When will the last WW2 veteran die?

Twenty US war veterans take their own lives every day

On Veterans Day, the United States celebrates its former army members as heroes again. What is hardly mentioned: 20 of them kill themselves every day.

It was Good Friday 2011. Petra Patterson was with a friend on a shopping tour in Waldorf, a small town in the American state of Maryland. The now 57-year-old was looking for a festive dress for the upcoming wedding of one of her sons. Then her cell phone rang. "You have to come home," said her husband, "immediately." His voice and the nature of his message were so strange and alarming that she immediately made her way back to rural Hughesville. Her husband was already waiting at the front door, crying: "Sean is dead."

Her second oldest son had killed himself with a poisonous plant in his apartment. He was 28 years old. Even as a child, Sean dreamed of a career in the US Army. "Don't do that, they're just using you there as cannon fodder," his mother implored him. But it didn't help.

Just one year after completing his basic training, Sean received orders to march to Afghanistan. What exactly he did and experienced there - his family still does not know to this day. “He never wanted to talk about it,” his mother recalls. "He only said once: 'Mama, we have to kill children there, and my comrades are dead." "

After a little over a year, Sean returned from the Hindu Kush seriously injured. For his physical wounds, he received the Purple Heart from the Pentagon, the highest military honor for war invalids. For his mental injuries he was given a pill cocktail at the local veterans clinic.

20 veterans a day, 7,300 a year

The suicide rate in the American population is rising steadily. With 43,000 victims last year it reached the highest level in three decades. In the American military, too, more active soldiers have died by their own hands since 2001 than in fighting at the front in Iraq and Afghanistan combined: one almost every day.

The suicide rate of war veterans moves in completely different dimensions: At the beginning of 2013, the Veterans Ministry estimated the number of victims based on death certificates from 21 American states at 22 per day. "We waited far too long to address the problem," said then Democratic MP and Iraq veteran John Walsh. "We can no longer accept this epidemic."

Almost one in five people in the Middle East suffered a brain injury. Almost as many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder

In July of last year, the veterans authority then doubled it with its first nationwide survey. Based on a study that examined over 55 million veterans files from 1979 to 2014, the office came to 20 suicides per day. Parts of the media in the USA, such as the “Huffington Post”, interpreted the new finding as a slight decline - a fatal error. For experts like the psychiatric epidemiologist Rajeev Ramchand of the Rand Corporation, exactly the opposite is happening: the suicide rate is increasing, only the number of veterans is decreasing. More and more ex-soldiers who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are dying. In addition, not every suicide is recognizable as a suicide, let alone on record. Family doctors and coroners have a certain amount of leeway in this regard, report survivors and representatives of veterans' associations. So the real number should be a lot higher.

The highest numbers among the boys

Since 2001, but especially since the Iraq invasion of March 20, 2003, suicides by former army personnel have increased by 32 percent. Particularly worrying: the number of victims among 18 to 29-year-old men has more than doubled. In women - many suffered sexual violence - it has skyrocketed 89 percent.

Many members of the military return badly damaged from their war missions: Almost every one in five in the Middle East suffered a brain injury. Almost as many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Almost 60 percent of returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan and 50 percent of all older war veterans suffer from chronic pain.

19-year-old John Lutz from Davie in central Florida survived his first assignment in Iraq largely unscathed, says his mother Janine. «He witnessed some atrocities there. But when he got home in 2007, he still had that same wonderful smile. He was the same person. " But when he returned home from Afghanistan three years later, she did not recognize her son. «His eyes were blank, he showed no emotion. I knew he had just come from hell. But I had no idea that he was still in this hell at home. "

After two suicide attempts, John Lutz died in 2013 of an overdose of tablets. On his forehead he wore “D. NO." painted, the abbreviation for "Do not reanimate".

John had suffered a traumatic brain injury. In addition, the doctors attested that he had severe post-traumatic stress disorders. There were times when he was given up to eighteen drugs at a time. After two suicide attempts on a military base in 2010, John Lutz died of a pill overdose on January 12, 2013 - at home in his former children's room. On his forehead he wore “D. NO." painted, the abbreviation for "Do not reanimate". “Mom, this is not your fault,” wrote the 24-year-old when he left, “nobody could have stopped me. I love you."

