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There is a silent epidemic impacting our bravest and finest citizens, their families and friends; Those who served in the United States Military are more likely to die from suicide than on the battlefield.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, each day there are around 20 veterans who commit suicide. What’s more, they report that veterans’ suicides account for 18 percent of the suicide deaths in the country, while they only make up 8.5 percent of the adult population. Even more disturbing is how many US soldiers who attempt suicide often have no history of mental health issues.
While politicians and our media focus attention on protecting those who may not even be US citizens, we are letting down the patriotic individuals who sacrificed everything for our great country.
I respectfully ask you to read this letter from my good friend Matt, in his own unfiltered words. While heartbreaking, we can use this as motivation to double down our efforts and use our resources to reach out to those who may be silently hurting. Many veterans have trouble with PTSD and/or have not been able to successfully integrate back into society, work and family.
My name is Matt, I am a former Marine and combat veteran. I served two tours in Iraq, once for the invasion in 2003 and once again in 2004. All total, I spent 18 months in Iraq and I experienced some of the bloodiest urban combat in Marine Corps history since Hue City, Vietnam in 1968. I spent a total of five years in the Corps and I served with some of the finest men I have ever known, men that I call brothers to this very day. Some of those brothers died in combat, they died serving their country and fighting not for God, Country or Corps; but for their brothers.
My fallen brothers were and continue to be, my heroes. I have a tremendous sense of pride, knowing that I was able to serve alongside some of the finest citizens this country has produced in my generation. As much as it pains me to know that they were killed in combat, I knew that they went out doing what they loved and were trained to do. They took one for the team, they went out fighting.
General George S. Patton said that “there’s only one proper way for a professional soldier to die: the last bullet of the last battle of the last war.” I think that he was and continues to be right, but with a slight alteration. A Soldier or Marine grunt wants to go out swinging; they want to die in a firefight, not of a heart attack or vehicle accident. They want to go out on top; they want to be in control of their destiny. Therefore, to correct General Patton, when Soldiers and Marines are killed, they just want to die in combat.
I have lost ten of my Brothers in combat. Some of whom I knew very well, others who I did not, but none of the less, I knew them all and was serving with each and every one of them when they died. This causes me grief and pain to this day, but I take comfort in the fact that they died for my brothers, for cherry pie and Jack Daniels whiskey and me; or so we like to say.
What really causes me grief, however, is those that I have lost to suicide. As of October 2018, I have lost more brothers to suicide than I have Brothers killed in combat. This past Thursday, January 17, 2019, I lost another one. All of them had a family, all of them had friends, and all of them had contact with most of us from the Corps.
I am hurt and I am frustrated because I understand their pain. I understand what grief and frustration they feel or felt. When I got out of the Marines in 2005, they sent me to what they called “Transition Assistance Program” classes. For 3 days, I sat down in a room with a bunch of other Marines from the rank of Private First Class, all the way up to a Major. We were told to address each other by our first names only; as we were all about to be equals in the civilian sector. For three days, I learned how to be a civilian again. However, I was taught and trained how to be a combat Marine for five YEARS. For the past five years, I was trained in several jobs, all pertaining to the destruction of an armed enemy force. As Hollywood likes to say, I was trained to kill.
When I was driving home, the day that I got my DD-214, I had to stop because I was crying. I was alone, afraid, unsure about my future and I had this tremendous feeling of betrayal. I felt like I was betraying my brothers who were still in and getting ready for their next deployment to Iraq. I was supposed to have gotten out of the Corps one year earlier, but I volunteered for another tour in Iraq (my second deployment in 2004) because I could not let my boys go to war again without me. The only reason why I did not reenlist and go back for more was that my family talked me out of it. That decision still bugs me to this day.
I struggled and sometimes still struggle, about how in the Hell I was able to walk out of Iraq, more or less intact. How come I wasn’t killed? How come I never lost a limb? How come I survived almost daily rocket and mortar attacks during my second tour? Survivor’s guilt was strong and it was a sneaky devilish thought on my shoulder. Who can I talk to about my struggles? I can’t talk to my family, they would never understand, they can try all they want but in the end, they will never truly understand what it feels like. How do I deal with not only seeing the dead enemy but more importantly, how do deal with seeing my Brothers mangled bodies?
One time during my second tour, a tank had come onto our firm base and it had just been hit with an RPG. The TC (tank commander) had taken the hit to his head. I was helping the crew get out of the tank, and was walking around the TC hatch and I accidentally hit a helmet laying on the turret. It was the TC’s helmet and was filled blood and it spilled all over my boot and pieces of his brain splattered on my boots too. I was completely safe and nothing happened to me, but this man, whom I did not know was now dead and I was wearing some of his brains on my boots. I still have nightmares about that today. I have nightmares of all kinds of things, some of which I have never experienced. I have nightmares that I am driving around an Iraqi city, in a civilian car, unarmed and I am driving through an ambush but all they were shooting at with was tanks armed with weaponized camel spiders. Google camel spiders and you will totally understand my fear of those things.
That is just a sliver of my experiences. My point is that I completely understand why some of my Brothers want to end their lives. They have demons just like me. Demons can get the best of some people and others just smile at them and go on with their lives.
Where I get frustrated and hurt, is when my Brothers and even those Combat Vet Brothers that I never served with, but are now very good friends of mine, decide that the best option for them is to end it. I get it, I have thought about suicide. I have thought to myself that just killing myself would solve all my problems and I could take the burden of dealing with me and my [expletive] away from my loved ones. But then I think about my kids, my family, my friends and every single person that would be inflicted with a lifelong supply of pain and agony, never-ending questions as to why I did what I did and why I didn’t ask for help.
Suicide is not ending your pain; it is pawning it off on people that love and support you. It makes your kids wonder if they did anything to make you do this. They have no idea and they would have a lifetime of dealing with that loss.
I get hurt and I take it personally when they go because I am left with a void that they decided would be acceptable to me. I am left without them in my life, to see or talk to, to hang out with, to celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday with, to celebrate the holidays with, to just hanging out and think about the good times we had and even the bad times. I cherish these memories.
Suicide is a very serious plague on our community. 22 Veterans on average, kill themselves every day. There is not one perfect solution to this problem and I am not smart enough to solve them on my own. What I do know is that our current system is failing us Veterans. We cannot just continue to throw money at this problem and expect results. We, as Veterans, are used to being reliant on each other for support. At some point, we have to put the onus on ourselves to help each other.
Stop giving up on each other and ourselves. I am tired, so damn tired, of having my heart and soul broken.