The Unseen Wounds of Combat

 In Blog

“But, you seem so normal.” 

I cannot begin to track how often I hear this phrase from people when I talk to them about my military service.I know I am not alone in this. While I don’t think people mean this in a derogatory or judgemental way, it illustrates a few things. One of the more common or most prevalent of those things being, that people just don’t know what a veteran feels, lives, and experiences. 

That, is the rub. What is a “normal” veteran? What does he look like? How does she act? How should we “seem” to everyone else in society, and those that we interact with on a daily basis? At home or work, with family or friends, with complete strangers, or the public we encounter anywhere we go… What or how are we supposed to appear to everyone else? Broken, nervous, homeless, disheveled, unstable, dangerous, a certain nervous tick, violent, angry, anxious, stressed, sad, guilty, unpredictable…?  Maybe. Maybe all of those things. But, maybe not. 

The problem (and the blessing) is, one cannot possibly know what a veteran feels, or has experienced, without going through that same experience. Just like any other aspect of life, it is impossible. Especially for something lived and experienced at that elevated level. People are then left to create a movie in their head, and their own story or narrative. Or, to allow their own preconceptions or biases to paint that picture. Maybe even more accurately, to decide what a veteran should “be” based on the media or any other outside influence that creates that determination for them. To be perfectly fair, it is to be expected, I suppose. That aspect of human behavior is what is “normal.” Or at least, predictable.



As technology advances and battlefield medicine improves, we now successfully treat more injuries than ever before, reducing the number of fatalities. However, most of today’s post-war casualties are unseen. Physical trauma and death have decreased in our most recent conflicts, but the other casualties — mental and emotional — have increased. Countless veterans are living with internal traumas and the scars of war, and suffer in silence. When they return home they relive their own war, over and over, every day. We call this the “unseen wounds of combat.”

“Combat” is defined as a day in which warfighters do not know if they will live or die. In World War II, the average combatant saw approximately 40-60 days of combat. As bad as that war was, most troops only saw combat for a relatively small portion of the time they were deployed. In many cases, that time ranged from two to four years. During the Vietnam War — a war where people understand the casualty rate to be high — the average warfighter saw 180-240 days of combat during a one-year tour of duty. However, over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the average warfighter saw 300 days or more of combat, in just one year.

For perspective, there were 2.7 million Vietnam-era veterans, who were actually “boots on the ground.” Since 9/11, there are 3.7 million veterans who have served in our various operational theaters and conflicts. And many of those post 9/11 veterans deployed two, three, four, or more times. 

The mental and emotional turmoil from wartime service is real and affects every veteran, and their family and friends in some way. From challenges in managing the simple activities of daily living to the desperate extreme of taking one’s own life, the range of needs is extensive.



Anytime there is a common understanding (of anything), when something new comes along to show that we were off, it feels a bit surprising. When we find out that something is twice as big, or twice as bad as understood for a long time, it’s even more shocking. That is the reality of the statistic that illustrates the daily number of veteran suicides. 

For years, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and just about everyone else, have shared and understood the daily number of veterans suicides to be around 20 – 22 per day. Entire campaigns of awareness and fundraising on behalf of veteran organizations, have been built upon the number of 22 veteran suicides each day. The VA has published the most recent number of daily veteran suicides at around 17. Their data has hovered around that number for many years.

Many of us in the military community have felt for years that this number is low. That feeling has been quite difficult to validate. It’s anecdotal, at best. One of the main causes of this feeling has been incomplete, inaccurate, or changing data among government sources; the numbers often don’t match from source to source. Various VA and government sources can’t even agree on how many veterans there are in America. Is it a surprise that the real number of veteran suicides is also a nebulous data point? In a new, immersive study administered by America’s Warrior Partnership, The University of Alabama, and Duke University, Operation Deep Dive™ has recently shown that the number of daily veteran suicides is not 17 every day. It’s not 20 every day, and not 22 every day. The number is actually closer to twice that amount.

The average number of daily veteran suicides is 44 per day. America’s military is still taking combat casualties, every day. The unseen wounds are not healing.



One of the main reasons for this gigantic discrepancy is the fact that so many veteran suicides are not actually reported as veteran suicides – 29%, in fact. In addition, an entire category of suicides – Self-Injury Mortality (SIM) – are not reported or accounted for by the VA or VA data. SIM are suicide events like accidents, suicide by cop, self-harm, and especially, overdoses. 

When accounting for SIM, and accounting for other discrepancies in VA data, the actual number of veteran daily suicides is 2.4 times higher than VA reports. In addition, Duke University published that “research shows suicide rates are 52.3% higher among veterans than those who never served in the military.” While the VA says the number of veteran suicides are going down, it’s impossible to make that claim while missing at least half of the data. The statistic of 44 daily veteran suicides is shocking, heartbreaking, and unacceptable. There is much work to be done, many unseen casualties to treat.

These research partners are continuing to expand and refine this study, and collect as much accurate data as possible. This study also shows that states undercount veterans 18% of the time, and mis-identify non-veterans as veterans, 7% of the time. As Duke University researchers and epidemiologists continue to pour through military and death records, and continue refining the data, it will be interesting to see if this number continues to go up, or flattens out over time as a very accurate accounting of the situation. 




Identifying those physically wounded in combat is often easy. One can see those who have literally left a piece of themselves on the battlefield. Losing an arm or a leg is a physically and emotionally devastating event. Being severely burned or injured in a blast leaves visual scars that are haunting. With that in mind, those warfighters, and the rest of us, also leave other things on the battlefield. We all leave a part of ourselves, literally or figuratively. It is a strange and powerful thing, this notion, this event, that we return home with something missing. Even more strange, is that we bring other things home that we did not have before. 

All of us have these unseen wounds after serving in a warzone, to some degree or another. It is hard returning back to something so mundane, yet something so chaotic, and “normal” as day-to-day life. It’s easier living, yet harder to live, at the same time. It is a unique kind of stress. There is something honest and straightforward about combat and being in a warzone. Coming back home, going to work in a civilian capacity, going to college, and dealing with the nonsense of our comfortable western life, is much less so.

The challenge remains: what do we as veterans do with these unseen wounds of combat? What does the government do? And, what can society, our families, friends, and community neighbors do to help? The answer for veterans is simple, yet often painfully challenging: we have to do it ourselves. Keep fighting. Don’t quit. Never give up. Continue the Mission of Life

The mission of Charlie Mike is to heal those carrying the unseen wounds of combat. What will you do to help our veterans?


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