The Greatest Generation: A Silent Struggle — with Suicide

Nov 17, 2010 by

The Greatest Generation:  A Silent Struggle — with Suicide

Aaron Glantz, the author of The War Comes Home is one of a handful of reporters uniformly worth reading when it comes to war and veterans issues. Lately Glantz has particularly been on a roll, with his new gig at The Bay Citizen, which produces the San Francisco/Bay Area content for the New York Times. Three stories in particular stand out, and they’re all California-related because that’s where the Bay Citizen is based — but if the same investigations were done in other states, the results might very well be similar.

Glantz’ investigations lean heavily on Freedom of Information data, since the VA apparently doesn’t keep all the statistics it could on the matter. The three stories of particular note:

  • After Service, Veterans’ Deaths Surge“: An in-depth investigation of deaths of California’s OIF/OEF vets after they get home, which shows they’re dying at three times the rate they’ve died in combat. From suicide, motor vehicle accidents, and the like.

The last two stories are somewhat linked, because the data by county shows a preponderance of older veterans taking their own lives, which we sometimes mistakenly believe does not happen.

The “Suicides Soar among World War II Vets, Records Show” story examines this problem in greater depth, and finally gives the lie to the suspicion or prejudice of so many that the so-called “Greatest Generation” managed to emerge from horrific combat somehow psychologically unscathed. We assume that, unfortunately, because they rarely share their internal struggles with others; but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have them.

Writes Glantz:

“In the popular mythology, they’re practically invincible, rarely complaining about the trauma of war. But an investigation by The Bay Citizen and New America Media shows there’s a massive amount of pain behind that taciturn exterior: In California, World War II-era veterans are killing themselves at a rate that’s nearly four times higher than that of people the same age with no military service.”

Wow.

Since there’s a fascinating “legacy” passed down from soldier dads to soldier sons — where the older generation’s reticence about truly talking about the war, and resulting emotional distance as fathers often creates a hunger in the younger generation to experience what dad can’t manage to talk about — I think about how today’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans often have Vietnam veterans as their dads and uncles. Those Vietnam veterans, in turn, often had World War II veterans as their distant, uncommunicative fathers. As one Vietnam veteran joked with me the other day, it wasn’t hard for him and his buddies to find liquor in their underage drinking days: every family’s home was outfitted with a wet bar, for the World War II veteran dads when they retreated to “their” bunkers.

Now we find that they weren’t just self-medicating with alcohol — no judgment implied, it’s understandable why — but also struggling, especially in their later years, with suicide. The only silver lining from this otherwise-tragic revelation about a generation of warriors universally admired is that it somehow puts all warriors from recent wars on the same level playing field when it comes to PTSD.

There is so much stigma still around the concept of psychological wounding from combat experience, and a reluctance of many to come forward and admit that they have a problem. Among older generations, there can be the sense that young service members are somehow “softer” than, say, the World War II veterans, who never are heard to complain. But as it turns out, the pain is still there, and it’s real, and it’s prevalent. It just expresses itself differently; but it’s the same cause, and it’s the same effect. If anything, as we’ve seen from documentaries like HBO’s “Wartorn,” the cost of combat is psychological injury to many that’s difficult to overcome, not that it can be easily avoided. One piece of progress is realizing that the veterans of every generation have this painful experience in common.

It effectively “normalizes” the experience of PTSD, across the generations: from “the Greatest” to “the Latest.” If you read the other articles in our World War II series, especially those about Eddie, the World War II POW and longtime PTSD sufferer, whose thoughts are chronicled in the “An American Veteran” series, you can see how difficult their lives were, after combat. May veterans of every era find the peace and healing they need, while they’re still alive — regardless of their age.

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