Many factors contribute to the current unacceptably high rates of military suicide. I’ve written before about a recent policy brief by Dr. Margaret Harrell and Nancy Berglass of the Center for a New American Security, “Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide”, which identifies several causes and recommendations for this unfolding tragedy. Combat injuries, including such invisible wounds as PTSD and traumatic brain injury; mental health issues such as depression and anxiety; other symptoms of trauma such as sleep disturbances, substance abuse and addiction, and high-risk, adrenaline-fueling behaviors – all can play a role. Harrell and Berglass also observe that the relative absence of three protective factors – belongingness, usefulness, and an aversion to pain or death – are crucial predictors of a service member or veteran’s likelihood of succumbing to suicidal tendencies.
In a New York Times op-ed piece responding to Harrell and Berglass’ study, Peter D. Kramer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University, proposes another factor overlooked in the policy brief: relatively high unemployment rates among young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In “The Best Medicine Just Might Be a Job”, he cites an astronomical unemployment rate of 28 percent for male veterans 18 to 24 years old.
Kramer respects the “comprehensive” brief but expresses his concern about the omission of unemployment among the list of causes identified. While he characterizes himself as “hardly an expert”, he reveals that “study after study correlates unemployment with suicide”. “When soldiers leave the military,” he continues, “they lose what service provides: purpose, focus, achievement, responsibility and the factor the CNAS report calls ‘belongingness’. The workplace can be stressful, but especially for the mentally vulnerable, there is no substitute for what jobs offer in the way of structure, support and meaning.”
High unemployment rates among veterans have no one simple cause. In “As Wars End, Young Veterans Return to Scant Jobs”, Shaila Dewan of the New York Times (who cites unemployment rates for veterans aged 20 to 24 at 30 percent) lists several issues and challenges for both employers and potential veteran employees. Employers “fear the aftereffects of combat or losing reservists to another deployment”, and veteran job-seekers need to learn basic interview skills while often still “overwhelmed by the transition from combat to civilian life”.
Veterans can be characterized as mature for their age, disciplined, and possessing valuable skills transferable to the marketplace, Dewan emphasizes. But employers aren’t so sure military service training and experience really translate to civilian industry.
And the competition for jobs is high. Veterans often serve as reservists or in the National Guard and Dewan points out that this can impose a particularly heavy burden on companies. Employers of reservists potentially face losing their valuable staff to deployments of up to 12 months in length, while being required to guarantee a job on the reservist’s return. Even though it is illegal to discriminate in hiring based on military service and status, these requirements can make it nearly impossible for small companies to survive and compete in our difficult economy.
And, in my experience with veterans, both characterizations mentioned above are true. Former service men and women are more mature and disciplined. They are skilled, purpose-driven individuals with the kind of values I respect. But they can also be very troubled individuals, still reeling from their traumatic, combat-related, employment-complicating experiences. They are often in need of help to work through their lingering psychological invisible wounds.
I assist service members and veterans in this kind of healing. I hope to do even more when our non-profit, Sonoma Coast Trauma Treatment, begins accepting veterans into its planned comprehensive, case-managed treatment program, which will include providing job-readiness training and skills. Another promising development to address veteran unemployment is the creation of entrepreneurship programs specifically tailored for vets.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported on several of these programs in “Military Veterans Prepare for a New Role”, by reporter Sarah E. Needleman. Independent-minded veterans who want to start their own businesses, but lack business start-up know-how, are starting to have a resource in “business accelerators”. Accelerators are programs offering everything from cubicle space and peripherals like Internet and copy/fax services, to expert guidance with business plans, financing, and marketing.
I’m familiar with the business accelerator model. In my community, my good friend Dr. Michael Newell heads up Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, an excellent “incubator” program for emerging technology start-ups. Michael and his team of talented mentors, with the financial backing of local businesses, support aspiring men and women with innovative ideas by providing the best possible opportunity to transform their ideas into jobs and income through facilities, services, and training. The business school of Sonoma State University also gets involved, helping incubator members create high-quality business plans. A program of this sort would be an excellent resource for returning veterans in our community and I would love to see one get established.
I recognize the causes and solutions for veteran unemployment are complex. Nevertheless, I also believe, with Dr. Kramer, that veteran unemployment is a factor we need to consider in addressing our tragedy of military suicide. We must do a better job of providing employment-related “structure, support, and meaning” for returning vets. Meaningful work is essential in the process of restoring our service members and veterans, who have sacrificed so much for us, to health and wholeness, and to a place of value in their families and communities. We owe them nothing less.