By Jack Mandaville I want to make a few of my...
Editor’s Note: September is National Suicide Awareness Month. Throughout the month we will be highlighting the epidemic that is unnecessarily taking away our service members. When was the last time you checked on your buddies? Now is a good time to get a SITREP. -RU Rob
On June 28th 2008 a 31 year old man called a cab to take him to the hospital. He had been “huffing” the same duster you use to clean your keyboard, and taking prescription pills. By the time the cab came he was too weak to open the door. The Police were called and had to kick in his door. He was rushed to the hospital and simply passed away. He would have simply been another sad statistic that would have gotten ignored except for one fact. In the opening weeks of the Iraq invasion he had been a Medic, and had risked his life to rescue a small child caught in the crossfire. Someone snapped a picture of that act, and it became one of the most iconic images of the first year of the war.
By all standards he was an excellent example of what a Medic should be, and he was a good soldier. He might have had a hard time in the Army after getting back from the war, but, he re-enlisted and I remember the Army Times interviewing him and his outlook at the time was somewhat positive. But then he got out. What problems he had just got worse and worse. He would be drinking when he should be working, he would abuse his meds, and started huffing duster to get high (Something he, as a Medic should have known better than to do). If you actually read about his spiral downward, it was truly tragic. His death was ruled “Accidental Overdose,” but, it was if everything but name, a suicide. Another Soldier who felt lost and alone took the only path that would ease his pain, and it lead to his death.
After almost 11 years at war, a lot of us can feel like PFC Dwyer, lost, and hounded to tell tales of “glory” when all we remember is hurt and pain. We live nightly with nightmares that are so terrifying that we fear going to sleep. Some of us have scars; others sometimes wish they had the scars to match how they feel on the inside. So many Veterans or Active Duty service members feel like somehow the world they return to is not the same as when they left. The truth is that it is the Veteran or SM that has changed. They are no longer the person they were when they raised their right hand.
Being in the military is a whole identity. It is the only place in America where titles are recognized. You cease to be [insert name here] you become [insert rank] [insert name]. The Infantryman becomes the Grunt. The Medic becomes Doc. Doesn’t matter the job title or rank, you become that role. NCO. Officer. Joe. Warrant. It doesn’t really matter, and when you are injured, or you see something that truly haunts you, you lose that identity. In the civilian world, no one cares what badges you have or what they mean. They don’t care if you were a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine. Even trying to explain the difference causes exasperation, and makes the Veteran or Service Member feel even more isolated.
The sad fact is, at this point, one can simply ask a veteran of combat if they know anyone that’s committed suicide. Pretty much all of us can say yes. If you can’t go back and look up some old buddies you deployed with. Sadly it’s almost certain that you will know at least one Soldier or Marine (and yes Sailors and Airmen do it too) that has decided to end it all. The tales are so utterly tragic that even more than the war we just don’t want to talk about it. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, cousins, battle buddies. Even more than combat, sometimes these losses rip at our very soul, because the war was supposed to be over for them. They were back here, safe, and supposed to go on with their lives. Families are torn apart, and unlike with battle deaths, or accidents, the DoD doesn’t pay out any benefits to a suicide.
This last June was the worst month for US Army suicides since 2009, when I got out. Then July was worse. No one is quite sure how many Veterans who have gotten out have resorted to the “ultimate solution” but one anecdotal number is as high as 18 a day. There are only about 4 million Iraq or Afghanistan veterans in the United States, so if 18 of us a day are dying due to suicides that’s truly a frightening number. It’s gotten so bad that civilians are starting to take note, and put pressure on the political leaders. Of course the pressure put is not uniform. Some hold us up as victims of unjust wars. Others hold us up as saints wounded in the cause of raucousness. Politicians in response have formed committees and thrown tons of cash at the problem.
As I have written, and Ranger Up’s shirts have already said, we veterans are not victims. The Oath of Enlistment is entirely voluntary now, and if you joined after 9/11 you joined knowing you would go to war. We aren’t always saints, as any of the Ranger Up videos (CIB Chaplin) can attest. We all work hard, and play harder. Lastly, as we’ve seen time and again throwing cash into really anything without any clear plan or idea of what you want to get out of it is a losing proposition. The VA simply cannot keep up with the influx of Veterans seeking help for everything from limb amputation to PTSD. With the WWII and Korea Veterans at the end of their days requiring more care, and the current crop of OIF/OEF Veterans have taxed the system to the limit.
They will help you. They have a hotline for anyone that is feeling suicidal. If worse comes to worst they will actually get a VA Rep to come get you and take you to a treatment facility. If you are Active, there is always the post ER, if it’s gotten truly bad. There will be sick call, and some sort of medical facility. They may not be equipped to help you, but if you tell them the need is urgent, they will find someone to help you.
Ultimately the VA and the DoD cannot provide help, or make the connection nearly as well as the first line supervisors. If there is to be an intervention that works, it will be at that level. If nothing else, your chaplain will literally drop everything to help you. That’s their job. We also recognize that the family is one of if not the most important lifeline outside the military.
We can prevent a lot of these senseless and needless deaths, but like all things in the military it will take team work. This is a call not just to those that are hurting but also to those that can help. No civilian will understand what you’ve gone through, and that will be a barrier when you seek help. Keep that in mind, and don’t get frustrated. Healing all wounds, even the invisible ones is a time intensive process, but life, even the crazy ones we live, is worth fighting for.
If you need help, or know someone that does, here are some sources you can use.
From the VA you can go to: www.veteranscrisisline.net
Or : http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/
Or call: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 (note this is for Active and Veterans)
The US Army Suicide prevention page has several links that might assist you
Military One Source: 1-800-342-9647