The Veteran Spring: Why a Growing Number of Veterans are Committing Public Suicide

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“I came for help and they just threw me out like a stray dog in the rain,” Army veteran John Tombs said in a gut-wrenching statement he recorded of himself in November of 2016, presumably just moments before taking his own life inside an empty Veterans Affairs building at the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Murfreesboro.

Tombs’ story is alarmingly common, and sadly, seems to be falling on deaf ears.

A Disturbing Trend

Frustrated with the state of care from the VA, a growing number of veterans are taking their lives at VA installations across the country, often in plain view of the very administrators they feel have failed them. In 2016 there were several such instances.

In March, Charles Richard Ingram III walked from his home in Egg Arbor, New Jersey, to the Northfield Outpatient VA Clinic. After walking some nine miles, the 51-year-old Navy Veteran of the First Gulf War stopped short of the clinic, covered himself in gasoline, and set himself ablaze. Ingram died hours later after being airlifted to a burn clinic in Philadelphia.

In August, 76-year-old veteran Peter Kaisen shot himself to death in his car in the parking lot of the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Long Island, only minutes after reportedly being denied care at the facility.

More recently in September, a 72-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War committed suicide in the grass outside the emergency room at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

Unfortunately, these examples are from 2016 alone, and represent only a portion of suicides at VA facilities over the last several years.

A notable example was the death of veteran Thomas Murphy in May 2015. After not receiving the care he needed, Murphy took his life in the parking lot of a VA office building in Phoenix, Arizona. Shortly before killing himself, Murphy wrote, “Thanks for nothing VA.”

Protesting the VA’s dismal care after the incident, Brandon Coleman, a fellow veteran and friend of Murphy’s, told local media, "I think he's a martyr for what he did… I believe it was a symbolic act and that he did it because he would want us to talk about it.”

Sadly, the trend of veterans taking their lives hasn’t abated in 2017. An elderly Veteran reportedly took his own life in the parking lot of a Phoenix area VA outpatient clinic on February 1st of this year.

Last Acts of Defiance

We’ve seen prolific instances of public suicides throughout history, usually committed by people encountering grave injustices, their decision to kill themselves in the public eye driven by a desire to heighten public awareness and affect change.

During the Vietnam War, Buddhist monks doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves afire in public squares to protest America’s military actions in the country. The horrific images of these bald-headed monks, peacefully sitting cross-legged on the ground while they burned alive shocked the international community to its core, intensifying pressure on the US to end the war.

More recently in 2011, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze to protest the corruption of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government. Like many under Ben Ali’s rule, Bouazizi had struggled to meet ends under repressive taxation and corruption by local officials. Following an incident with a local police officer who brazenly stole fruit from his stand, Bouazizi had had enough.

The next day, calmly weaving his way through a busy thoroughfare, Bouazizi approached the local municipal building. Stopping short of the building’s gate, Bouazizi took a canister of paint thinner from his bag, unscrewed the lid, and arched the reservoir over his head, dousing himself in the clear liquid. He then lit himself on fire. Bouazizi would die days later in the hospital, but not before his actions sent shockwaves throughout the region, kicking off the Arab Spring.

A Stunning Silence

Considering these examples, the recent string of public veteran suicides in the U.S. is not a unique phenomenon. While some stories of these public veteran suicides are being drowned out by the 24-hour news cycle, submerged under the weight of more spectacular news stories, the greater problem is the public apathy toward the public suicides of our veterans occurring at VA facilities.

What would cause a revolution in one country, barely gets noticed here in the United States.

By comparing Bouazaizi’s and the Buddhist monk suicides in Vietnam to veteran suicides, this article by no means argues veteran suicides should incite protests, rioting, or a civil war here at home. Instead, the comparison seeks to find a common link to explain what is driving our veterans to kill themselves in public, for it is only through a greater understanding that we can combat it. If anything, this article seeks to generate a national conversation and meaningful action to provide immediate and effective care for our veterans.

To that end, while Bouazaizi, the Buddhist monks, and our veterans killed themselves in the name of different causes, their underlying logic for doing so was the same. Each was protesting perceived grave injustices, and each had lost hope that any lesser action would make a difference.

For the monks, their suffered injustice wereas unjustifiable American military actions in Vietnam and the perceived futility of standing up against the world’s greatest super power. Bouazizi’s injustice was extortion by the very people who were supposed to protect his livelihood and a complete loss of confidence in the system.

In the case of veterans like Peter Kaisen, the 76-year-old veteran who killed himself after being turned away from mental treatment at a New York state veteran’s hospital, their injustice is being shunned from the very system they fought to defend. Disillusioned, they have taken their lives in public as a final act of protest in the hope that someone, anyone, would listen and improve the system so that their brothers and sisters might receive better care.

Under the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa, rife with human rights abuses and corruption, it’s easier to understand why someone like Bouazaizi would see public suicide as their only option for inciting change. Unfortunately, veterans like Peter Kaisen felt the same way here at home.

It shouldn’t take a veteran shooting themselves to death alone in a VA parking lot to mobilize our government to action.

We, as a nation, need to do more. And we can start by listening.