“How you doing, bro?”
“Check on your buddy.”
We’ve all heard these things repeated thousands of times over these long years of war. Although many of us don’t heed the warnings and most of us will reply to any inquiries with a simple, “I’m fine”, we repeat these phrases reflexively on many occasions.
The most troubling and heartbreaking thing we have to deal with as veterans is the news of a fellow combat veteran taking their own life. The level of helplessness those suicidal veterans feel is somehow transferred to others as they experience their own helplessness in finding answers to this plague upon our most treasured citizens.
First, I will explain that I am no expert in psychiatry or psychology. These words are my opinion only and are born from years of study and contemplation on the issue. I will not attempt to fool you into believing that my opinions come from verifiable facts or expensive case studies. But, they are my observations from the last 27 years of my life, much of which was spent in uniform.
Studies conducted by others provide statistics that cannot be ignored. First, and foremost, is the knowledge that suicides by soldiers stationed outside of the U.S., in places such as South Korea and Germany, are rare. This seems to have no correlation with combat deployments because many of those soldiers also served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, that study cites many factors, not the least of which is access to firearms, the method of suicide in 61% of known cases.
But, I now firmly believe that living conditions and isolation play a major role in this epidemic of military suicides. I’m about to get old school on you, so bear with me.
I spent three years in overseas, peacetime assignments during the cold war. We lived in barracks conditions that were just slightly improved over basic training and MP School. We used communal bathroom and shower facilities and, instead of 67 roommates in the open bay barracks of Fort McClellan, we lived in small rooms with up to 4 soldiers in each room. As I acquired more rank and responsibility, I wound up in a 2 man room.
The internet was still an idea. The only television station was the Armed Forces Network, and the only mobile phones we saw were on episodes of Miami Vice. We actually had to speak to people. I know. Weird, right? Most soldiers overseas didn’t have their own vehicle. Those of us who did, served as disgruntled taxis for the rest of the troops. I was stationed at a remote site facility and we were a good 30 kilometers from the nearest PX. If someone was taking a trip to the hospital or PX, several others would tag along. The same was true of a night on the town. Being a remote site, the post chow hall was your only option most of the time.
Now, let’s consider deployment to the war zone. The situation is basically the same for the average soldier. You have tent-mates, often 10 of them or so, sometimes 20. You work together, eat together, shower together, and suffer together. You spend a year or more in close proximity to… other people. Uncomfortably so, at times.
During my overseas assignments, there was no need to call me once per week to ask how I’m doing. Everyone knew how I was doing, and I knew how they all were doing, because we were together every day. They knew when something wasn’t right. We could tell when someone was suffering. This gave us the opportunity to intervene immediately. I was rarely alone.
Fast forward to the end of your deployment. Perhaps you’ve had enough of Uncle Sam’s bullshit and you don’t re-enlist. Or, your time is up and you retire. Perhaps you were wounded severely enough to be medically retired from your service. Either way, you are done and out.
“Thank you for your service.”
As a member of the reserve forces, quite literally, Friday I was in Afghanistan – Monday I was standing in downtown Canton, Ohio. Explain that to a brain that is wondering why you are 70 pounds lighter and not carrying a rifle. It’s culture shock to the extreme.
We come home and scatter to the four winds. My nearest “battle buddy” (quite frankly, a term I’ve always loathed) lives 3 hours away. The people we lived with for so long, and under such extreme conditions, are no longer there; not only watching over us, but just watching us. Other than an occasional text message or phone call, we have no idea what struggles each other experience. We are alone.
I carry cards in my wallet from the VFW, American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans. I’ve never stepped foot into a hall or been present during an event. I’m completely disconnected from the veteran community, other than the occasional Facebook post.
It isn’t normal. I suspect many others are in the same situation. I believe that is part of what is killing us. Those organizations exist for a simple reason: veterans are more comfortable around other veterans. We have difficulty opening up to, and trusting those who have not shared in our experience. They simply cannot fathom what many veterans have been through. We can’t sit among a bunch of privileged hipsters in Starbucks and talk about the war. Not in any kind of serious way, anyway. It just doesn’t happen. We need the company and camaraderie of those like us.
The Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, for all their bullshit criminality over the decades, began as a veterans organization. Several other now notorious bike clubs began the same way, started by WWII, Korea, and Vietnam combat vets who found no community in which to participate.
Overwhelmingly, young veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other arenas of the war on terror are not joining existing veterans groups in large numbers. They feel like outcasts, just like many of their ancestors before them, but they aren’t using their time constructively by forming communities and sticking together. Some are, to be sure, but not in the large numbers seen following previous conflicts.
We have an entire generation of disenfranchised veterans who are isolated and alone. Alone is the worst thing a troubled veteran can be. When we face the seemingly insurmountable bureaucracy of the military, the VA, and the still mysterious effects of war on the human mind, we cannot face it alone. If we try, we are doomed to fail. We must stand together. We know how to take care of each other. We’ve done it during good times and bad. This is no time to stop doing so.