Twelve years after al-Qaida terrorists drew the United States into war, the military casualties are still mounting on the battlefront in Afghanistan. As tragically, they also continue on the homefront – including a record 352 suicides among active-duty troops last year.
That heartbreaking tally exceeded not only the 301 such suicides the year before but also the 295 Americans who died in combat in Afghanistan in 2012. At least another 157 active-duty and mobilized National Guard and reserve troops have taken their own lives this year.
For each family, the loss is a private shock and sorrow. One such Iowa family shares its grief and story in “Dillion,” a documentary directed by Wichita filmmaker Tom Zwemke, a former Cessna Aircraft employee and Vietnam veteran, that will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on KPTS, Channel 8 in Wichita.
After serving U.S. Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dillion Naslund was slated for a third deployment this year. He had been drinking too much and struggling to sleep when, at 25, he ended his life last December. “He was fighting the demons, and those demons took over,” his father, Jeff Naslund, says in the film, in which his mother, Lisa Naslund, urges those in pain to get help.
Collectively, the suicides are a public shame for a nation that has worn its patriotism so proudly since Sept. 11, 2001, yet failed to get so many of these warriors the treatment they need to handle post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, depression, addiction and other challenges.
A further puzzlement is why so many of those who’ve taken their own lives – more than half the active-duty suicide victims between 2008 and 2011 – had never served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some wonder if many of those who joined the military after 2001 had pre-existing conditions that made them vulnerable to suicide.
A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association raised questions by indicating that the spike in active-duty and veteran suicides has as much, if not more, to do with mental illness, substance abuse, and financial and relationship troubles as with combat and foreign deployments.
In those respects, they are not dissimilar from the suicides in the rest of the population, something that deserves more attention during this Suicide Prevention Awareness month.
“No one who serves this country in uniform should ever feel they have nowhere to turn,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a recent statement, describing seeking treatment as a “choice that embodies moral courage, honor and integrity” and urging service members who need assistance to call the Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255.
As we somberly recall those who lost their lives in the attacks a dozen years ago, and the deaths in combat and other terror acts since, we should also be mindful of the life-changing and long-lasting emotional toll of military service. May all those who need help seek and find it.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman