Suicide is a rough subject.
When I was younger my father had a friend and co-worker take his life. I had met the gentleman and he was a good soul. He and my father would toil in the basement of our house working on side projects on weekends to earn extra money. He was meticulous and thorough, exactly what my father needed as a helping hand in a greasy unforgiving machine shop. The gentleman went through a rough patch and an ugly divorce. At a certain point his daughter, the love of his life, disowned him and he decided to kill himself.
I remember my uncles coming over to spend time with my Dad after he had learned the news. He was a wreck. He blamed himself for not seeing the signs, for not asking. When my Dad was just starting to recover he got hit with a bombshell. His friend mailed him a letter thanking him for being such a good friend. In the letter were the keys to all of his toolboxes. He was meticulously organized to the end. There were not many people at the funeral, and as years passed my father lost touch with the family.
Each time I hear of a suicide or wrongful death, my fathers’ friend is lurking in the back of my mind. The memory of the visible emotional pain on my father’s face is a reminder to me of what happens after that person is gone by their own hand.
Those images, along with others and the support of my family have kept me from the edge in my struggles to return from combat and reintegrate.
Today the web was alight with the news of the death and apparent suicide of Russell Armstrong. I don’t know the details and I won’t pursue them here. The media takes deaths and suicides of celebrities to an obscene level. It is tragic and to me, a complete turn off. Occasionally a story will populate the news about a teen or someone who has taken the step to never return. They are all sad. That any person will feel they have nowhere else to turn and that suicide is the only option will always be sad. I am the guy who cheers for the underdog. I want to hear the story of hitting bottom and then rising up in triumph.
A few days ago the Army released the suicide numbers for the month of July. They were the highest reported in three years. I didn’t see too much media coverage about it, but I am pretty sure Extra or Us Weekly didn’t pick up the story.
For me, the sensitivity about the Veteran suicide numbers takes on a deeper meaning. I have stared into a pit of despair felt nothing but guilt and worthlessness. The word fortunate or blessed or lucky doesn’t come close to describe me as my family stood by me and I pulled out of my depression. Part of the reason for writing this blog is to let others know they are not alone in this struggle to help myself and whoever stumbles upon this blog to return to a new normal after combat.
I was lucky that I was financially stable enough to endure not having an income while I tried to start my business and get my head on straight. I was fortunate that my wife put up with my shenanigans of early entrepreneurship and copious amounts of therapy. And I was blessed that my family gave me more than time and space, they gave me shoulders to lean on.
The plague of Veteran suicides has me worried not just because the numbers are increasing, but also because it is just not getting a lot of attention. I was twenty five and a leader of men in combat when I returned home from my first deployment. I was twenty seven after my second trip. I knew leadership, camaraderie, toughness, killing, and hardship. I knew all those things in the context of working with my men and my unit. Then, I exited the Army and they were gone, on to the next mission or deployment. I look at others put in that same scenario and it is no wonder we have people turning to the final out. Our Armed Forces are not equipped to prepare their Soldiers for a complete transition, especially in the Combat Arms branches, and equally in terms of physical and mental health follow ups. There is too large of a disconnect between the VA and the Armed Forces and the process is too slow.
Combine the stresses of transition with a blighted economy and the road gets bumpier. It has been a struggle to find work where people understand. Why should they? They have their own problems in this economy. Lump that with my reintegration and paying bills and the frustrations of the VA and you have a recipe for trouble. I needed years to get to where I am now, and I still, as my wife will tell you, have plenty of “moments”.
I hope that the title of this blog post, when pushed out onto the web, will drum up a little more attention. I have stumbled through this process and I am willing to share ideas and lessons learned about keeping these returning Veterans connected and on the path to prosperity they have earned. It is going to take effort to remain involved and attentive with the Veterans to keep any ideas or solutions trending in the right, and opposite, direction.
I’m sorry Mr. Armstrong could not turn another way. I wish his family peace in this time of grief.