With 22 veterans taking their life every day, suicide has caused more American casualties than both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined
On a day like any other in America, former Navy Master at Arms Daniel Faddis, 28, put a Sig Sauer 9 millimeter pistol to his head and shot himself.
Faddis took his own life on June 20, 2012 -- adding his name to the somber roll call of 22 U.S. military veterans who die by suicide every day, more than double the civilian rate. Since that day, some 27,258 of those we honor for their service on this Veterans Day have died by their own hand.
One of the most tragic problems afflicting those who served their country is the specter of suicide, often the fallout of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After more than a year of intense lobbying by veterans groups, Congress this year passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for a Marine veteran who took his own life even after working as an advocate for suicide prevention. The law is designed to reduce military and veteran suicides, and improve access to quality mental health care.
But veterans experts estimate that 17 of the 22 daily suicides involve vets not enrolled in the VA's health care system, suggesting more research -- and far greater funding -- will be necessary to get a handle on the problem.
Faddis and his fiancee were scheduled to be married in Fremont in a month when he shot himself in their Newark apartment. The gun had not been aimed directly at his temple, giving his mother some small hope that her only son didn't actually intend to kill himself. But Faddis was an NRA safety instructor, one of many jobs he had dabbled in since leaving the Navy.
"He taught people you don't point your gun at anything you're not going to shoot," says his father, Stan Faddis, who was a Santa Clara County probation officer for 27 years. He moved the family to Turlock after retiring in 2011, and Daniel -- who was still struggling to find himself after the Navy forced him out in 2006 for being overweight -- lived with his parents while shuffling through jobs as an armored car driver, a bounty hunter, and finally, security guard at a department store in the Stanford Shopping Center.
With U.S. combat operations winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the suicide rate among ex-military members has risen from 18 a day in 2010, although studies undertaken by the Department of Veterans Affairs have failed to pinpoint a direct cause. Only about a third of all vets use the VA for health care, which leaves a wide swath of people who once wore the uniform outside the reach of the military's data gathering.
"Common sense would have us expect a correlation between number of deployments and combat with suicide risk," says Fred MacRae, lead suicide prevention coordinator at the VA hospital in Palo Alto. But recent research suggests that's not necessarily the case.
Not even the horrors of battle are a proven cause. "More and more," says Jackie Maffucci, research director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), "the data are suggesting that exposure to combat is not one of the high-risk factors."
Daniel Faddis never experienced combat. He served in the military police, frequently standing guard at the gate outside a naval installation in Bahrain. "When 9/11 came, he wanted to serve his country and right all the wrongs of the world," says Stan Faddis. But while he was in the Persian Gulf, he developed a drinking problem that he never overcame.
His parents believe it was the alcohol that was responsible for Daniel's weight, which had ballooned to nearly 300 pounds at the time of his death. That, and misdemeanor arrests for driving drunk and carrying a loaded weapon, dashed his hopes of continuing his military work as a civilian. "I think it finally dawned on him he wasn't ever going to be a cop," says his dad, "and it was the worst letdown in the world to him."
Almost everyone who has served in the military now knows someone -- often several someones -- who suffers from disabling depression. Some end their own lives. Members of the IAVA were asked in a survey last year if they knew at least one post-9/11 veteran who had attempted suicide, and 47 percent answered yes. Another 40 percent knew at least one veteran who had died by suicide.
"And 31 percent indicated they had thought about taking their own life since joining the military," says Maffucci. "Those are startling numbers."
Daniel Faddis told another veteran in his family that he felt he had let down his military buddies when he was booted out. "He carried around a lot of guilt about that," Stan Faddis says. "Some guys he knew ended up dying in combat, and he felt bad he wasn't there to save them, or to die with them."
The current wait time for a mental health appointment at the VA in Palo Alto is about 12 days, and in a recent national study by the Government Accountability Office it averaged 26 days. Still, that's considerably shorter than when the country went on a wartime footing following 9/11. "In 2001, your chances of dying by suicide were greater if you got your care in the VA system than if you got it elsewhere," MacRae acknowledges.
The new federal legislation is creating a program to help the VA recruit psychiatrists by assisting with their tuition payments, and it also requires an annual evaluation of VA mental health and suicide-prevention programs.
Faddis told his parents in 2012 that he called the VA seeking help, and was told he could not be seen for a year or more. "For him to finally say he was going to get help," says Linda Faddis, "and then be turned down, he was shocked by that." MacRae doesn't know whether Daniel called, or merely told his family that he did, but says that not even in the VA's bad old days three years ago would anyone with a mental health problem be kept waiting a year. "One would assume there was a misunderstanding," he says.