It’s never a highly publicized affair on a military post. When we pass through our commissary and pick up the installation newsletter, we are used to seeing an official photograph of a soldier, their obituary, their age — typically under 30. But more and more frequently, the words “killed in action” will be conspicuously missing from the narrative, and other clues will eliminate the possibility of a training accident or drug use or a car crash.
The veteran suicide epidemic is a terrible outcome of multiple years of war. I have personally dealt with the issue having both lost a dear friend to suicide and consoled soldiers during such circumstances and can attest to its devastating impact on the force and the wider community. Soldiers tend to pride ourselves on our ability to care and be cared for by their brothers in arms: it’s a bond seldom replicated in modern American living. So when one of our own decides that his or her life has lost its worth — that living is somehow more terrifying than dying — our entire circle feels an overwhelming failure has come over us. What if I hadn’t skipped out on that last beer? What if I had just said a few more nice things to them? How could I have let this person live without them knowing what they mean to me? The weight of this guilt bears upon us like armor, yet is surely not as easy to take off.
In the wake of such sadness, veteran and military establishments alike are flooding our veterans’ lives with incessant directives to “get help” and “always check on your buddy.” Certainly out of instinct, and possibly out of doctrine, the call to action for soldiers to care for their mental health is largely executed like a campaign to screen for AIDS or get a flu shot. Services are pitched as a potential solution, with the underlying assumption that the soldier or veteran is looking for a solution. But often, the service members in the greatest need of mental help are the ones most resistant to it, thus the call to action goes unanswered. This is in fact the greatest hurdle the military and veteran services community will face in their battle against veteran suicide: countering the disciplined self-reliance we train our service members to embrace.
Over the course of a soldier or officer’s training, we inculcate in them a vicious and emotional resistance to weakness; a persistence and confidence to overcome any obstacle, even the prospect of fatal combat. We drill into our soldiers the value of obedience and discipline. We teach them to bear their own load as well as their buddies’. On a long and arduous climb up a mountain, it’s hard to be weak when you know your brother or sister is feeding off of your energy. This is the essence of the camaraderie and family that exists between service members in our military, and particularly on the front lines. These are of course among the most esteemed values in our society, yet are also the hardest barriers to break down when a soldier begins to devalue his or her own life.
The complexity of solving our veteran mental health crisis is not a question of the availability of services, it’s in encouraging soldiers to use those services. How do we tell someone who has been shot at and blown up for multiple tours of duty that the biggest danger they face now is themselves? For me, my mind was strong enough to get me through combat. It was the ultimate weapon against complacency and emotional breakdown. My mind was my saving grace, and to hear that it was now my biggest burden when I returned from a tour with post-traumatic stress sounded like a joke. Besides, I didn’t even have it that bad. We saw a lot of fights, but I came home in one piece; but many of my company-mates did not. How was I supposed to sit in a hospital waiting room to cry to a doctor about my bad dreams when there were soldiers with amputated legs sitting next to me?
But my mother and girlfriend wouldn’t take no for an answer. I started going to see a counselor. But I was about to transfer posts (as most soldiers do within six months of a deployment) so we decided not to do much more than talk from time to time. When I finally moved to my new posting, took a month of leave, and settled into my new job, there was enough stimuli around me to make me feel like I didn’t need anything else. And so when I started having trouble sleeping, over indulging in food and alcohol, and pushing away family and friends, I drowned myself in work to keep myself so busy that I wouldn’t think about the underlying causes of my behavior.
And then it happened. I learned that one of my best friends had taken his own life. I heard the news over the phone at work and could bear the load any longer. I walked into a friend’s office and erupted with a pulsating volcano of snot, tears, and wails. We shut the door, and I had my moment. It wasn’t crying. It was a purging of all the toxins that I should have flushed out long ago in a clinic rather than the local dive bar. And for the first time in my life, I walked outside of that room, not worrying about finding a distraction, but about finding my family and loved ones again. Though it pains me to say it, and I’ll probably never forgive myself for feeling this way, my friend’s suicide made me a better person. I love more, I laugh heartily. And part of me wonders what fate I’d have in store had I never broke down and taken a step in the right direction. Despite my gains, I still never made the effort to return to counseling myself.
But not all soldiers will be so lucky to have such a jolt in their life. To compensate, the solution to this conundrum is two fold. Currently, mental health screening is done through hour-long surveys and single-course interviews to asses vulnerability to mental illness. Naturally, these are the easiest things to fake—even I learned how to “Tab + Tab + Click” through all my surveys and put on a smiling face for the duration of my interviews. A better solution would be to have civilian mental health professionals at the Company or even Platoon level to help understand the daily rhythms in a soldiers’ professional and personal life; someone who can earn the trust of a unit and respond at the drop of a hat — not after a call for an appointment. Mental health resources need to be integrated in to the modern garrison lifestyle.
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But at the end of the day, overcoming the stigma of using mental health resources remains the crux of the problem. And to this, I have no policy solution. There is no bureaucratic office that can take away the strong and independent will of our military service members and generate a mass realization for the need to take mental health personally and seriously. The best we can do for our future generation of service members is refine our instruction on what it means to be strong. Sometimes being strong means accepting weakness, even when its embarrassing. Sometimes being the good soldier is the one who asks for time off to go see a professional. Sometimes, winning means surrendering. This is the new battle our veterans continue fighting, and as we cheer at parades and wave our flags, let’s all wish upon them the most noble of victories, a noble surrender to themselves.