to self-medication, drug addiction, homelessness and even suicide.
Consider how many of us, the weight of our lives upon us, turn to and become dependant on cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol. Millions of Americans struggle with dependency on prescription drugs alone! And many of our issues may be pretty marginal when compared with those of people coming back after 15 months away from their families - people who have experienced the horrors and uncertainties of war and who may be emotionally or physically impaired. Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a story headlined "Surge Seen in Number of Homeless Veterans." The same day, the Los Angeles Times published a story about a new report by the Alliance to End Homelessness that says one of four homeless are veterans. And these aren't the only pieces of troubling news items we're hearing.
The stories of substance abuse are also coming in. The military publication "Stars and Stripes" has reported that alcohol and other drug-use problems are common throughout the forces in Iraq. "Some of the young soldiers just can't handle the stress and turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate," said military defense lawyer Capt. Chris Krafchek. The Army's surgeon general was quoted in an Associated Press story that a survey of troops returning from Iraq found that 30 percent had developed mental health problems three to four months after coming home.
What's going to happen to all of these people who are suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts? Many will end up using drugs, just as many civilians do. So on top of all their other problems, many of the vets will have to worry about getting caught with drugs, being arrested or ending up homeless. U.S. prisons are already filled with nonviolent drug offenders, many serving mandatory sentences of 15 years to life for the possession of small amounts of drugs. Service members incarcerated and separated from their families because of drug addictions resulting from their service in Iraq or Afghanistan will be tragic. Veterans ending up homeless is shameful. And suicides the most extreme collateral damage of these wars.
It's easy to buy a bumper sticker and demand that everybody "Support Our Troops." But if we're going to walk the talk, we better be ready to offer compassion and treatment - not just a jail cell, the street or a morgue when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters heal from the damages of war.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance. asha bandele is an author and journalist, and is a consultant with Drug Policy Alliance.