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Local View: Veterans need more than 'thanks;' we need your help

From the column: "We can take action this Veterans Day by doing three things: facing the truth, creating community connections, and giving veterans access to their own stories."

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Dave Granlund/Cagle Cartoons
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This Friday our country will celebrate Veterans Day. For many veterans, it's a day of silence instead of celebration because the reality of what many veterans experience doesn’t fit or match the narrative America creates in blockbuster films or on military-recruitment billboards. The disconnect between what civilians think military service entails and what many veterans experience is a mile long. That’s because to tell the truth is uncomfortable for both soldiers and those who support them.

Truth be told, “thank you” isn’t what will interrupt the rising veteran suicide rate or provide help for those struggling alone with mental health.

But I do believe we can help. We can take action this Veterans Day by doing three things: facing the truth, creating community connections, and giving veterans access to their own stories.

One suggestion is to support veterans by donating a Waging Peace book club-in-a-bag that offers a story of healing after combat and how to find your place in a community after coming home from war. Each donation puts a story told by a veteran about the hard-to-talk-about experience of going to war and wrestling with coming home onto bookshelves and local and rural libraries.

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Contributed photo

I believe disconnection and despair are killing us. If we don’t know the current story veterans are living through, we can’t change it.

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As an Army veteran here are four truths I wish others to know:

One, suicide rates are at an all-time high, even though combat is decreasing as our forever wars have ended. In 2021, research found that 30,177 active-duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have died by suicide — compared to the 7,057 servicemembers killed in combat in those same 20 years. That is, military suicide rates are four times higher than deaths that occurred during military operations.

Two, military sexual trauma — rape, assault, or harrasment — is experienced by 55% of female veterans and 38% of men in the military. There are more male veterans than female veterans. So, even though military sexual trauma is more common in women veterans, over half of all veterans with military sexual trauma are men. It is a major contributor to PTSD.

Three, two-thirds of veterans who committed suicide were not connected to Veterans Affairs. This is not by accident. If the military is where you were harmed, it’s probably not the place you will go for help or healing. Our communities are where we can reach veterans. We need to go to them and meet them where they are at.

And four, rural states carry the highest burden of military service. Alaska, Montana, Virginia, Wyoming, and Maine have the highest percentage of veterans serving per population. Rural living can be isolating, especially if you’ve experienced something that makes you different from those in your community.

If reading these statistics is uncomfortable, can you imagine how uncomfortable it is for veterans living them or trying to talk about them?

Simply put, more than being thanked this Veterans Day, I want more veterans to stay alive this year. I want to interrupt the rising suicide rates and launch a preemptive strike at the isolation and despair that is following veterans home, especially to rural areas. I refuse to allow one more unspoken hard story to leave a veteran feeling disconnected from their community or alone. And I believe we can do it.

I believe a Waging Peace Bookclub-in-A-Bag can give veterans a story they can relate to that creates healing and hope by centering their hard-to-talk-about experiences. Connection is the antidote to despair. Help veterans connect to those in their community by giving them a book that starts the conversation they are aching to have and that brings others into what it’s like to go to war, to come back home, and to wrestle with how to figure out what you think and who you are.

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Books teach us how to relate to others and help us reckon with our own story by putting words to an uncommon or painful experience. They start conversations and build unlikely connections and relationships through the shared experience of reading together. And they help us imagine who we want to be and what a world of peace could look like.

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a leading voice on trauma, tells us, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single-most-important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

Let's create more safe connections. Representation matters. Reading a story that is relatable instead of a Hollywood blockbuster creates shared connection while supporting veteran-authors as they center the rarely talked-about and uncommon experience veterans live through.

Books are an opportunity for a veteran to build a bridge to safe connections with people in their home community. It’s throwing out a life raft for a veteran who needs to hear their own story but doesn’t have the words to tell it.

Just a book to some, but maybe it might just save a life.

Diana Oestreich of Duluth is a veteran who spent 397 days in the Iraq War as a combat medic. She also is a peacemaker, a member of Veterans for Peace, the author of “Waging Peace: One Soldier's Journey of Putting Love First,” and the founder of The Waging Peace Project (dianaoestreich.com/waging-peace-project), which empowers everyday people to commit small acts of courage.

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Diana Oestreich

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