In 2007, the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to Afghanistan in what would become one of the most covered war stories in Operation Enduring Freedom. American journalist Sebastian Junger created two documentaries and wrote a bestseller. Author Jake Tapper also published a bestseller, The Outpost, from which a live-action film is currently being adapted. Anderson Cooper artfully created a feature for CNN that showed “the other war” as it really was.
“Sky Soldiers,” as we were called, appeared on magazine covers, won medals, and wrote manuscripts of our own. We were sought after to join units and platoons, or simply to share our stories with the public. People treated us as though we alone could cheat death. Despite this notoriety, by the end of 2015 our guys were committing suicide about every two weeks, and it seemed like each one made it easier for the next. Like exiting an aircraft in flight, they just committed to the door and followed the man in front of them. Paratroopers to the end.
The reasons behind their decisions weren’t wholly unique to veterans. Some faced legal or financial troubles, while others dealt with divorce. Addiction complicated matters, and chronic pain tinged perspectives about the value of life. Trauma affected decision-making processes. These are very real challenges, but none of them are exclusive to veterans. These are human challenges – shared by veterans and non-veterans alike.
What is unique to veterans is how we talk about the problem and the way we perceive the solution. Veterans employ distinct narratives about their comrades who choose to end their lives. A young vet didn’t shoot himself, he simply “lost his battle with PTSD” or “the war followed him home.” We rationalize it so that our brother or sister gets to die in battle and is entitled to a hero’s commemoration, as if the Valkyries will pluck their souls and carry them to the Halls of the Chosen Slain. They aren’t gone, they’re re-grouping at Fiddler’s Green—the fabled cantina where the honored dead belong.
“Suicide narratives saturate social media as more and more veteran profiles become digital tombstones where friends virtually gather and pay online respects.”
The unique online vernacular of veterans is the greatest weapon we can wage in the war against veteran suicide. The distinct ways veterans discuss suicide has inspired our own Veteran Suicide Prevention Program (VSPP). Our data analysis platforms learn the narratives, using natural language processing and artificial intelligence to analyze them across thousands of online conversations. Complemented with a population-centric methodology that uncovers identity, we use this information to identify the most at-risk groups of veterans, cross-referencing it with other social risk factors, such as branch of service, combat experience, geographic location, and demographic breakdown. Ultimately, this means we can make tailored interventions in particular veteran communities before individual suicide attempts occur.
VSPP understands how and what veterans communicate about suicide in order to make us the most critical part of the solution in the fight against it. Our voices become the engine for veteran suicide prevention efforts. As such, we are able to fulfill our obligation to care for former subordinates and platoon-mates. In doing so, we realize our sacred commitment to leave no one behind, because though our memories fade—that impulse never does. The VSPP enables the veteran community to get to the left of the heartbreak, the sadness, and the vigils – and to take pride in continuing to care for our own.
Matthew Snow is a former U.S. Army Paratrooper who served two tours in Afghanistan during his career from 2002 to 2012. Matt is currently a Social Risk Analyst at ENODO Global and the Project Lead for the Veteran Suicide Prevention Program. ENODO is currently seeking partners to launch a six-month pilot project to demonstrate the VSPP’s utility and provide an immediate reduction in the number of veteran suicides. For more information or to get involved, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.