Sadly I am here to report that we lost another brother to suicide this month. This one hit hard mostly because we never expected this to come from him. The month has been extremely trying for all of us involved but I was blessed to be in the company of 3 brilliant men as we discussed ideas to stop this madness. This was the kind of conversation that was so powerful, about 15 minutes into it; I had to start recording it. The basic summary of our conversation was about resiliency and how we can better promote it amongst our ranks.
Now I really don’t know how to pinpoint where we’ve missed the mark in the last 17 years of war fighting, but the one thing I do know, that I don’t think anyone can deny, is that something needs to change. This war has been fought as background noise to most of the American public, but still we have came home to a much better reception than our brothers who fought in Vietnam. We have the ability to reach out to our brothers and sisters in ways that our grandparents who fought in World War II and Korea probably never imagined, but still we are killing ourselves at an astounding rate. So where is the hang up?
We have access to seminars and briefs at least twice a year. Most regiments have a full time civilian social worker on staff whose soul purpose is to talk to the troops about this epidemic. We have online courses that we have to take every fiscal year that are monitored by higher command. There is no denying that it’s a not a case of not knowing where to go for help. So if we have the knowledge and we have to tools, why are we not using them?
I think that the biggest issue I see is that we look at suicide prevention as a problem that we can address directly when it might be a side effect of an entirely different issue. From the start, young Americans are joining the military under the pretense that after the war they will be damaged. The media, government programs and even our commands are lending their hands to this debilitating habit of thought when in reality they need to be promoting something that all warrior cultures possess. Resiliency.
Now before anyone says that each branch of the military has a resiliency program in place, let me counter with this. They suck. The programs are monotonous, boring and usually taught by a guy in his mid-thirties in a polo shirt, slacks and brown dress shoes named Chad who has never had to stuff someone’s testicles back inside their body while waiting for Pedro to reach their position. While I am 100 percent behind teaching our troops these skills, they need to come from those that are sharing the weight, not by a bystander. Every small unit leader should be a resident expert in the art of resiliency and overcoming diversity.
While I would like to say that I did this to my Marines and Sailors, I obviously can’t say it’s going to work every time. The Marine we lost last month was on my vehicle for a deployment that kept us in the field for months at a time. Surely we shared time together discussing our viewpoints on life and I know that we shared one specific and terrifying moment, so did I miss something? Could I have done something different? Had I understood the true weight of my command, I might have made more time, and made myself more available to these brave young men. I might have better fostered an environment of mutual respect and empathy.
While I know that I will never get those moments back, and I understand that it is not my fault that he is no longer with us, I do have to ask myself, how could this have been prevented? How could I have made my Marines stronger than I already did? While talking with these three fine gentlemen over tacos we came to the conclusion that the United States Military doesn’t need another resiliency program. It needs better leaders.
Had I been approached when I was a 27 year old Staff Sergeant by a veteran that had seen the ugly side of war and been affected by suicide, I might have put more into each and every word I told my troops. I might have made more of an emphasis to them on being able to rely on their brothers and sisters for support when they needed help. I might have been more honest about the horrors they would see and the difficulty that would come with returning to the real world after they’ve been touched with that kind of power.
In the next few months, I will be researching the resiliency programs already in place with each branch of service. I will be looking at how they disseminate this information amongst themselves. I will also be looking at how we can better train ourselves for the future by looking at the past. While the facets of modern warfare are fantastically grotesque, they are nowhere near as personal as the hand to hand combat fought by our ancestors. So how then did they manage to build such incredible resiliency in themselves that they could do the things they did, and see the things they saw and still function in society?
This is going to be an overwhelming task but one that I would not turn away from in a million years. If you have any thoughts on this topic, resources that you think might help, or if you’re name is Chad and you’re offended, please help me out. Send me your thoughts and share the post amongst your circles. The idea is that, along with outdoor therapy, I would like the non-profit to fund several trips throughout the year where veterans would go to our bases and speak with small audiences of small unit leaders. The conversations would focus on better understanding and embracing the warrior ethos and leadership principles that will keep our men and women in the fight long after they return.
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