A military veteran decides to kill himself, and we’re baffled. Things seemed to be going well with his family and his job since he exited the service.
Then we start the blame game: It was this or that or the other. We don’t know the particulars, and for those of us who’ve never been in the military and especially in combat, it would be foolhardy to pretend to understand. Why have I chosen to write about this subject? Each day in the U.S., 22 veterans take their own lives.
Vietnam Army combat veteran John Looker tells me about his friend’s suicide on Feb. 5, 2015. Daniel P. Schultze had received multiple injuries in Vietnam, and like the good soldier he was, he persevered and “made a lifetime mark on his family, friends and his brother soldiers with his strong spirit, deep character and absolute commitment to them.”
Looker writes, “Dan and I talked almost every day for the past three years. He carried a lot of pain and demons from the Vietnam War. He called me on the morning of Feb. 5 and told me he couldn’t bear the pain. Little did I know that this would be the last time we would talk because later that day he took his own life.”
Looker says, “We need to reach out to all the veterans suffering with PTSD, not only the Vietnam veterans, but all those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, to let them know there is help for them (1-800-273-8255, press 1).
The pain is emotional for our veterans as well as physical, and both can last a lifetime. The cost of service is exorbitant: Blown knees, shoulders torn up, nerve damage, pain all the time according to one Marine veteran with whom I spoke.
While some were having picnics on the recent Memorial Day, veterans from around the country gathered at VFW posts to toast their lost friends. Most remember the day on which each died, and they find solace in being with others who understand these painful anniversaries. Of these gatherings, the Marine says, “They get me. They understand me.”
News that ISIS has taken control of Ramadi (only 70 miles from Baghdad) is especially disheartening to those who served in Iraq and now feel that their service there and the cost of American lives was futile. Another Marine veteran, Thomas Lenhart, told me last week that a friend of his who fought there is angry, really angry, that the area he believed he had a role in liberating is once again under the control of the enemy.
What about the “Dear John” letters that some in the military receive, or the soldiers who arrive home to find spouses who are pregnant when their due dates indicate that the veterans are not the fathers? And there are the spouses who have waited for the homecoming to indicate they are filing for divorce.
There’s always the issue of our teaching the Ten Commandments via the Old Testament and the messages of forgiveness and love via the New Testament. Those messages don’t correlate with the job that soldiers are required to do.
This leads to the lack of understanding that the home family has of the job requirements of soldiers. The soldiers’ families have been their comrades in arms, and returning, they suddenly find themselves in a place that no longer feels like home.
Their military instructors have taught them to always be on the alert for an enemy who would take their lives and the lives of those in their unit. Veterans have certificates to prove that they are expert riflemen or have completed 50 hours of a five-day Combat Hunter Course. They also have the certificates to prove they are qualified as combat lifesavers.
These veterans find themselves still on the alert, tense, at times for as long as a decade after leaving military service. They’ve been trained by their instructors to know that to lack preparation is to invite death.
Or they find a job but learn that the regimentation of the military where they were told when to eat, when to sleep, when to move and where to move no longer applies. It becomes problematic to move from regimentation to rely upon themselves. They also quickly learn that some of those who graduated from high school with them have gone on to college and are now making advances in the work force in their chosen professions. And veterans wonder if the skills they acquired in the military are transferable in any way to the civilian work world and how can they determine what those skills are.
They know they have educational benefits, but they questions how to use those. Are there personnel at colleges and in veteran’s affairs offices that can help navigate the confusing, myriad requirements that the post-911 benefits offer? Those with families learn that it is virtually impossible to go to college full-time, work full-time and be responsible for the care of their children. Bank loans, housing benefits, health insurance, college transfers — all become a hopeless jumble for many who finally decide they have neither the patience nor the stamina to navigate the system to access these benefits.
Will they feel at home in a college environment in a classroom with those three or four years or more younger than they are who have no idea what military service means? Should they enroll in a for-profit college with those enticing television ads that run at night when they are feeling most vulnerable, unable to sleep because of physical injuries and memories of fallen comrades, images which refuse to leave them? What about a community college, a four-year college, public or private? Where are the jobs and how can they prepare for jobs for which they are suited by intellect and personality?
Some might begin to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs or engage in dangerous behaviors — reckless driving, self-mutilation, verbal and physical abuse of family and friends — as they search for an outlet for the rage that burns in their souls.
If they’re still in the military, they know they can be deployed again, three or four times, to the Middle East. We might be tempted to say, “Well, they volunteered for it. They weren’t drafted. They should have known.” How can 18 year olds know what they might be facing in the military as they sign on seeking excitement, wages and signing bonuses, respect, travel to unknown parts and/or escape from their current situations.
They’re home now, and we don’t know how to approach them if we see signs they’re troubled. We might say, “I tried to talk with him/her, and he/she clammed up, wouldn’t talk.” And then we remember other veteran ancestors who returned home and never talked about their time in the service.
We need to go all the way back to World War II before we can identify a war where the American consensus was that it needed to be fought. Things got hazy after that: We call the Korean War, the forgotten war; we are embarrassed about the Vietnam War, both the outcome and the way many treated those returning. From there things get really hazy as we deployed troops to one part of the world and another. Now politicians, and would-be presidents, are quick to use Iraq and Afghanistan as parts of their political platforms.
So the nation is divided. One thing I think we’ve all learned, however, is “Hate the war, but respect the soldier.”
Being aware of symptoms that indicate potential danger is important. Knowing that the family must move ahead, even when a veteran parent takes his life, is critical as is realizing that no one is immune to stress that goes on and on without relief . Knowing that at times persons considering suicide can get the help they need and move on with their lives is my most important message today. Google “MilitaryOneSource” to find the help you seek.
In conclusion, you might want to google “David Jay Unknown Soldier” to study photos of some of the veterans who were injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Warning: These images are not for the faint of heart.
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