The Dark Side of PTSD

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Cape Charles resident Joe Vaccaro submitted this commentary with the request that it be published on Veterans Day. It is his latest article in observance of American Legion Post 56’s “Year of the Veteran.”)

American Legion Post 56

November 11, 2013

There are over 830,000 veterans residing in Virginia, and that number includes some 700,000 men and 130,000 women. Within those numbers are over 669,000 wartime veterans who have served their country in time of need. The Eastern Shore of Virginia lays claim to over 5,000 of those men and women living among us; also living among them is the dark potential of suicide.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans take their own lives every day. That data is from 1999 through 2011 and only contains information from 21 states, with large states such as California, Texas, and Illinois not reporting any information. Throughout the years combat veterans have been returning home seemingly unscathed by the battles they have fought, yet the suicide rate for our recently returning veterans continues to climb. The troops, especially the career minded, view any cry for help as a career blemish that could tarnish a record of valor and hard work, and halt an upward climb through the ranks.  The attempt to gather facts to combat this national tragedy is too skewed to be of any solid value.

Part of the problem is that there’s no uniform reporting system regarding these deaths. So it’s up to a coroner or funeral director to enter a veteran status or note a suicide on a death certificate. This makes it extremely difficult to determine a veteran’s status unless the person is known to them, which begs the next question of how do they collect that data on homeless veterans?


As an official stated: “Birth and death certificates are only as good as the information that is entered.” However, there are also families who might pressure officials not to list “suicide” as the cause of death for fear of stigma. The VA itself has acknowledged “significant limitations” in its data collection, noting that “the ability of death certificates to fully capture female veterans was particularly low,” and “younger or unmarried veterans and those with lower levels of education were also more likely to be missed on the death certificate.” Veterans make up approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population, yet they are nearly 1 in every 5 suicides in America.

According to current VA studies, more than 69 percent of veteran suicides are committed by persons 50 years and older. While there are a number of theories and speculative arguments why these deaths occur, no one yet has come up with a accepted answer, least of all the family members of these veterans.

One recent study by the American Medical Association surprisingly revealed that the military members most likely prone to suicide were in fact those troops with fewer cumulative deployment days and in the combat specialist occupation. The AMA suggested that “the rise in suicides amongst the active duty troops is the result of indirect cumulative occupational stresses over years of war.”  The AMA further noted that “despite universal access to health care services, mandatory suicide prevention training, and other preventative efforts, suicide has still become one of the leading causes of death in the US military in recent years.”

The American Legion has several programs in place to help the active duty, reserve, and retired veteran that includes the Legion Riders, Homeless Veterans Program, Honoring Veterans Program, National Emergency Fund, and Operation Comfort Warrior. All of these programs seek to raise awareness and monies to support our troops and retired veterans.

However, programs alone are not the answer — identifying some of the possible signs might be a more useful way to help these veterans. The signs include but are not limited to: a previous suicide attempt or self-destructive behavior; a significant financial, medical, or work-related problem; current or pending disciplinary or legal action; substance abuse; problems with a major life transition (e.g., retirement, discharge, divorce, etc.); loss of a close friend or family member; setbacks in military career or personal life; severe, prolonged stress that seems unmanageable; sense of powerlessness, helplessness or hopelessness; behavior that isolates a person from friends and family members; changes in sleep or appetite; and decrease in personal hygiene.

Throughout the years Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been known by many names. During the Civil War it was known as “soldier’s heart,” and “shell shock” during WW I, but the common denominator is the physical and psychological effects it has on the veteran. PTSD can take years to surface, and when it does the people around their family member or friend should be aware of the preceding signs.

When the band stops playing and the marching, military duties, and formalities of service are done, that’s the time when that service member needs family and friends the most. As warrior poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “I walk the secret way with anger in my brain, O music through my clay, When will you sound again?”

Help us to protect our veterans as they have helped to protect our country. Please support Post 56 in this Year of the Veteran.



The Dark Side of PTSD”

  1. Wayne Creed on November 12th, 2013 12:38 pm

    Thanks, Joe. Also, as you noted earlier, PTSD can show up in other places; although there is not a good way to track the homeless, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 62,619 veterans are homeless on any given night. Even more, approximately twice that many experience homelessness during the year — nearly 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans.