Data about military veterans who commit suicide is stark: 22 veterans a day decide to end the lives. The nation’s two wars are also taking a toll on the families of those service members.
Telling the stories of those military spouses, parents, sisters and brothers and their struggles with depression, anxiety and suicide is the focus of a new CNN Digital project called “The Uncounted.”
Reporter Ashley Fantz told GPB’s Joshua Stewart about the year she spent collecting the stories.
JOSHUA STEWART: Why did you spend a year trying to tell these stories?
ASHLEY FANTZ: I had heard, Josh, for quite a few months from sources within the military family community that there were suicides happening, but I knew that the Department of Defense did not actually track their numbers. So I started out by asking military spouses first—and this is not just spouses, of course, as you pointed out, parents, siblings, children, they’re all suffering. They said that it wasn’t one particular thing that broke them but the cumulative trauma of 12 years of war has left them so wrung out and so desperate. And if you’ve got service members coming back home--there’s something close to 600,000 service members who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury—so these family members have also got the burden, both emotional and financial, of caring for injured service members who are suffering from these unseen ailments.
STEWART: I wanted to listen to just a little bit of Monica Velez from the project.
MONICA VELEZ: My brother, Cpl. Jose Velez, fought in Iraq, and then my brother, Spc. Andrew Velez, fought in Afghanistan. I still hadn’t even begun to comprehend Freddy’s death, he was killed in action. How could my brother take his life? I had lost my whole family, and all I could think about is it would be better off if I was just gone.
STEWART: That’s hard, that’s hard to hear, and I just wonder, how did you get Monica and these families to open up to you, to be willing to share that?
FANTZ: They hadn’t been asked before. It occurred to me very early on that they needed to talk, they needed the rest of America to understand or to try to understand what they’ve been through. As you know, the fighting force in America is much smaller than the civilian population, so there is this tremendous gulf between what our military communities have gone through and just simply what the rest of America understands.
STEWART: Are there not resources available that they could tap into to get help in these situations?
FANTZ: Two things that I found revelatory: The Department of Veterans Affairs generally does not treat family members. There are exceptions, but that is something that is generally true. On the Defense Department side, yes, there are programs and the Defense Department is committed to chipping away at this problem and they have the veterans crisis line. But for a multitude of reasons among each family member I spoke to, they said that they are just not connecting, they’re not getting the help that they feel is adequate. So there are programs, but the programs are not reaching everybody.
STEWART: Ashley Fantz is a CNN reporter. We have a link to her project “The Uncounted” at GPB.org. And you can see more about the project at the “On the Story” page on our site. Ashley, thanks so much for sharing this project with us.
FANTZ: Thank you so much.