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Veteran suicides: a wakeup call


Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Max Rose (Jesse Ward / Liz Lynch/for New York Daily News)

Earlier this month, Rep. Max Rose of Staten Island blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio for being “MIA” on the issue of veterans’ suicides, specifically for failing to join the “Mayor’s Challenge,” a federal effort designed to expand local suicide prevention efforts. Rose is a decorated Army vet who was wounded in combat in Afghanistan. The issue is clearly deeply personal for him.

As a veteran with two ground combat tours, I have spent my fair share of time in Department of Veteran Affairs medical centers. Without a doubt, the VA is populated with caring, dedicated individuals who have had a significant impact in improving the quality of life for millions of veterans across the country. I have experienced it first-hand.

But if there is one thing that 90% or more vets can agree on, it’s that the VA relies far too heavily on treating the maladies that afflict us with prescription medications. The VA is the world’s largest provider of opiates, benzodiazepines and SSRI’s, and many veterans, including me, have come to the conclusion that this may be a significant contributor to the astronomical suicide rate in our community.

That suicidal ideation is listed as a potential side effect on the label of many of the drugs prescribed by the VA is not a coincidence. And it’s very much worth noting in this context that opioids that were clinically tested and approved by another agency of the federal government, the FDA, currently kill nearly 50,000 Americans a year. This is more than a problem, I see it as a national security risk.

Two years ago, the VA published a seminal study on veteran suicide which determined that 20 veterans a day are taking their own lives. A veteran is 1.5 times more likely to take their own life than his or her non-veteran counterparts. For female veterans, they are 2.5 times more likely. This number excludes those who die by overdose.

But troubled as I am by these statistics and the failure of the VA’s efforts to date, I am convinced that this trend can not only be reversed, but that the veteran suicide rate can be lowered to be on level with that found in the civilian sector by taking a few simple actions that won’t cost the American taxpayer a dime, and I am convinced that at the same time, we can do something about the frightening spate of suicides among police officers in the NYPD.

Oaths exist for a reason. Throughout my lifetime I have taken a number of them. Nobody understands the meaning of an oath better than a soldier, veteran or first responder. An oath rendered to a colleague, especially one willing to sacrifice their life for you, is exponentially more powerful than one given to an ideal or organization.

For the past two years a small cadre of veterans from the military, FDNY and NYPD have been carrying that message to small veteran and first responder events across the country. The Spartan Sword was forged from steel that was part of the World Trade Center when it came down on 9/11. The sword was created to inspire veterans to take the “Spartan Pledge” — a promise made between veterans not to commit suicide that was created by Iraq War veteran, Boone Cutler. The Spartan Pledge is short, only two sentences, but it is packed with so much that resonates with those it is written for.

"I will not take my own life by my own hand until I talk to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family.”

VA psychologists will argue that pledges like this have gone out of favor and are ineffective. But there are not many psychologists who have gone into battle or charged into a blazing inferno to pull out a fallen firefighter or child. In my opinion, it is the second sentence, about finding a mission, that provides the most inspiration to veterans and first responders, wounded or retired, who may feel they are living a life without a mission.

Of the more than 5,000 Veterans and first responders who have taken the Spartan Pledge since the sword was forged, not a single one has been reported as having taken his or her own life.

Perhaps Rose and de Blasio, instead of squabbling, can put their personal differences aside and work together to assist these military, NYPD and FDNY veterans in what is unquestionably an effort that is making a real difference and producing real results.

Danyluk is a retired Marine.