Health

Are we doing enough for our veterans?

Latest national horror should renew concern for veteran care

People gather for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill, held at the Fred Kavli Theater in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
People gather for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill, held at the Fred Kavli Theater in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Out of a belief many mass killers seek twisted infamy through their actions, my preference is to not mention them. Ian David Long, however, is an exception.

Long, who served as a Marine during one of the bloodiest periods of the Afghanistan War and this week took 12 lives at a neighborhood bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., needs to be discussed. We need clear answers as to how a once smiling member of the military became a black-clad, hooded killer.

Sam Tanner, who served with Long, said he wasn’t surprised someone he knew was involved in a mass shooting. “We had another guy recently (who) committed suicide by cops in Texas,” he told the New York Times. “Guys struggle. We’ve lost more Marines in our peer group to suicide than we ever lost in Afghanistan.”

As a corporal in the Marines from 2008 to 2013, Long earned numerous awards and commendations, including a Combat Action Ribbon and Marines Corps Good Conduct Medal. He handled heavy machine guns in direct combat, including a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011. His last service was in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii as part of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division. He was honorably discharged in 2013, and a divorce that began during his Afghanistan deployment was finalized just months later.

A statement from the U.S. Marine Corps released following the tragedy reads in part, “The Marine Corps extends its deepest condolences to the families of the victims in this senseless tragedy.”

An incident at the home where Long lived with his mother about a year ago prompted local law enforcement to bring in a mental health professional. Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean told reporters Thursday that Long was assessed, but couldn’t be involuntarily committed for psychiatric observation despite belief that he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his military service. California law, like most laws across the nation, requires health professionals to determine a person has a mental illness and poses an immediate danger to self or others before involuntary commitment can take place.

“Obviously, he had something going on in his head that would cause him to do something like this,” Dean said.

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“Something like this” was draping himself in black, arming himself with smoke grenades and a .45-caliber Glock 21 handgun with an illegal extended magazine, and shooting repeatedly and apparently randomly into a crowd of people gathered at the Borderline Bar and Grill for a college country music night. Twelve are dead, including first responder Sergeant Ron Helus, and dozens more were injured. At some point, it is believed Long turned his weapon on himself. He was 28.

It is important to note there is no direct link between mental illness and mass shootings. Most people with mental illnes never become violent. Only about 4 percent of violence nationally can be attributed to psychiatric illness, but we do know access to and comfort with firearms is a factor in America’s bloated homicide and suicide rates. And this combination of untreated illness and weapon access is proving deadly for veterans, especially younger ones.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released its most comprehensive study of veteran suicide. After adjusting for differences in age and sex, researchers found risk for suicide was 22 percent higher overall among veterans than nonveterans.

“These findings are deeply concerning,” said then-Secretary David Shulkin.

“This is a national public health issue that requires a concerted, national approach.”

In 2016, the most recent data available, nearly 70 percent of veteran suicides were completed with firearms. That same year less than 50 percent of all other suicides involved firearms.

Suicide rates for veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 increased substantially between 2015 and 2016, rising from 40.4 deaths per 100,000 population in 2015 to 45 per 100,000 in 2016.

That same year, 2016, Iowa saw 64 veterans take their own lives, placing the state’s rate at 30.2, just above the national veteran suicide rate of 30.1. In contrast, the overall suicide rate in Iowa is 18, and the national average is 17.5.

Bringing our young servicemen and women home safely is important. But it isn’t the end of our obligation to them, or to each other.

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• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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