The majority are veterans over 50

The American media have been reporting more and more frequently about the suffering of young veterans in recent years. The suicides of older ex-soldiers, however, are hardly an issue. 50 to 85 year olds make up almost two thirds of all victims. Tom Berger, head of the health committee of Vietnam Veterans of America in Silver Spring, Maryland, explains the high rate with various factors: "Our lives are losing the structures we are used to, the children are being thrown out, we are retiring, our marriages sometimes fail - maybe also because of our drug and alcohol consumption. And so traumatic experiences of the war are catching up with us more easily now than in the past, ”believes the veteran, who was stationed as a medic in the US Navy in Vietnam for two years.

How Vietnam fighters were treated in their homeland could also play a role. In contrast to today, returnees fifty years ago were often met with rejection or even contempt. "Our generation literally had to fight for every kind of recognition," says Berger, "whether in the veterans authority, in our communities or in Congress." Most of them did not move to Vietnam voluntarily. Just recently, Republican senator and ex-Vietnam prisoner of war John McCain recalled that the United States "called in the poorest income groups at the time, while the wealthiest found a doctor who certified them to have a bone spur." With this remark, McCain aimed at President Trump, who had been spared the marching orders because his family doctor had certified that he had heel spurs.

But even those who fought in World War II and were welcomed as heroes in the United States cannot get rid of the demons of the past. "I may have forgotten what I had for lunch yesterday," says 94-year-old Norman Bussel from Mohegan Lake, New York, "but the events of seventy years ago are etched into my memory." Bussel was almost twenty years old when the German air defense shot down his B-17 bomber on April 29, 1944 over Berlin. Four of his comrades did not survive the hit.

When the young soldier hit a field, seriously injured, a couple of peasants who had rushed over to him fell on him and tried to hang him from a tree. A German soldier who happened to be passing by saved him from execution. In the months that followed, Bussel tried to survive in Nazi captivity - until GI freed him from General Patton's troops on April 29, 1945 in Moosburg, Bavaria.

When the 21-year-old was back in the USA, his numerous burns and shrapnel wounds were treated. But back then there was neither a name nor a therapy for what is known today as “battle fatigue”. And so Bussel also lost his courage to face life. “But only once,” admits the 94-year-old and says: It was on the 25th anniversary of his B-17 crash. The native of the South lived in Manhattan at the time and drank from morning to evening. That day he was about to throw himself off the Queensboro Bridge on 59th Street. His then wife dragged him down. “I still think about my four crew members every day. Guilt for surviving is my greatest stress factor. "

«Collateral damage» bereaved

“In the US military, the following applies: Be strong, persevere, show no weakness,” says Rebecca Morrison of Give An Hour, a network of around 7,000 volunteer experts from psychology and psychiatry across the country. Although a rethinking is underway, the opinion still prevails: "Whoever kills himself is a weakling." After a suicide, this stigma sticks to the bereaved. The families knew very well: “Your relatives were not sick before the war. They died as a result of it. "

Many bereaved relatives, says Morrison, are not only desperate over the loss of a loved one, but also traumatized because they discovered the dead person at home. In addition, there is a complex mourning process. "Grief, anger, fear, assignments of blame and feelings of guilt can sometimes change from minute to minute." And also the humiliating reactions of those around them would have to endure the mourners.

"Your son is in hell now," said Petra Patterson, who was mentioned at the beginning, had a friend tell her after the death of her son. Kim Ruocco heard the same sentence after her husband, an experienced military pilot, shot himself twelve years ago. Ruocco works for Taps, a non-profit organization serving the survivors of military personnel and veterans who have committed suicide. The database of the nationally active NGO currently contains around 6,000 names. And every day eight to ten new people looking for help get in touch. It is not uncommon for whole families to be involved.

Every day eight to ten new people seeking help report to the survivors of the Army and Veterans Organization. It is not uncommon for whole families to be involved.

