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Kevin Cullen

Crisis of veterans’ suicides is too often ignored

Army veteran Julio Bernal works with others from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to place 1,892 flags representing veteran and service members who have died by suicide.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Army veteran Julio Bernal works with others from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to place 1,892 flags representing veteran and service members who have died by suicide.

I’m guessing that you and I know far more than we ever needed to know about the moronic billionaire who, for the time being, still owns the Los Angeles Clippers.

Meanwhile, Benghazi’s back. As if it ever went away. With Hillary Clinton eyeing the White House, Republicans will be shouting “Benghazi!” the next two years.

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When the media and politicians get their teeth into something, it’s hard to break the grip.

So why won’t they sink their teeth into something more important than the controversy du jour?

The Veterans Administration says 22 veterans kill themselves every day.

Think about it. In March, not a single American service member was killed in action in Afghanistan or Iraq. But during that month, almost 700 veterans committed suicide.

The silence is deafening.

Dan Magoon, a Boston firefighter and Army vet who heads the Massachusetts Fallen Heroes Memorial Fund, has a theory. “It’s that 1 percent thing,” he said.

During a decade of war, 1 percent of Americans put themselves in harm’s way. The wars have been out of sight, out of mind, and so have those who fought them.

Many politicians are quick to send young people to war. They are less quick to help those who come back with the invisible wounds of war: traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.

God bless John Walsh. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and US senator from Montana, and he just filed a bill that would do combat on the scourge that is veteran suicide. If passed, it would extend eligibility in the VA system and repay college loans of psychiatrists who commit to working long term with vets.

Closer to home, the Massachusetts House just passed a budget that provides funding for On-Site Academy, a terrific place in central Massachusetts that treats vets and first responders, many of whom are vets. Presumably, the Senate will have the wisdom to keep its hands off On-Site’s funding.

“It’s a great program,” said state Representative Hank Naughton, a major in the US Army Reserve who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Naughton calls the incidence of veteran suicide, and lack of attention, scandalous.

“If we were losing 22 a day in Afghanistan, there would be a half-dozen congressional investigations, three division commanders would lose their jobs, and the American people would demand immediate action,” he said.

Jack Hammond, the retired Army brigadier general who runs Home Base, the Red Sox-
Massachusetts General Hospital partnership that treats vets and their families, says veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 are four times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian counterparts. Of the 8,500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard, six have committed suicide in the last 18 months, and those numbers might be worse if not for Home Base and some good state intervention programs.

“The public needs to know these stories,” Hammond said.

Magoon, Naughton, and Hammond believe most people would back measures to reduce suicide among veterans if they knew more about it.

For now, veterans and first responders are doing what they can to save a brother or sister on the job. Last year, Magoon and Mike Brown, a great Boston cop, literally snatched a police officer who was struggling with combat-related post-traumatic stress off the street.

“Get in the car,” Brown told his fellow officer and fellow Marine Corps vet. “We’re going away for the weekend.”

They took him out to On-Site, and it worked. That cop is doing much, much better.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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