It’s Memorial Day 2017 here in the United States and for some people it means a three-day weekend of family barbecues or camping trips, for many of us it means something entirely different. I work with a great deal of people who have served in combat roles in locations all around the globe and for them it’s to remember men and women who were lost in the line of duty. That was the original intention around the creation of the federal holiday that so many people enjoy. I was fortunate in my nearly 10 year career to never have lost a fellow Airman in a combat role, for that I consider myself lucky. I did have a friend and fellow Civil Engineer who was wounded in the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack at Dharhan Air Base, while he was deployed to Saudi Arabia. That’s about as close as I ever got on a personal level to knowing anyone ever to be killed in the line of duty.
This year I chose Memorial Day to finally come to grips with something that is equally as difficult to process that has had an impact on my life and that is Veteran Suicide. The topic is one that gets a lot of press coverage with an estimated twenty-two Veterans a day committing suicide. I do want to say that the staff at the Veterans Administration and other outlets that track these statistics will admit that number is actually substantially lower than the actual number of suicides. Dealing with Veteran Suicide is a tough subject and especially tough around Memorial Day. On a day that we are supposed to be honoring our men and women that paid the ultimately sacrifice in the line of duty, how do we honor and remember those that died at their own hands ?
Why Now ?
To be honest, I chose to tackle this beast now because I’ve been burying my head in the sand and suppressing this anger and grief for almost three years. The military is great at teaching us to suppress emotions, and internalize them until the task is accomplished. It’s a great tool in the toolbox of life, but unhealthy when you learn to always put a new goal or obstacle in front of your need to deal with a Veteran Suicide. I’m not looking for a pat on the back or a pity party, what I am doing is laying this out there because if I feel this way at Memorial Day, there are chances that there maybe many others who also feel the emotional walls closing in. If it’s so stifling for me, I can’t imagine how much heavier it is for other people who have had to deal with repeated losses of friends and colleagues.
Pulling up to the spot in front of Section R of the Ft Richardson National Cemetery was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. The more steps I took toward Row 13 and looking for Site 665, the more I felt a sense of anger, confusion and pity. Feeling them all at once was something that no one could have prepared me for. The man I was there to see was one of the most influential in my military career, and my personal life. In fact without Technical Sergeant Darren P. Burt I wouldn’t be a gun writer at all. He was the one who first got me out shooting, and helped my pick out and purchase my first firearm. He was also a Sergeant that took time to grow his troops, both in life experiences and in duty assignments. A good man, who ultimately went down his own path that led to an earlier death than he deserved, a death that robbed many of us of years of memories and friendship.
Coping & Getting Help
I’ve been told that everyone copes and deals with death in their own way, some people drown themselves in food, booze, drugs or some other unhealthy addiction. Some people lock themselves away into a dark place and fight their own demons. Many of us suppress and then deal with the emotions later in life, sometimes that “later” is years down the road. Some of us do a combination of the lifestyles listed above, but eventually hopefully that is only for a season, and we come to the point I am at now. That is, face the facts, and get help. That help doesn’t have to result in a rubber padded room, anti-depressants or someone taking all your gun rights away. Help can come in many forms, but usually starts with a phone call or a meeting with someone who will just listen to you vent. Not someone who wants to solve your problems for you or belittle you in any form, just an ear to listen.
There is zero shame in reaching out and learning to deal with yourself and the effects that Veteran Suicide has on the Veteran community. If you have been in the military anytime in the last 20 years I am willing to bet that this subject has come to your front door. It’s an ugly trend that continues to increase and I wish I had the answer to fix it. Veteran Suicide doesn’t care about your pay grade, job specialty or unit affiliation, it is no respecter of your age, race, or gender. After reading the story of fellow Hurricane Group writer George Hand and his struggles with recovery from a suicide attempt I became very aware of these facts.
There is a list of ways to get help, from both the Veterans Administration and other sources. We have listed them at the bottom of the article with links for reference. Many of these groups also hold local meetings that can be a resource. People can always go the old-fashioned route and just call a friend from their past military days and go have a cup of coffee and just check in.
Choices & The Future
I choose to honor my friends who have died outside of the line of duty the same way I would if they had died on active duty. Continuing to remember them for their qualities and personalities that made them trusted friends in the first place. I am trying to learn how to cope with survivors remorse and the terrible sense that I let them down after they spent years looking out for me. I am learning that I don’t have to handle this burden alone, there are many of us in the same boat. The point is admitting that you aren’t coping well with the events and taking steps to combat that problem. I know it’s sometimes easier said than done.
It’s my opinion that living a full and healthy life is what my friends would have wanted me to do. Part of that is, in my opinion, learning to cope with events and then taking that message and lessons learned and helping other people in the Veteran community. If that means going to school to be a doctor or counselor in order to help Veterans at a clinic, or just being willing to drop some coin on a meal or a cup of coffee to be a good listener, then so be it.
If you don’t take anything else away from this article, just remember that you are NEVER alone and that help is only a step away. Even if you aren’t suicidal and just having a hard time processing the event, you are still never alone. Any of the below resources can help you. Thanks for reading this, Happy Memorial Day, and lets all take the time to make contact with and take care of each other so we can enjoy many more Holidays in the years to come.
Veterans Administration Suicide Help Line
1-800-273-8255 (PRESS 1 )