Taps offers those affected a multi-level support program. This also includes suicide prevention. Because with relatives and close friends of suicide victims, the suicide risk is three to five times higher.

A year after John Lutz was divorced from a pill overdose, his younger brother Justin shot himself in an Orlando parking lot. He had discovered John dead in his bed then. "I was just halfway through with Johnny's death," his mother recalls tearfully. «I had set up a foundation in his name that wants to network and support veterans in our residential area. And then I lost Justin. He was my baby. "

The divorced woman fell. There were days when the successful owner of a building materials company in Miami didn't even brush her teeth. She stuffed and dumped everything: junk food, sweets, alcohol - she gained almost 30 kilos. On December 18th of last year she didn't want to go on living either. The fact that she did not finally implement her suicide plans was due to an inner impulse: With the last of her strength, she drove to a special clinic in Palm Beach. “Today I'm fine again,” says the attractive 56-year-old looking back. "I have found my purpose in life: I want to help reduce the suicide rate of war veterans."

Criticism of veterans authority

Both Janine Lutz and Petra Patterson are convinced that if their sons had received expert help, they would both be alive. "I'm a trained nurse," says Patterson, "and I know: You can't give people strong painkillers and psychotropic drugs indiscriminately - without expert monitoring."

For years the US Department of Veterans Affairs with its around 160 medical facilities has been criticized for scandals, cover-up maneuvers and massive pressure on whistleblowers. Just recently the "Boston Globe" revealed the precarious conditions in a veterans' clinic in Manchester, New Hampshire. An operating room there had to be closed because the exterminator was unable to cope with a plague of flies. A Boston neurosurgeon complained to the newspaper that various Manchester patients suffered unnecessary damage to their spine, including paralysis, because they were not properly treated.

In mid-October, Newsweek reported on the “previously little discussed role” played by the veterans authority in “fueling the opiate epidemic” that is “killing civilians and veterans alike” in the United States. For more than a decade, medical officers have “been ruthlessly and excessively prescribed painkillers and psychotropic drugs containing opium”, criticizes the US magazine. From mid-2012 this negligent practice turned to the other extreme: "Opioids for chronic pain have been drastically reduced." With this U-turn, according to Newsweek, the doctors would have put their patients in danger again. Because now many of the meanwhile addicts obtained their substance illegally, "in the form of counterfeit pills and heroin".

For more than a decade, medical officers had “been ruthlessly and excessively prescribing painkillers and psychotropic drugs containing opium”, criticized “Newsweek”. Then the negligent practice turned to the other extreme.

“No more 'games' in the Veterans Ministry!” Said President Trump this spring. He promised better protection for whistleblowers. However, as the Washington Post reported a few days ago, retaliatory measures against internal critics have not decreased but increased since Trump took office - despite promises to the contrary and a specially created reporting office.

The Second World War veteran Norman Bussel also knows about the problems, weaknesses and deficits of the administrative juggernaut. Nevertheless, a lot has changed for the better, says the 94-year-old: "35 or 40 years ago I wouldn't even have sent a dog to a veterans clinic." Of course, it depends on the hospital and the type of problem, says the mentally energetic man, who regularly lifts weights and trains on the treadmill. For a heart operation four years ago, however, he would rather be in the care of a New York specialist than that of a surgeon who happened to be on duty at the veterans' clinic in his neighborhood.

Nevertheless, Bussel can be found regularly at the Montrose, NY, Veterans Hospital - not just as a patient, but also as a volunteer. For fifteen years now, he and his second wife have been helping handicapped front-line returnees from Afghanistan and Iraq to fill out their applications for a disability pension. Bussel knows how important a detailed justification is. And he can put it into words because he is a publicist.

In the beginning, the young veterans are not very talkative. But when Bussel begins to talk about his own war experiences and traumas, his counterpart opens up gradually. "We have already helped hundreds!" Says the amiable old man happily. However, his willingness to help is not entirely unselfish: "Every time an application has been accepted, I look up and say to the four comrades who died when our B-17 bomber was shot down: This is for you guys."