Some troops are driven to suicide by hunger, experts say

Congress is considering additional aid to help the lowest-paid troops

California national guardsmen sort food at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley in San Jose, Calif., in March 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California national guardsmen sort food at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley in San Jose, Calif., in March 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Posted November 11, 2021 at 6:00am

One of the biggest problems among U.S. troops and veterans, rising suicides, is made worse by another growing scourge in the ranks: hunger. 

That was the conclusion experts delivered to a House Agriculture subcommittee in a hearing Wednesday on the eve of Veterans Day.

“Veterans dealing with very low food security have an almost four-fold increase in odds of suicidal ideation,” Nipa Kamdar, a health sciences specialist, told the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations.

Likewise, Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, testified that hungry troops and veterans are more likely to take their own lives. 

“Responding to food insecurity is a critical action we can take to address the crisis of increasing rates of military suicide,” Hubbard testified. 

The Biden administration, too, acknowledged earlier this month that hunger in the services and among veterans is a contributing factor in the rising rates of suicide in those communities. 

“Reducing the likelihood that an individual will experience a suicidal crisis requires addressing the factors — such as increased financial strain, lack of housing, food insecurity, unemployment, and legal issues — that may contribute to or increase risk for suicide,” the White House said in a Nov. 2 statement articulating the administration’s approach to the military suicide problem.

However, President Joe Biden has expressed reservations about supporting a provision in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act that would ensure U.S. troops stay above the poverty line, as opposed to a less generous approach contained in the Senate’s companion bill.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the House version would help 2,500 more military families than the Senate's bill, at a cost of $14 million, versus the $1 million Senate plan.

The $13 million difference at issue would comprise less than 0.002 percent of the nearly $779 billion defense budget endorsed by both Armed Services committees for fiscal 2022.

Rising hunger, soaring suicide

Food insecurity is a term used to describe a spectrum of nutrition shortfalls caused by a lack of income. Those who qualify as food insecure have recently not eaten enough, not eaten a balanced meal or — at the extreme end of the scale — gone hungry. 

The problem of hunger was evident in the military before the coronavirus hit, especially among junior enlisted personnel with children. But, by all accounts, the economic fallout from the pandemic has made the nutrition problem worse for troops and veterans. 

A 2019 survey by the Military Family Advisory Network found that 1 in 8 members of the military and veterans communities had recently experienced food insecurity. 

Among active-duty enlisted personnel, 14 percent reported some degree of food insecurity in a 2020 survey, Denise Hollywood of the Blue Star Families research and support group said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Recent suicides among servicemembers and veterans are high and rising.

Active-duty military suicide rates have increased almost every year since detailed Defense Department record-keeping began in 2008 — from 16.9 per 100,000 servicemembers then to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020.

All told, more than 30,000 active-duty troops and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have taken their own lives since 9/11, or about four times as many as have been killed in combat, Brown University researchers reported earlier this year.

‘Basic needs allowance’

The House’s NDAA would set up a so-called basic needs allowance for lower-income troops. It would increase their incomes as much as necessary to ensure they remain at least at 130 percent of the poverty line. 

The Senate has a similar provision.

The House bill, however, is more generous because it states that servicemembers’ basic allowance for housing, which can amount to thousands of dollars per year, must be excluded from the tally of income used to qualify for the allowance, while the Senate measure is silent on that matter. 

The White House, in a Sept. 21 statement of administration policy on the House bill, said Biden supports the allowance but “needs a more comprehensive data analysis” before deciding whether or how much to factor in the housing funds.

According to CBO, the House bill would help 3,000 families with an average of $400 a month. By comparison, the Senate bill would help just 500 families with an average of $200 a month.

Eating squirrels

Connecticut Democrat Jahana Hayes, the chair of the Agriculture subcommittee that held Wednesday’s hearing, said it is unacceptable that anyone, particularly servicemembers and veterans, should have to worry about feeding their families.

In her opening statement, Hayes said 22,000 households that participate in the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, include military members. 

“No person should ever go hungry in America,” Hayes said. “However, it is especially galling to see those who have dedicated their lives to serving our nation struggle to put food on the table.”

The subcommittee hearing cast the debate in dramatic human terms with the testimony of Navy veteran Tim Keefe, who said he was unable to properly feed himself for months after he injured his wrist at work. 

Because of federal and state government rules, he was either ineligible for aid programs or, when he did receive aid, he was unable to obtain it for long.

As a result, he was forced to live in a tent, forage or hitchhike to and from pantries for food. Keefe told the Maine legislature in 2017 that he was forced to hunt and eat squirrels.

“When I swore into the Navy in Boston, I was ready and willing to give my life for this country,” Keefe told the subcommittee, “and it seemed like during this time I couldn't even get a sandwich from them.”