THE PIT OF DESPAIR HAS A TALL PARAPET
It was Sunday. The weekend had been good, and we were winding down on the couch with dinner, wine, and brainless television. That’s when I got a phone call from “Bill” – a friend, co-worker, and fellow Senior NCO. One of our Soldiers was drunk, wrecking his place, and in a horrible state. The friend that was taking care of him called for help, as she couldn’t handle him anymore. So the two of us drove out to the house to see if we could calm him down, sober him up, and try again to steer him towards help.
This wasn’t our first trip out to salvage his situation.
“Jim,” at one point, was a good Soldier, a father, and husband. He deployed to Iraq with us in 2008, and was well respected in the unit. Along the deployment, he suffered a back injury. Once he came home and sought treatment, the road to recovery was long and painful. He fell in and out of depression, aggravated by pain medication and alcohol, that dark emotional hole became deeper and deeper. We all tried to get him the help he deserved, but it was getting more and more difficult to get to him. He became distant, wouldn’t show up for appointments, and wouldn’t sign the needed paperwork. Eventually he disappeared. A few weeks later we got word from his mother that he had passed away. Overcome by alcohol and medication, that good Soldier, father, and husband, was gone forever. Jim simply could not see past the tall parapet that surrounds the pit of despair. He couldn’t crawl out.
Jim’s story is nothing new.
All over the media there are campaigns to promote awareness of Veteran Suicide. In 2012, the Veteran’s Administration published a study that analyzed the death certificates from 21 states from 1999 to 2011. Their estimate was Veterans were committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day. The number 22 became the rallying cry for awareness of Veteran Suicide, spurning non-profits, campaigns, and websites all across the country. It was quoted in Congress and Senate to pass bills, it’s been pasted on signs at protests, and countless push-ups have been done in sets of 22 (all on video and plastered on Facebook). Being a part of that community myself, I am inundated with these messages, and every time I see them I think of Jim – and all the others I have lost to the burden of war since coming home from combat. Even more so, all the Soldiers and Marines I know live with this possibility an arm’s length away. Myself included. To all of it I have to say…
STOP WITH THE 22!
Just stop it. Stop the fucking t-shirts. Stop the push-ups. Stop the rings. Stop selling shit. Stop making a buck or drawing attention to yourself because you want to show you care. It’s not solving anything. It’s not a solution. Derek Weida, Veteran, fitness junkie, and internet personality, recently brought this to light in a video post that was seen by millions. I have to agree.
Do I think Veteran suicide is a problem? YES. Without a doubt.
Do Veterans deserve to be taken care of after their time in service? YES. Absolutely.
Do I think people are making their money and careers on the back of troubled Veterans? YES. And that’s sad.
Please DO NOT think for a moment that I am against all of the efforts being made to help Veterans. But suicide isn’t just a Veteran’s problem, as noted recently by Task & Purpose.
The new CDC study shows that suicide is most common among middle-aged white men. VA research has found the same to be true in the veterans community.
This data point highlights a significant weaknesses in efforts to prevent veteran suicide: Much of the conversation has focused on post-9/11 veterans; even with a spike in recent years, post-9/11 veterans clearly account for a relatively small percentage of veteran suicides.
Yet because the majority of campaigns and initiatives to address veteran suicide are run by post-9/11 veterans, they invariably are designed and promoted in ways that reach post-9/11 veterans. A review of the websites of several groups working to prevent veteran suicide — such as 22KILL, Mission 22, Stop Soldier Suicide and the National Veterans Foundation — show that they do not effectively explain which veterans are dying by suicide, and commonly utilize photos of younger veterans as visual illustrations.
As long as I’ve been in the Army, we have had continual training on suicide. From annual Suicide Awareness training to ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) to Master Resilience Trainer. Huge budgets are being thrown at this problem. We are constantly being bombarded by messages and videos and posters and checklists and Smartcards in an effort to give us the tools to do something about this difficult problem. It gets to the point where we become numb to the issue due to the noise-to-signal ratio – and far too much noise. It’s missing something crucial.
It’s missing action. Execution. And facing hard truths.
AWARENESS IS LOOKING AT A FIRE AND QUOTING FACTOIDS
In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield wrote something that has stuck with me over the years:
The hardest thing in the world is to be ourselves.
Who are we? Our family tells us, society tells us, laws and customs tell us. But what do we say? How do we get to that place of self-knowledge and conviction where we are able to state without doubt, fear or anger, “This is who I am, this is what I believe, this is how I intend to live my life”?
In this task, our mightiest ally is the Warrior Ethos.
Directed inward, the Warrior Ethos grounds us, fortifies us and focuses our resolve.
Acceptance is the first action we all need to take. We – meaning Veterans, friends, and family – have to accept that death is a part of warfare. There really is no getting around it. As Veterans, we have to accept that people die under our trigger, under our orders, and sometimes by our mistakes. And people die by the enemy’s trigger, orders, and mistakes as well. That is the nature of warfare, as well as – and this is the tough part – the nature of humanity. Period. The sooner we can accept this, the sooner we can find a way to live with it, heal from these experiences, and use them as fuel to recover, teach, and perform.
But that’s not to say we don’t face other obstacles. Unwritten tenets we are taught from a young age about behavior, customs, and conduct. The Man Rules tell us:
• Do not cry
• Do not show weakness
• Take care of things yourself
• Do not ask for help
These are common in so many cultures, and they keep us from accepting our situations, seeking help, and healing from the punches life throws at us.
I believe it will take all of us – Veterans, Military, and Civilians alike – to have an impact on these numbers. All of us can apply the Warrior Ethos to our communities. One suicide is one too many, especially since each suicide impacts so many more people with each incident. On the large scale – meaning on TV, social media, internet, and mandatory training – the focus has been on awareness. Awareness is just the five-meter target. We need to look at the ten to three-hundred meter targets.
We need to change the message. We need to stop thinking awareness is a solution. It’s not. It’s looking at a fire and quoting factoids about Smokey the Bear and deaths by fire as we continue to watch. We have to run into that burning building, put out our hands, and pull whoever is in there out of their personal fire and back to their families, communities, and sense of purpose. Back to Life.
We need to stop focusing on the dark shit of the past, the adversity we face; and start focusing on the greatness we can become.
VETERANS ARE TEACHERS
ADVERSITY IS FUEL
WARRIOR ETHOS WILL SAVE WARRIORS
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