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I read this late yesterday afternoon as I was preparing to go out on the back patio and demolish a few brewskies. From my back patio, I have a tremendous view of the fields of corn and soybeans running into the foothills of southern Ohio; perfect for some thought and reflection. Even some unpleasant reflection.
It’s almost impossible to read stories like this about a combat veteran lost to suicide without thinking about my own experiences. While there’s no doubt that Master Sergeant Marckesano saw more action in one month than I saw during my entire 13 months in Vietnam, I did see enough to keep asking one simple question: WHY?
He was about to get his “dream shot”; a desk job at the Pentagon where the nightmare of war could be left behind. He would be back with his wife and family; perhaps he would have never deployed again. Instead, he pulled a pistol and ended his life in front of his wife. Her last recollection of him will be his lifeless body on the floor of their residence. WHY?
We can only speculate as to what was running through his mind before he made his decision. Obviously, he was carrying some emotional baggage that became too heavy. One would have thought that he could have unloaded some of this baggage during his meeting with his former battalion commander but that didn’t happen. From what I understand, the military is providing counseling for veterans returning to the “real world”, but it was clearly inadequate for the demons that Master Sergeant Marckesano succumbed to.
It’s no secret that the number of veteran suicides has increased. Although there have been loud calls to “do something”, nothing appears to be working. Even though many programs have combat veterans as counselors, they seem to have had little effect.
For the most part, American society’s attitude ranges from “That’s too bad” to “So what? They volunteered for it”. Stories similar to Master Sergeant Marckesano’s are duly reported and disappear; victims to our 24-hour news cycle. There are always more pressing issues and stories. The only remembrance will be from the families they leave behind and organizations such as the VFW and American Legion.
The part of the story that affected me the most was one simple number: 12. Twelve combat tours? I had one tour and it took me nearly five years to put it behind me. How can we expect to send our troops into combat this many times without breaking them down?
I retired from the military in 2004 but, even then, I was beginning to see some troubling signs. Sure, troops were feeling burnout from frequent deployments but what was really beginning to disturb them was the environment being fostered by some senior NCOs and flag officers (termed “Perfume Princes” by the late LTC David Hackworth). In my own mind, they resembled the abhorrent “ticket punchers” that infested the military in the Vietnam era. Their own careers came first; the troops came second.
Equally troubling was the quality of training that I was seeing from the young troops I encountered. I was struck by the number of them that told me, “You know, I thought that boot camp was going to be difficult but it was a breeze”. These young men and women expected to be challenged; many of them had entered the military actually wanting the discipline that separated them from their civilian counterparts. Instead, they received a watered-down training that may, or may not, have prepared them for the rigors that some of them would face.
If the Veteran’s Administration is to be believed, the majority of suicides are occurring in veterans who have never been “outside the wire”. And, again from the VA, many suicides are from the ranks of those who have never even deployed. That tells me that a “one size fits all” approach will never work in attempting to stem the number of veteran suicides.
So, if this nation is serious about lessening the number of veteran suicides, some hard decisions will have to be made; some medically, some socially, some militarily and some politically.
- This idea of “endless war” is not working out for our military. The courage of “super troopers” such as Master Sergeant Marckesano is not the issue. The issue is how much more can this country expect of them before they break? “Nation Building” is all well and good but to coin a phrase from “The Magnificent Seven”, there’s a time to “face mother’s picture to the wall” and get out. In the case of Afghanistan, the first few years of our war should have shown us that some folks just don’t want a McDonald’s or Starbucks in their village. It’s cold and it’s cruel to leave a populace (especially the women) to the tender mercies of the Taliban but we gave them ample opportunity to fight for themselves.
- It’s time for the folks in the Pentagon to ask themselves, “Just how well are we preparing enlistees for military service?” A constant burr under my saddle has been the insistence on coed boot camp by politicians who have never, and will never, serve in the military. The shift from civilian to the military is traumatic; and, it should be. No matter the length of boot camp (now, it ranges from seven to twelve weeks, depending on the branch of service) the instructors need to concentrate on preparing their trainees for duty; they should not have to worry about the landmines brought about by the mix of young men and women in their first weeks in the military. Although senior leadership seems to think that DIs/TIs should be part trainers and part counselors, this places an impossible burden on them. The only concern on their mind should be “training up” their enlistees.
- It’s also time to ask the question, “Just who are we bringing into the military?” I know that many of us who served occasionally ran into the individual that caused us to think, “How in the h*ll did this individual qualify to wear the uniform?” Even though most young troops that I encountered were totally squared away, toward the end of my military career, I seemed to encounter more and more kids that left me questioning both the recruitment and training process. For example, how was deserter Bowe Bergdahl allowed to enlist in the Army even though he had washed out of the Coast Guard (discharged after a grand total of 26 days)? Bergdahl was a problem, waiting to happen, yet the Army welcomed him in. Was he just a statistic that became a plaque some recruiter could hang on a wall? Another example is Bradley/Chelsea/??? Manning. What sort of psychological testing was he/she given before it was determined that he/she qualified for the MOS of Intelligence Analyst? Although Bergdahl and Manning are extreme examples, the question has to be asked, “Are we bringing individuals into the military who will never have the coping skills necessary to resolve the risks/problems inherent in the military?”
- Is the military giving its personnel some “decompression time” before they depart for the civilian sector? In looking back, I was fortunate in that Uncle Sam kept me in uniform for nearly six months after I finished my tour in Vietnam. I was able to ease my way back into a “semi-civilian” atmosphere while I was still in the “cocoon” provided by the Army. I say I was fortunate because, in those days, there were grunts who could literally be in combat and then, 48 hours later, be walking through the streets of their home town. During those days, the Army didn’t care; I hope it learned a lesson.
So, despite a great deal of harrumphing from different politicians, and administrations, the band continues to play on. We continue to put people in uniforms, send them off (sometimes pointlessly), and hope that, sooner or later, they don’t self-destruct. Call me old fashioned but it seems like a h*ll of way to run a railroad.Published in