Veteran death is shameful

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Statistics are just numbers on a page, something we read before shaking our heads and moving on to the next thing — until they strike close to home.

It has been a week since the frozen body of Army veteran Richard Miles was found in Water Works Park on the western side of Des Moines near Gray’s Lake. There was no apparent trauma. His clothing was not cut or ripped. He wore no coat or shoes, although a single shoe and jacket were discovered nearby.

The 41-year-old had served three tours in the Middle East, beginning in 2002. Friends, co-workers and family members believe he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was not receiving the level of care he needed.

According to a timeline of Miles’ final days provided by his friend, the veteran sought help from the VA Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines just days before he went missing. Miles was handed medication and sent home.

American flags were placed in the shape of an "I" on the Pentacrest lawn at the University of Iowa in honor of veterans with Iowa ties in 2013. The project was a collaborative effort by area high school students and UI students, faculty and staff.
American flags were placed in the shape of an “I” on the Pentacrest lawn at the University of Iowa in honor of veterans with Iowa ties in 2013. The project was a collaborative effort by area high school students and UI students, faculty and staff. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowans, including U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, are asking questions, and rightfully so.

“If there was a step missed, something not done appropriately, we need to identify that to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Ernst said.

But, statistically speaking, it has already happened again.

In February of last year the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told the nation that 22 veterans take their own lives each day. That’s a suicide every 65 minutes.

And while those figures might be shocking, they aren’t complete. Most who work with veterans or statistics believing the real numbers are even higher.

The VA says its statistics were based on their own data, reported by 21 states from 1999 to 2011. That data set represents about 40 percent of the country. Left out of the report because they do not make such data available were the nation’s two largest states — California and Texas — and the fifth largest — Illinois.

Since the nation has no uniform reporting standards, and much of what is reported is left to the discretion and knowledge of the official filling out the death certificate, the numbers can’t be accurate.

For instance, if a homeless person takes his own life and the coroner is unaware of veteran status, the information is likely not to be part of the report. Family members may not wish to endure the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide, and may pressure the official to list the death otherwise.

And, as Iowans know all too well from the Farm Crisis, some do their best to hide that their death is intentional, either by making the death look like an accident or seeking out dangerous situations, such as “suicides by cop.”

But whether the number is 22 veterans a day or 200, it’s too many. And if those deaths were being attributed to another health disorder — infection, for instance — the nation would be in an uproar, demanding action. But because the deaths are tied to mental illness, the statistics are worth little more than a shrug.

Unless we are willing to paint this veteran and the thousands of others who have taken their own lives as weak and expendable, we can’t sit idly by anymore. It’s time we stop merely thanking our vets and instead pledge to actually care for them.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on February 28, 2015. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette