One hundred and sixty thousand Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since returning from the war. Or so said one reputable veterans' publication. If true, that's nearly three times as many as died in the war itself.
I called the editor. "What was your source?"
His reporter found a mention of 150,000 suicides in a 1990 book, he explained to me, "and then added 10,000 to reflect the probable increase between 1990 and 1995."
"Great science there," I said. "But what would you say if I told you there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support 150,000, or even as many as 20,000 suicides?"
"Well in that case, I'd say you were full of . . . ."
At the time, I thought he and other veterans would be overjoyed to learn the suicide myth was untrue, and that they would share my relief at finding that we are not, after all, such a twisted, tormented and damaged group that 15 or so of us have taken our own lives every single day for the past 30 years.
Since then, I have learned that a substantial number of veterans want to believe the myth. Some veterans and veterans organizations have simply enshrined it as fact, institutionalizing the Vietnam veteran as victim, promoting the idea that after losing 58,000 men in the war we had lost that many again--or two or three times that many--who fell into such desperation after coming home that they killed themselves.
What became a protracted and stupefying journey into this fantasy world of wholesale veterans suicides began for me with the realization that what I was hearing and reading did not square with my experience.
I thought about the infantry unit I served with for 11 months: Delta Company, 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. About 45 men from that company were killed in action during its four and a half years in Vietnam. If as many vets killed themselves later as died during the war, then 45 of the company's approximately 800 veterans would have committed suicide--or 135, if suicides were three or more times the number of wartime deaths. But in fact, as far as the unit's association can determine, not a single one of those veterans has died by suicide.
Struck by the huge discrepancy between the supposed suicide statistics and my knowledge of the veterans community, I went to a local library and spent a few hours thumbing through bibliographies related to veterans' mortality. What I found then and in subsequent research left me reeling. The first surprise was that there already existed a substantial body of scientific literature on the subject. The second surprise was that none of it remotely supported the numbers I saw being published as fact.
What on earth brought this plague upon us?
The assertion of 58,000 suicides appears to have drawn its first breath in a 1980 manual titled "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders of the Vietnam Veteran." Published by the Disabled American Veterans, the manual was used widely throughout the Veterans Administration (VA). Its first edition (but none after) noted that "more Vietnam combat veterans have died since the war by their own hands than were actually killed in Vietnam."
That statement was credited to an unpublished paper written in April 1979 by one Tom Williams, who was also the editor of the manual. Curiously, his claim came a full eight years before the first comprehensive study of Vietnam veterans' mortality was published. Just where Williams divined his data remains a mystery. (I have made several attempts to find out, but he's never responded to my queries.)
From there the suicide story, with numbers ranging up to 200,000, spread to news reports, books, television documentaries and news magazines, and the World Wide Web.
Actual mortality studies tell a completely different story.
No one knows precisely how many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide. Nor does anyone know how many have died from all causes. We do have information, though, that points to what is possible and what is not.
Approximately 3.1 million Americans served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. On average, suicides have accounted for just over 1.1 percent of all U.S. male deaths during the last half of this century. According to research done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the 1980s, suicides were somewhat more elevated for Vietnam veterans than for non-veterans in the same age group during the veterans' first five years after discharge. After five years, though, the differences disappeared.
A projection based on the CDC findings shows suicides would represent a shade over 1.2 percent of veterans' deaths from 1967 to 1996. VA data indicate that total postwar deaths among Vietnam vets had reached roughly 305,000 by January 1996, so if the percentage suggested by the CDC data is correct, the number of suicides over those 30 years would have been about 3,750.
Over several months, I examined all the other relevant studies I could find. Different analyses led to different estimates of the actual number of suicides, but none came remotely close to the fantastic numbers so many have accepted as truth. The highest estimates I could find that were based in any way on actual mortality data were in the neighborhood of 20,000; the bulk of the evidence suggested total suicides were somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000.
I was excited by what I found and wanted to share it. It was very important to me that an assault on the myth should be launched in a veterans' publication, so, after distilling my research into a reasonably solid, if overly zealous monograph, I sent it off to a number of veterans' magazines.
Most seemed startled but enthusiastic, and my spirits rose. This is important stuff, I was told, and we'll do our best to get it published. But weeks stretched into months, months into a year, and one by one the submissions were returned with polite rejections.
Either what I'd written was very bad, or these publications had no spine for the potential storm the article might evoke from part of their constituency. Perhaps some hesitated for fear of endangering worthwhile veterans assistance programs--the apparent assumption being that the suicide myth was helpful in showing why those programs were needed and why funding agencies should keep supporting them. I didn't want to harm veterans programs, but I didn't think that risk should outweigh the benefit of honestly assessing our mental health.
But it can't just be bureaucratic reasons that explain why many veterans and their organizations are so unwilling to let go of the myth. I'm not sure I know all the reasons, but it is worth remembering that back in 1980 or so, when the suicide story first surfaced, Vietnam vets as a group were introverted and isolated from society, much more so than we are now. News reports and artistic portrayals of us were often negative. I don't think we thought much of ourselves back then, either. Losing was embarrassing. Abandoning the Vietnamese was embarrassing. Being rejected was painful. So we all just tried to blend into the woodwork and stay as invisible as possible.
Many of us knew veterans who were troubled--or were troubled ourselves--by drinking, drug use and divorce. And when we began to hear that more of us were killing ourselves than had died in the war, we may have subconsciously found the story plausible.
At another level, I know there are some veterans who want to believe the myth because it validates their view of themselves as victims of an inept and evil government. I have been accused of being part of a government conspiracy for suggesting that our suicide rate was not astronomical.
But the facts should not be dismissed so easily. I served in Vietnam with many honorable, very brave and decent men. I also served with some of the most despicable scumbags you could imagine. I have no illusions about who we were or what we did and do not wish to represent veterans as anything other than what we are and were. All I ask is that people tell the truth about us. And everything I have learned persuades me that the truth is what a buddy of mine, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, once said when we were chewing the fat about the suicide story. I didn't write down his exact words but this is close:
"They're trying to tell me that my buddies are killing themselves faster than Charlie could? Guys who fought tooth and nail to stay alive? Guys who would have sold their mothers to get out of 'Nam in one piece? They're trying to say we're coming home and standing in line to blow our brains out? What a crock!"
Michael Kelley earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star while serving as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1969-70 and was an associate member of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission from 1984 to 1991. He is an artist in Sacramento, Calif.