19 November 2007

CBS and Vet's Suicide Rate

This past week, one of my classes had some free time at the end and one of my students asked a question. (I always encourage them to ask questions about anything when we have the time.) He said that on the news the previous night, the reporter said that “half of the guys coming back from Iraq are committing suicide.” I was more than a little taken aback. Recognizing that a large part of this statement was teenage hyperbole, I asked the class to do a little math-in-public with me (teaching across the curriculum, you know). Using a rounded number of 140,000 troops in Iraq, I asked all of the students if more than 70,000 Iraq war veteran suicides would be more of a news story. Given these numbers and this reasoned thinking, the students recognized that the story – with these exaggerated numbers – was clearly bogus.

Then this morning, I read of the New York Post site that the “news” report was actually aired. My student got the percentage all wrong, but the exaggeration of actual statistics was certainly there. Here is a quote from the CBS report, via the Post:

"One age group stood out," it said: "veterans age 20 through 24, those who have served during the War on Terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age."
The Post goes on to debunk the numbers, based on information from a variety of sources. And as any person who has been in the military can tell you (from his or her yearly suicide prevention training), incidences of suicide within the military community is generally lower than the civilian population.

But that’s not what CBS would have my students believe. Here’s the message that teenagers get from this “news” report: If you, young person, go to and make it back from the quagmire of Iraq alive, you just might decide that life is too horrible and off yourself. Better to stay home and see the world through our eyes. It is much safer and you won’t be bothered to think for yourself.

I think all of us, and most importantly our young people, deserve accurate information to consider rationally and thoughtfully, not the sensationalist, emotive tripe that CBS has in this case delivered.


Chan said...

Here is another example of many in the media trying to turn this war into another Vietnam. I remember also recently seeing stories on how many homeless are actually "veterans." Of course, there was no disclosure how they actually knew the homeless polled were once veterans, but the facts be damned.

Bob M. said...

Chan...good to hear from you out in the wilderness.

In a related story, the AP says desertion rates are up substantially (http://www.americanthinker.com/2007/11/military_desertion_rates_and_t.html)

Who needs perspective if perspective does not serve a predetermined purpose? Who needs facts when we can emote?

kmb said...

"If you, young person, go to and make it back from the quagmire of Iraq alive, you just might decide that life is too horrible and off yourself. Better to stay home and see the world through our eyes. It is much safer and you won’t be bothered to think for yourself."

That's actually not the message I got at all. Rather I thought it was an interesting look at the inadequate mental health assistance returning soldiers are getting or have access to. (And let's not play dumb about the piss poor medical system provided by the miliatry, or about the machismo so prevalent that it makes it hard for soldiers to getthe mental health they need.)

I don't think it takes anything more than common sense to understand that being in Iraq, no matter your position, no matter your duties, no matter your placement, is going to take a psychological toll. I would say the toll might even be greater on the reservists who were originally essentially weekend-warrior-pumpkin-smugglers (if you will), and who are now on their third and fourth tours. But regardless, it's folly to think that being in a war zone, no matter WHAT your level of training, doesn't affect someone's mental health. To deny it is simple posturing. I would say that some soldiers are luckier than others, and are able to first acknowledge that they need help, and then have access to it, and have it actually work. I think there are a million scenarios, though, wherein the returning soldier is overhwelmed and expected to slip right back in to being the part of the family she or he was before they left. And also to get over the combat experience and get on with life. AND face more deployments. And, frankly, as many of us know *quite* well, that is much easier said than done.

I guess what I'm saying is that shining a light on this issue is not alarmist. It's necessary. We as a country are supposed to support our soldiers without question, even if we do not support the war. However, part of the support for the soldiers needs to be treating them as human beings worthy of respect and care, and not just holding them to some fighting-machine standard wherein they need nothing, need no one, carry the world on their backs without assistance or complaint. Soldiers need to understand that it's okay, and even necessary to get the metal help they need and *not* feel they have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. It seems clear that when people adopt this attitude, they suffer and their families suffer. For a non-military example, look at my own family: after the Murrah bombing, our family fell apart because of reasons you well know relating this very issue of not getting the help needed to process an unbelieveable event.

I think discussing the issue of soldier suicide in the media is an integral part of the process of getting more and better help for the people who have given so much of their own lives already for our country. I think it is crucial to get soldiers help, and to hold the bigger military machine accountable for taking better care of its people. The incidents at Walter Reed are an excellent example of the military giving vets the shaft, when in reality they should be getting the best care this country has to offer.

And on a final note; I was suprised to see what seemed like a bit of a knee-jerk defensiveness from you on this issue. I think it's safe to say that going to war changes people, no matter what the circumstance, no matter if they're in hand-to-hand combat or flying high above. Examining such a crucial issue as the mental health of returning soldiers seems like something we should all be committed to. The truth is, we DON'T want another post-Vietnam scenario, with vets begging on street corners and screwed up on drugs because they couldn't cope with their war experience or the subsequent difficult reintegrating into society.

Anyway, as you can see, I'm extremely passionate about this issue. Thanks for giving me a forum in which to sort my thoughts.

And thanks again for your own service.

Bob M. said...

KMB - I appreciate your comment. My focus was more on the language and exaggeration propogated by CBS and the effect of such on younger viewers. As Chan states in his comment, and with regard to the AP "desertion" story, numbers regarding veterans tend to be twisted to prove a predetermined point.

In my opinion, CBS and other news sources would better serve Americans by reporting what is actually going on in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and using accurate language to report with. However, cooking up stories based on dubious numbers and a handful of example cases is far easier.