By CAROLYN SZCZEPANSKI
In contrast to the parades, poetry readings and laying of wreaths commemorating Veterans Day around the metro, a small, somber group gathered yesterday in a dim lounge at Avila University to call attention to soldier suicide.
“The War Within: The Veteran Suicide Epidemic” included an exhibit that gave stark representation to the number of Missouri and Kansas residents who have taken their own lives after returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan. And a panel of experts and veterans gave voice to the hardships soldiers face in a military culture that often shuns mental illness as a sign of weakness.
“One cost of war that goes unrecognized is that vets who come home are changed,” said Ira Harritt, an organizer for the KC Iraq Task Force and American Friends Service Committee, as he introduced the exhibit.
According to numbers provided by the state departments of health, Harritt said, 34 Missouri and 14 Kansas veterans have died by their own hands after service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The night before Veterans Day, activists painted 48 pairs of combat books ghostly white, representing each life lost. Yesterday they set them out in orderly rows on a black tarp, like an army of the departed standing at attention.
“We’re here to remember and do what we can to prevent more troops committing suicide,” Harritt told a small gathering in the afternoon.
The exhibit outlined the growing risk of suicide in the military’s ranks. In September, the Department of Veteran Affairs released figures that showed 46 suicides per 100,000 male veterans ages 18-29 who used VA services in 2006 — more than double the rate for men of that age who are not veterans. That came just days after the Army announced there had been 62 confirmed and 31 suspected suicides within its active and reserve troops during the first eight months of 2008.
Mike Pruitt, an Army Infantry Sergeant who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and is now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said he saw firsthand how soldiers face harsh conditions but get little support to deal with the mental trauma. One man in his platoon, Pruitt told the crowd, was traumatized when, during one of his first missions, he watched a young Iraqi boy shot in the head while innocently peering out a window. Instead of helping their fellow soldier deal with his trauma, Pruitt said, their platoon teased and punched him and confined him to latrine duty.
Soldiers worry about how a diagnosis of mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, could affect their chance at promotion, Pruitt said. But more pressing is the fear of being ostracized. “I'm not proud of this, but there’s no such thing as PTSD,” he said of the mentality of in-theater military. “You’re a coward. You’re a wimp. Especially if you’re in the infantry.”
Mike Pruitt, far left; Ira Harritt, center
That’s why, Pruitt added, resources for returning soldiers are so important.
“We kind of live in a society of bumper stickers,” he said. “One of them is ‘Freedom isn’t free.’ Well, it’s also not free to take care of soldiers — actually care about them — when they come back.”
Harritt said "The War Within" isn't scheduled for any future exhibits right now. But as he started packing up the combat boots a man in an Iraq Veterans Against the War T-shirt approached him. He told Harritt he might be interested in using the imagery for an upcoming event.