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Opinion The link between moral injury and veteran suicides

Ron Weinreich, left, a disabled veteran who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, comforts Gold Star mother Margie Miller at a 2016 event aimed at fighting veteran suicide, at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In his April 5 Thursday Opinion essay, “Why do so many veterans kill themselves?,” Thomas E. Ricks asked about veteran suicides. I work with veterans who have attempted suicide. One, a soldier, survived a bullet he shot into his heart; another, a Marine, tried to hang himself. They have different life histories and reasons for wanting to die, but the underlying cause is the same: moral injury.

Veterans who have killed in war, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs study, are two to three times more likely to kill themselves as other veterans. And cumulative traumas from early life experiences, multiple deployments and/or unrelenting stress can break anyone.

Their moral identities and meaning systems are shattered. Their shame, grief, guilt and alienation lead to self-isolation. Veterans can bury their pain with overwork or alcohol or drugs, but the moral injury will have its due at some point.

When people are discharged from service, they are simply let go, as if they could suddenly become civilians by changing clothes. We must do more for them. We need to require “Boot Camp Out” and train them with skills to flourish. If they can process what they have done and learn from it as the basis of a stronger, more resilient identity, I am convinced that they will want to live.

Rita Nakashima Brock, Alexandria

The writer is senior vice president for moral injury programs at Volunteers of America.