As of this month, over 5,700 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. That count does not include those veterans who commit suicide or die from war-related issues after returning home from military service. Well, a new investigation into California veterans and active service members reveals that three times as many veterans are dying soon after returning home than those being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. According to the report published in the Bay Citizen and the New York Times, more than 1,000 California veterans under 35 died between 2005 and 2008. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: As of this month, over 5,700 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that number does not include those veterans who commit suicide soon after returning home from military service. Well, a new investigation into California veterans and active service members reveals three times as many veterans are dying soon after returning home than those being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. According to the report published in the Bay Citizen and the New York Times, more than a thousand California vets under thirty-five died between 2005 and 2008. That figure is three times higher than the number of California service members who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts over the same period.
Journalist and author Aaron Glantz conducted the investigation. His article on the findings is published in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s called "After Service, Veteran Deaths Surge." He’s a reporter for the Bay Citizen and the author of three books, most recently The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans. Aaron Glantz joins me now from San Francisco.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Aaron. This is really startling figures. Lay it out, how you found these numbers out.
AARON GLANTZ: Well, first of all, Amy, thank you for having me. And it’s important to mention that the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Pentagon, they don’t count how many people die after they come home. This is something, as somebody who reported in Iraq, as somebody who’s been covering veterans’ issues since I got back in 2005, that has always disturbed me.
So, since the federal government won’t count the number of people who die after coming home from the war, I went through four years of coroners’ reports in the state of California with the help of people in Sacramento at the Department of Public Health. We found that over a thousand veterans under thirty-five died over this four-year period, 2005 to 2008. And that is three times, as you mentioned, the number of service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over that same period. We have over 215 suicides. We have elevated rates of veterans dying in motorcycle accidents, in automobile accidents, of, quote-unquote, "accidental poisoning." Overall, the numbers are extremely depressing, and they show that the government itself should be counting this information.
AMY GOODMAN: And why aren’t they?
AARON GLANTZ: Well, you know, you could say that, as Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense says in my story, there’s a "don’t look, don’t find" attitude. If they don’t begin to look into these causes of death, then they can stay beneath the headlines, out of the newspaper, and unaddressed by our federal government. And, you know, Amy, one of the reasons that I started looking into this is when I wrote my book, The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans, I tried to find out how many Vietnam veterans had committed suicide after coming home from Vietnam. And people would always say to me, "We believe that there are more Vietnam veterans who have committed suicide than there are names on the Memorial wall in Washington, DC, but we don’t know. Nobody has counted. Nobody has published their names." And so, you know, this report today, I hope, is a start in getting those names out there, in getting their names counted.
The Santos family of Daly City, just south of San Francisco, who is the main character in my story, Reuben Paul Santos, who served in Iraq in 2003 and took his own life about a year ago today, when he died, there was no color guard of service members of Army in dress uniform coming to their house helping them grieve. There was just a sheriff’s deputy who showed up to their house from San Mateo County, and there was a call on the phone letting them know that their son had passed. They had to pay for his funeral. They eventually only got $2,000 in help from the VA, after they fought. You know, these are secret, these are silent, and it’s not appropriate for the service that these young men and women have done for this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who Reuben Paul Santos was, Aaron Glantz?
AARON GLANTZ: Reuben Paul Santos was one of the over a thousand — actually, he died in 2009, so he’s not part of the 1,038 that are in this story from 2005 to 2008. He is yet another who will be counted when the 2009 data is released. A young man from Daly City who left high school early with a GED to go join the US Army before the September 11th attacks, he was known for his quick wit, his love of funny T-shirts. People said that he had a tremendous spark. But when he came home from a tour in Iraq in 2003, he slowly lost that spark. He buried himself in video games. He went years before he was able to get treatment from the VA. And when he finally did, it was too late.
I would encourage your listeners and viewers to go to the Bay Citizen website, where we have a slide show up of Mr. Santos with photos provided by his family and also photos taken by our staff photographer, along with some of the incredible poetry he wrote while he was enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he chronicles the difficulties that he had fighting with post-traumatic stress disorder after he returned from the war. They spoke to me as somebody who’s been through the war, and I think they’ll speak to you, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about Alex Lowenstein, Aaron?
AARON GLANTZ: Alex Lowenstein died September 24th of this year, less than a month ago, in Berkeley. He served in the California Army National Guard in Iraq. He ran convoys in the northern part of the country. He came from Mill Valley in Marin County, the son of, you know, very educated parents. Nobody really knows why he died. He was found dead at 3:00 in the morning by the Berkeley police in his fraternity room. He had been drinking and smoking pot that night. The gun that killed him was his own, and police initially ruled it a suicide, but now they are considering that it was accidental. He was an avid backpacker. He had just gone on a hike along the John Muir Trail with his parents over the summer. He had climbed Denali. He was planning on going to Burma to do medical work after he graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree of peace and conflict studies in the spring. But he has passed now.
AMY GOODMAN: And he is one of two University of California, Berkeley students, is that right?
AARON GLANTZ: That’s right. I mean, his death came two years after the death of Elijah Warren, another California Army National Guardsman who had served multiple tours in Iraq and also Afghanistan, in his case. Elijah grew up in Alaska, and he joined the military at sixteen — he dropped — sorry, he ran away from home at sixteen, his sister told me, to get out of a bad family situation, and he joined the military to get off the street. At the time that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Oakland, he was poised to graduate with a degree in peace and conflict studies — sorry, he was poised to graduate with a degree in political science from UC Berkeley.
Both in the case of Alex Lowenstein and Elijah Warren, his friends told me that they were completely shocked, that there were no signs of outward symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or any kind of grappling with war. But, you know, when I talked to veterans’ counselors at colleges and experts in PTSD, one of the things they say is it’s — one of the things the military teaches you is how to hold it in, how to not show that you’re suffering. And so, that’s why we have these cases, like Elijah Warren, like Alex Lowenstein, where the death is sudden and even more tragic. And I think that if the government were to count these cases, if it was more public, the amount of suffering that’s taking place in this country, that people wouldn’t feel so ashamed. They would be more comfortable coming forward and seeking help. And that’s another reason that I decided to publish these numbers.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you think they would relate to national numbers? You say a thousand California vets under thirty-five died between 2005 and 2008, the figure three times higher than the number of California service members who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AARON GLANTZ: There’s no reason to think that the numbers from any other state would be any different than California’s. So if we were to extrapolate that out, we’d be talking about over 15,000 veterans who have died after they’ve come home.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Aaron, I want to thank you for being with us. Powerful pieces you did in the Bay Citizen and the New York Times yesterday. Quoting his girlfriend, quoting Reuben Paul Santos’s girlfriend, she said he would "wake up in the middle of the night hollering." And in some of his writings describing the video that he — the video games that he would play, he described the games as a way of "holding onto denial that is burning cancer into hope." Aaron Glantz, thank you for joining us from San Francisco. His latest book is called The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans.