Why more Vets are Dying in America than those Overseas
Paul Egan had his wedding reception in the hall at the Andrew Square VFW Post 6536 in South Boston, MA, while he was on leave from war in Vietnam. He’s seen hundreds of functions held there, from christenings, to birthdays, and at one time Boy and Girl Scout meetings. Hidden behind the Andrew Square T stop in an unassuming tan building, the VFW actually reminded me of rest stops in Kuwait on our way into and out of the Middle East.
Paul has been Quartermaster at the Andrew Square VFW since 2007. One of 14 children, three of his eight brothers went to Vietnam in 1969. By 1972, all four of the Egans had returned – something virtually unheard of.
“I can’t reach them…”
He has dealt with numerous demons himself, but Mr. Egan’s number one concern is that he “can’t reach the new guys. The new vets don’t want to go get help.” He’s talking about the new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America organization has over 200,000 members, and the estimated actual numbers of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars hovers around 2 million. Who Mr. Egan is really talking about I think, though, are the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan here in South Boston.
While traditionally a social organization for veterans only, VFWs across the country are closing or facing tough choices. Posts can no longer make quorums so members can decide to provide scholarships to students, donations to the Boy Scouts, or provide for their sick members. “We can’t even make a decision because we can’t get enough people here to vote,” says Mr. Egan. Posts require that any non-member be invited or escorted by a member to enter a VFW, which is probably why Friday night was the first time I have visited a VFW in my adult life.
At the same time, several recent studies point to numbers that a veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan attempts suicide every 80 minutes. Put another way, for every soldier killed in combat, another 25 die by their own hands. That’s 6,500 per year. (Source: NYTimes; DailyMail UK).
Much like the vets of the Vietnam era, there are countless stories of new vets experiencing night haunts, guilt for being one of the few that survived, and the belief that they will never be forgiven. “Anything can be a trigger that takes them back.” Mr. Egan can’t go into flower shops or Chinese restaurants, and even today does not go to sleep until the early morning hours. “I don’t go to church because of the guilt,” he says.
But it’s really an extended sense of hopelessness that makes it seem futile for vets to continue living. According to Mr. Egan, it takes about five years before vets get the help they need to work through the effects of combat, some with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It will take another five or six after that before vets reach out their local VFWs.
Regardless of whether the sentiment of the American public is open or resistant to veterans, “they (veterans) just don’t wanna talk about it,” says Mr. Egan. Veterans can be very high-functioning and still in pain. Mr. Egan told me about a veteran who was “completely fine”, but then retired and started getting flashbacks of Vietnam. Work had kept his mind busy, but once he had no focus he started “going back [mentally to Vietnam].”
Lack of Mental Health Care an American Failure
With VA hospital wait times averaging 50 days after an appointment request, it is an American failure that we’re losing more veteran men and women here at home than overseas in combat.
It took counseling and talking openly about his experience that finally brought power back to Mr. Egan’s life. He showed me a touching video interview he did with his nephew a few years ago, and soon we were all in tears. But he says the VFW doesn’t require members to do any of that. At the VFW, “you’re sitting with men of honor. You don’t always have to talk about what happened, but the other veterans here know what your experience was.”
Our Call to Action
My goal with Scavenger in Southie is to provide an fun opportunity for South Boston residents to explore our neighborhood and raise money for Andrew Square VFW Post 6536. I also want to raise community awareness of the veterans who live here and the resources available to them. I believe it’s our turn to take responsibility and support the veterans in our community.
Please make a donation to the Andrew Square VFW Post 6536 today to transform what we from Southie provide for returning veterans.