Editor’s note: the name of author’s fellow Servicemember was omitted for the sake of privacy.
He was our radio operator, and he was a quiet kid – at least around me. He was sitting in the corner of our makeshift supply room, kicking the floor – shuffling the dirt around with his feet. I had just finished a four-hour shift manning the radios at our outpost in the middle of Nowhere, Iraq, when I saw him.
It was the last week of operations for my platoon in the Al Anbar Provence, and I was looking forward to ending my second and last deployment to Iraq. I was thinking of my girlfriend, and what I would do and see when I got back. A few days and a wake-up and I’d be drinking a beer and enjoying life in Southern California.
Iraq would just be a horrible memory.
“What’s up?” I asked him as I scavenged through a box of AA-batteries for my iPod.
“Nothing, corporal,” he said, looking up at me through his thick glasses.
“You good?” I asked.
“Yes, corporal.” he answered.
Even though he’d been with us during most of the deployment, I could only recall a handful of times when I actually spoke with him for more than a few minutes. I grabbed some batteries, walked over to my squad’s room, started listening to my iPod and fell asleep on my cot.
When I woke up, his body had just been carted off and others were running around with their flack and kevlars on.
“What’s going on?” I asked the first Marine I saw.
“He killed himself, corporal,” was the answer.
My heart sank. I couldn’t believe he was dead. I had just seen him.
He was standing guard on the rooftop of our outpost overlooking the dusty Iraqi countryside when he did it. Despite all the firefights and run-ins with IEDs, he would be the only loss of life our platoon suffered during that deployment, and that stung.
I wasn’t a stranger to death by any means at that point in my military career. My first deployment with 3rd Battalion 5th Marines to Fallujah, during Operation Phantom Fury, made me more than aware of how ugly war could be, and the toll it had on human life. But my previous experiences with death didn’t dull the gnawing pain of what happened one bit.
I think about him now anytime the subject of military and Veterans suicide comes up – and it comes up a lot at my job in VA’s office of digital media engagement. His memory drives me to make sure I never fall asleep on a fellow Marine or Veteran in crisis again.
I know thinking about him doesn’t change what happened in Iraq, but it has opened my eyes to some of the warning signs:
- Hopelessness, feeling like there is no way out
- Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
- Feeling like there is no reason to live
- Rage or anger
- Engaging in risky activities without thinking
- Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
- Withdrawing from family and friends
But what can we do to when we see these signs in our fellow Veterans or loved ones?
Sharing information on the Veterans Crisis Line, which is manned by caring mental health professionals 24/7, is one way I reach out. There have been many late nights when I’ve seen cries for help from my fellow Marines on Facebook or text messages, and pushed for them to contact the crisis line. I do this because I know it helps. Since 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line took more than one million calls, 143,000 text messages, numerous online chats, and saved more than 35,000 lives.
But while Veterans Crisis Line information is vital, we need to take one step beyond sharing information when trying to help a fellow Veteran, or loved one, and motivate them to seek long-term mental health care. There has to be some follow through on our part past a Facebook message.
Why should we do more? Because while some folks cite VA’s study showing 22 Veterans a day are committing suicide, what doesn’t get discussed is the fact that the suicide rate for Veterans who seek mental health care through VA is much lower.
This is why we must do more, and why VA staffs more than 20,000 mental health positions and recently hired 1,600 more professionals and 800 peer specialists. It’s also why VA tries to touch more Veteran’s lives through programs and services like the GI Bill, VA Home Loans and VA Adaptive Sports. Because when a Veteran reaches out to VA, their lives get better. I would know – VA made mine better.
And that’s what I wish I could’ve told the young, quiet Marine in that dusty outpost in Iraq. That for all the agony he was feeling at that moment, it would have gotten better with time.
Please join me, and the rest of VA’s digital media engagement team, in making sure that we do more than hit “like” or “share” during Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s take that extra step in combating suicide and create a real connection between available help and those that need it.