Last weekend, I went to the funeral of an extended family member who died by his own hand. He was a United States Army veteran.
His mom shared a story he had written while home on leave mid-rotation. While the story started full of promise, the ending left me disturbed. It wasn’t about a battle or anything like that. It was about the sadistic nature of his first sergeant. I am dismayed that the U.S. military looks the other way as our kids are traumatized by non-battle events. The story left me wondering how many of our young men and women are seemingly forced to do things against their nature. It’s no wonder Joey was haunted by his experiences.
Peer pressure and outside influence can convince us to do things we really don’t want to, especially in times of high stress, like in a war zone. When the people responsible for a soldier’s well-being pressure that soldier into acts that do not coincide with who they believe themselves to be, it’s a recipe for disaster. Just ask any Vietnam veteran living on a street corner.
I consider myself a fortunate veteran. I served during peacetime, and the only “action” I saw was refresher training and chasing a carrier battle group to Hawaii. The roughest seas we ever hit were those along the coast of Canada as we sailed to Alaska and eventually the Aleutian Islands at the height of summer. My tour of service was tame compared to some others. I know from experience the kind of “hazing” that is rampant across the branches. But this isn’t about me.
Military life is challenging enough without the mind-screwing that some in charge seem to enjoy. Boot camp is designed to introduce a recruit to the rigors of military life, parts of which can be downright unpleasant. Recruits are taught military discipline from Day 1. Once a new service member graduates from boot camp, they are assigned to a school that will teach them what they need to know to get started in the field. The real learning begins once they reach their first unit.
Unfortunately, not all of that learning is positive.
If any of those in charge of your well-being dislike you, your life will be a living hell until you leave. Or until you have lived through enough hazing to earn their respect or throw yourself over the fantail. I had my share of downright bullying, as did some of my other relatives. Not one of us stayed to make it a career; luckily, most of us are still here to tell our stories.
In 2012, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs released a report in which they had analyzed death certificates across the U.S. They initially looked at the suicide rates between 1/1/1999 and 12/31/2004. They extended the study for five additional years to better assess the data’s reliability. The study showed that the suicide rate among veterans was statistically higher than the general population.
To quote a Washington Post Article:
“This statistic comes from the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report, which analyzed death certificates from 21 states, from 1999 to 2011. The report calculated a percentage of suicides identified with veterans out of all suicides in death certificates from the 21 states during the project period, which turned out to be 22 percent. (By point of reference, about 13 percent of U.S. adults are veterans, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.) Then the report applied that percentage against the number of suicides in the U.S. in a given year (approximately 38,000). Divided by number of days in a year, the report came up with 22 veteran suicides a day.”The Washington Post
While the number “22 a day” is technically a stretch (the actual number is closer to one per day), veterans are more likely to kill themselves than their civilian counterparts. Experiences such as the one Joey wrote about are enough to push any person over the edge, let alone someone exposed to the stresses of war.
I could keep going on this topic, having seen more than one of my loved ones return from a war zone different than the person who left. I will no doubt return to the subject in November. Keep an eye on your veterans. They need you.
If you are a veteran in crisis or know a veteran in crisis, please reach out, and find someone to talk to. I know how hard it is to let people in, but your life has meaning to somebody, even if you can’t see past your pain.
In memory of Joseph Matthew Walter, Jr., Rest in Peace, Joey.