A Veteran’s Duty

In 2012, more US service members killed themselves than were killed in combat–349 suicides vs 310 KIA.  While numbers don’t tell the whole story, they do identify the fact  that mortal danger for US service members is not limited to Afghanistan.

The statistics on military suicide are sobering and deserve attention–but that’s not the focus of this post.  I want to focus instead on the millions of veterans who might be embarking on the same path that those 349 took last year.  I’m no expert on suicide, but I imagine the thought process that brings a person to the decision to kill themselves is fairly long.  I think it begins with something that could be overcome with the right assistance and only becomes insurmountable in the absence of that help.

There is no statute of limitations on reactions to combat.  Some of us come home with recognizable after-affects while others don’t realize they are suffering for decades.  It is this middle ground–the veteran suffering silently while convincing himself he’s fine–that I want to focus on.

Why?  Because veterans in the middle ground hold the key to their own health and wellbeing–and possibly that of their fellow veterans–in their hands.  In the current system of post-combat assistance, a veteran is assumed to be unaffected by events experienced in the service unless they ask for help.  This may seem like a small thing, but to a person who’s concept of self revolves around overcoming incredible challenges, nothing less than a gaping chest wound could make them admit to needing help.  They think, and the system re-enforces it, that to admit any mental, moral or spiritual pain is an admission of weakness.

But what if I could explain it in a way that showed the opposite?  What if taking care of personal mental health and wellbeing could be seen as each individual veteran’s obligation?  An extension of his or her duty from the battlefield?  This duty isn’t focused around taking care of yourself just so you can live a happy life.  Rather, it is your duty to take care of yourself so that when another veteran comes to you for help in his or her darkest hour you can actually help them.  This is how we–veterans–can stem the tide of suicides.  We have to be there for each other in peacetime like we were in combat.  Let me explain.

Who joined the service to get rich?  Anyone?  Bueller, Bueller…

No, there are lots of reasons people volunteer to serve but getting rich is not one of them.  There’s something else that drives a person to raise their right hand and swear the oath.  While there might be slight differences between individuals, I think a desire to serve and eagerness to dedicate our energies to something worthy of the sacrifice we might make are common motivations to join the military.

Are these the same things that motivate a young Marine to leave a position of cover to save a wounded comrade?  Are they the same force that make young men and women put their lives on the line over and over again in dusty armpits around the world?  I don’t think so.

No, the “mom and apple pie” sentiments got us in the door but it is the love of our comrades that allows us to overcome fear and do our jobs in combat.  It’s simple really–we’d rather die than fail our friends.

Relationships borne in adversity and hardened by shared suffering create bonds that transcend simple friendships.  These relationships form a secondary family for the service member that often supersedes relationships with blood relatives in depth.

Okay, got it.  Military folks have great friends.  So what?

Well, this love between comrades forms the base of a deep seated, personal sense of duty.  It provides the foundation upon which courage stands to overcome the imperative to “just stay alive” in battle.  This dedication to mission above self–others above self–is what fuels heroism and makes our military so difficult to defeat.

That sense of duty is too strong, too fulfilling, and too deeply ingrained in a veteran’s psyche for it to just evaporate upon returning stateside.  But where does it go?  The mortal danger is gone and so is the need to rely whole-heartedly on another person for survival.  The importance of incredibly deep friendships formed in battle seems to dissipate as the veteran transitions back to “normal” life.

But that’s exactly when these relationships matter the most–when trying to return to normal when you are feeling anything but.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women have developed double lives over the last ten years of war.  There’s the person they were before going to combat–and all the relationships that person had with friends, family, and themselves–and then there is the person they have become after combat–with the associated changes to their concept of themselves, their concept of god, and their understanding of death.  The repeated combat deployments make it difficult to link the two lives–then and now–together.  With another tour coming soon, why even go through the bother of trying?  Just keep your mental bags packed and wait to ship back over.  It’s safer that way.

But what if there is no next deployment?  What if the best motivation to compartmentalize is suddenly removed and the veteran is left trying to figure out how to move forward in the life they no longer understand?

That’s where the relationships built between comrades in arms can truly save lives.

I believe veterans have a duty to continue to support their comrades well after returning home.  The intense relationships we share put us in unique positions to help each other out.  A simple conversation with a veteran who gets it  can make all the difference to a veteran struggling to understand themselves.  None of us went into combat alone.  Why the hell do we think we’re the only one suffering afterwards?

So how do you do it?  How do you become that veteran who “get’s it”?  How can one veteran gain insight and knowledge that might be able to help another veteran turn away from the edge?  There’s no roadmap for gaining that sort of knowledge, just a willingness to look honestly behind mental doors you’d prefer remained shut.

To do that, you have to do something that grates against the very fabric of a veteran’s soul.  You’ve got to decide to take care of yourself first.

This concept flies in the face of everything that the bonds of military service are supposed to stand for.  Others above self, selfless dedication and sacrifice, throwing your own body on a grenade to save others…  Where in there does the idea of “taking care of yourself first” come into play?  Nowhere.  But the danger is different when you get home.  You must adapt your tactics or you’ll fail–both yourself and your buddies.

What is this danger?  IED’s, snipers, RPG’s, ambushes…  These things defined danger–physical, tangible, defeatable–in combat.  Now that you’re home, though, the danger is different.

The emotions you felt in combat, the extreme range of intense reactions that healthy humans experience in life or death situations, are what now form the danger.  Actually, it isn’t the emotions themselves, but rather the desire to tamp them down and forcibly ignore their existence that makes them dangerous.  We become shells of the people we once were, appearing to be fine to the casual observer while toxic emotional waste bubbles inside.  Eventually that stuff seeps out–no matter how deep we buried it.

Just as you had a duty to protect your buddies in combat, you have a duty to help them when they get home, too.  The only way you can say the right words when you get that phone call in the dead of night–the call that could end everything–is if you have taken care of yourself first.

You must unpack your experiences of combat and reconcile them with your concept of self–the “you” from before, during, and after combat.  They are all the same person, but the changes you went through were so violent and rapid that you didn’t have time to comprehend what was happening.  Now, now that things have settled down, you have to go back through those events and let yourself honestly experience those changes.  Only by linking the person you were before with who you became after a life-changing event can you comprehend who you are now.

If you take that step, if you commit to taking care of yourself first and go through the hard work of doing so, then you’ll be in position to help your buddies when they need it most.

I don’t think there’s any weakness in that.

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