Ranger Up Talks Suicide: Suicide Isn’t Painless
By Doc Bailey
A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
‘is it to be or not to be’
and I replied ‘oh why ask me?’
‘Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
-Jonny Mandel “Suicide is painless” (M*A*S*H theme song)
Suicides is perhaps the hardest issue facing Veterans. It’s hard to talk about, it’s hard to prevent, and it’s hard to accept.
Every single one of us grew up on “happily ever after” and if we’re honest with ourselves we assume that if anyone has earned the happy ending of stories it would be the Veterans who have gone through war. But life doesn’t work that way. We often see Veterans struggle after their service ends. We see them without the support systems that they once had while in uniform, and sadly, we sometimes see them fall prey to their own demons.
We want to think that they will go onto success and have long and happy lives—all the scars of the war they fought faded and healed over. We tend to believe in this myth partly because generations of Veterans in the past hid their pains from the world and largely did not speak of the horror that they experienced. Sadly, anyone who had actually been there could tell you that, unlike John Wayne movies, men do not simply clutch their gut and fall to the ground. They linger, and the sight of such a thing is enough to haunt all but the most calloused individuals.
We cannot ignore the fact that whatever else a Veteran might do after their service it always seems to pale in comparison to what they did while in uniform. In war or in peace the service member plays a defining role in history and could quite possibly shape world events by their individual actions. How can anything they do afterwards possibly compare to the feeling of changing the state of geopolitics? How can they be expected to transition from being responsible for the lives of their subordinates to a civilian world that is terrified of liability without feeling hollow inside? How can they sit in a college classroom with fellow students who are years younger, decades less mature, and listen to a professor ramble on about a subject no one really cares about?
How could a Veteran face a populace that neither knows nor cares what achievements they might have accomplished?
I must admit that even talking about Veteran suicides is uncomfortable for me because at least three men I deployed with have taken their own life. Each time I heard the news I felt disillusioned, filled with a sense of failure, and even dread that at some point I may actually follow their lead. Each time I hear about the steady and frightening rise of the number of Veterans committing suicide I am left with abject terror at the thought that one day I will read of the death of another friend. I feel the strain that cause so many to feel hopeless and helpless.
For weeks I’ve been writing and rewriting this, trying to find the right words to say. It reminded me how close I almost came. It reminded me that there are some of my battle-buddies who are at risk, but I don’t keep in contact with them.
One of the men I knew who committed suicide was a guy I will call Dave. Dave wasn’t my closest friend, but he shared some of the same smart-ass qualities as me. If I was the black sheep of the platoon, he was the one that said “fuck it, I don’t need a coat.” He always seemed to have a sarcastic, self-satisfied smile and was always quick to nod and point out how much our company was getting screwed. If anything, his humor about how screwed up things had gotten made it at least a little more bearable.
Dave and I got out at different times and we had only hung out a few times after our deployment, but we kept in touch with each other through social media. The last time I talked to him was the day his daughter was born. I called him up to congratulate him and we talked about where our lives had led us.
He went home and found the woman of his dreams. We had a great laugh about old times, and he even commented how another Soldier from our old platoon was having a rough time. I could tell he was still feeling the afterglow of the birth of his first child. Until that day I had honestly never heard him say something without a hint of sarcasm. It was the first time I had ever heard him truly happy.
Which is what makes the next part of the story all the more heartbreaking and tragic.
A few months later, I was getting ready to board a plane when I received a text message from my old senior medic. “Yo dude, Dave is dead, hung himself last night.” I was in the middle of a busy walkway in Chicago O’Hare International Airport; people rushing to and from gates; and it left me so shocked I just sat there completely stunned.
How? Why? He was happy.
The last I had heard he was on course to marry his girl and had a good job. The combination of my last conversation with him and all his Facebook postings gave not the slightest hint that he was in pain. What could possibly have happened?
Over the weeks that followed I learned what had happened from his fiancée. Apparently his daughter was actually acting as a trigger. He had started having memories of an event that had occurred at the height of the insurgency that could best be described as a bad day. He was constantly looking at old photos which showed the more gruesome side of our deployment. His fiancée knew something was wrong and was trying to get him help, but the distance to the nearest VA facility—as well as actually getting an appointment—often deterred him from seeking treatment. He seemed to be depressed, and even obsessed, with those old pictures.
No one can ever really know what happened but Dave committed suicide on a night when his fiancée was out with her friends. Dave left behind a woman that loved him and a daughter that will need a father. He left behind battle buddies that cared about him, and friends. Worse than that, I never even got the chance to help him. I never knew he was in trouble. It left me with the same helpless feeling I felt when I lost Soldiers to IEDs.
The sad truth is that Dave’s story isn’t even isolated. A few years earlier I almost mirrored him. Too many memories, too much drink, not enough hope. For me it was going to be drive as fast as I can and crash into something; that way my life insurance would still go to my family even though it had clearly been me acting like a dumb-ass (and intentional).
I’d had it all planned out. The only reason I am not just another statistic, or that I can even talk to you at all about it, is because a battle buddy looked in on me and refused to take no for an answer. I never told him, but he saved my life.
I know why people commit suicide. I know why it seems like an appealing option.
They think it will end their shame, or their pain, or they think that their families will be better off without them. I know that’s not true. Suicide is not painless. It leaves in its wake a tear in the psyche of those left behind—an empty spot that was once filled by someone important.
Veterans have a lot of burdens to bear. Sometimes those burdens can feel crushing. The freedoms we ensure with our sacrifices have a heavy cost, but we do not need to bear those burdens alone.
Veterans killing themselves break our notions of how things should be. We were raised on the idea that if the hero fights bravely he gets the girl in the end—the scars fade and everyone gets a happy ending. Every time a Veteran dies by their own hand that image is shattered just a little.
Almost every Veteran believes it’s important to earn their way in the world. If we believe that you have to earn it, then don’t you think the Veterans have earned peace and happiness? I believe some more than others really have earned a life without the specter of pain or shame hanging over their head.
We’ll have to save ourselves. Become our brother’s keeper. Only together, as a community, can we solve this problem.
Despite the fact we may never get the ideal life we hoped for, or the brochures seem to promise, we can still lead good lives. I am tired of feeling like I’ve failed my brethren.
I ask you—have you done something to end this epidemic? Have you taken responsibility for your small piece of the issue? Only when we have truly united to end this pestilence striking down our own can I honestly say that my brothers did not die in vain; that at least their deaths had meaning, if nothing else.