US Army's Tweet Asking Soldiers How Service Has Impacted Them Prompts Harrowing Stories

Tweet after tweet, respondents detailed their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, life-long health issues, difficulties with the Veterans Administration and suicide

Ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, the U.S. Army's Twitter account asked current and former soldiers how serving in the military has impacted their lives.

The tweet was accompanied with a video of Pfc. Nathan Spencer, a scout with the Army's First Infantry Division, who shared how the Army has allowed him to serve something greater than himself, "to give to others, to protect the ones I love and to better myself as a man and warrior."

The post attracted thousands of responses, with a number of replies mirroring Spencer's comments on the pride of service. But many more painted a harrowing picture of the toll America's wars have taken on service members and their families.

In tweet after tweet, respondents detailed their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, life-long health issues, difficulties with the Department of Veterans Affairs and suicide. Some of the respondents also appeared to be family members or friends sharing what they witnessed loved ones endure after service.

"I am a Navy vet, I was a happy person before I served, now I am broke apart, cant even work a full 30 days due to anxiety and depression, i have Fibromyalgia and nobody understands because I am a guy. I am in constant pain everyday. And I think about killing myself daily," one Twitter user wrote.

Not all the replies were related to the toll of combat. Some used the public platform to talk about sexual assault and the plight of gays in the military.

"Sexual harassment every day. Experiencing sexual assault. Protecting others from sexual assault. Sleeping w/ a knife @ night & holding my body against a door as a drunk male banged on our barracks door. A fear that never leaves me. That is how serving has impacted me," wrote Twitter user Hannah Funderburk, who worked at the U.S. Marine Corps, according to her Facebook bio.

While NBC could not independently confirm details of the more than 11,000 stories shared, the Twitter thread shed light on the broader issue of the need to care for veterans, better address mental health and the epidemic of veteran suicide. 

The Army responded to the thread in a series of tweets, thanking people for sharing their personal stories and directing those in need of help to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or to visit veteranscrisisline.net. 

"Your stories are real, they matter, and they may help others in similar situations," the Army said in a series of follow-up tweets. "The Army is committed to the health, safety and well-being of our Soldiers. As we honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice this weekend by remembering their service, we are also mindful of the fact that we have to take care of those who came back home with scars we can’t see."

There are 18.2 million veterans in the United States, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reported that 11% to 20% of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans, 30% of Vietnam veterans and 12% of Gulf War veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

And it's not just from combat. According to the VA, the experience of military sexual assault can also cause PTSD. Among veterans who use VA health care, 23% of women reported being sexually assaulted in the military. 

A survey released by the Pentagon earlier this month found that the problem is vastly larger and that only a third of those who were sexually assaulted in the military filed a formal report, The Associated Press reported. The Pentagon releases a report every year on the number of sexual assaults reported by troops. But because sexual assault is a highly underreported crime, the department sends out an anonymous survey every two years to get a clearer picture of the problem.

Suicide also impacts veterans at disproportionate rates. According to a report by the VA, veterans are 1.5 times more likely than non-veterans to die by suicide. The report found that between 2005 and 2016, more than 6,000 veterans died by a suicide a year. 

"Suicide remains a top clinical priority," said Peter O’Rourke, then-acting VA secretary, of the report's findings. "One life lost to suicide is one too many. Suicide is a serious public health concern in the Veteran population and across all communities nationwide. These data offer important insights to help VA to build effective networks of support, communication and care that reach Veterans where they live and thrive."

Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

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