My friend Ian Isherwood, a specialist of World War I who is currently teaching history at Gettysburg College, sent me a link to this article from the New York Times Sunday Review. The article points out that on average, an American soldier dies every day and a half in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans, however, take their lives at a staggering rate of one every eighty minutes. Nearly 6,500 veteran suicides are reported each year.
We are only now beginning to appreciate the realities of suicide after the American Civil War. In tiny communities throughout the North in the immediate aftermath of Appomattox, veterans decided to escape the postwar once and for all. Col. W.A. Cameron, an ex-artillerist who was “at times deranged in consequence of a wound received while in the army,” succeeded in taking his own life in Cincinnati. A bad leg wound similarly depressed Horace Acker, the veteran of a New York regiment who took to wandering after the war and somehow made his way to Hillsdale, Michigan. One Sunday afternoon, Acker found a tree near the barn of one George Merritt and hanged himself with a rope. “His wound troubled him so much that he could not work, and being without means to live on, with no friends able to provide for him, he became low-spirited and despondent.” The inquest determined that this “no doubt caused him to take this rash step.” Chillingly, one Hoosier veteran who wrote an editorial about the incident suggested that there were few among a generally scornful and “suspicious” citizenry who would have done anything to save Acker’s life — hyperbole that nonetheless revealed his intense distrust of civilians and feelings of isolation.
In November 1865, Philadelphia police discovered the body of Herman Powell, writhing in mortal agony beside a recently discharged carbine, in the dank Walnut Street basement where the ex-cavalryman boarded. A neighbor reported that Powell was insolvent and “had no money to buy food.” The fifteen cents found in his pocket and a suicide note confirmed the neighbor’s report. Described as “insane,” one Massachusetts veteran placed his army discharge papers on his person as a surrogate suicide letter before ingesting a lethal dose of rat poison, while in New York City, a disturbed ex-soldier donned his blue uniform one last time and waited on the tracks of the Hudson River Railroad for an oncoming Poughkeepsie Express locomotive to crush his body.
The pain of readjustment that confronts the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has a long, tortured, and painful history. Wars do not simply end; they haunt, they vex, and they linger.