The tragic act of taking one’s own life happens too often among every group of people, young and old, sick and healthy, religious or non-religious, eastern, western, northern or southern — all parts of humanity feel the pain of this type of irreversible loss. In the United States, however, it seems military veterans take their own lives at a much more alarming rate than any other demographic. We can perhaps learn part of the reason for this from a very famous American war veteran and suicide victim, Ernest Hemingway, who confessed to F. Scott Fitzgerald that war was his favorite subject to write about: “It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” It seems life brings all kinds of people to such extreme grief that they contemplate ending theirs unnaturally, but war or even just being trained for war brings people there much faster.
This meditation on the crisis of veteran suicide in America is meant to be helpful for any person who is either struggling themselves or struggling to help others eliminate the urge to suicide. I write this as a veteran who has struggled with persistent thoughts of suicide for many years, but more fundamentally as a person. Just weeks ago, I had the tremendous experience of how others listening to your stories can relieve your burden and lighten your heart and mind. A story I wrote about my best friend who died in Iraq was shared quite a bit and read widely, and now I feel free of this load of grief I was carrying in my heart for almost ten years.
It’s essential for everyone to know that those considering suicide do not want to be told what to do or what not to do. More than anything else in the world, when a person is thinking about ending their life, they long for someone who wants to listen to them, someone who will not run away frightened to hear about the horrors that they lived through. If someone tells you they want to take their own life, before you tell them anything, even, “I love you,” first ask, “Why, what’s wrong? How come you want to do this?” If you yourself are struggling with an urge to end your own life, try to find a friend or family member who is willing to listen to you without judgment. If you don’t have someone like that within reach, there are lots of good people who want to hear your stories, know your grief and will offer whatever help they can give. They volunteer around the clock, every single day, to be just a phone call away, even if you just want to chat with someone. In the United States, the hotline to reach these people is 1-800-273-8255; veterans can press 1 to quickly talk with someone who can speak our language.
We military people always try to take care of our own, on and off the battlefield, every way we know how, but most of us are accustomed to applying combat medicine. That might be why we often put a proverbial bandage on what can mentally feel like a sucking chest wound or a gaping head wound, when what is really needed is specialized care. A bandage can often save a life in the field, but as soon as you can, you have to get your wounded to a higher echelon of care. Of course, the best way to keep your troops alive in the field is to take every reasonable precaution to minimize their chances of getting wounded in the first place. That includes proper planning and tough training, making sure everyone knows the mission and their role in it, as well as knowing your enemies, knowing your friends and making sure everyone has their all-important battle buddy. Never forget your battle buddies, even if it seems they forgot about you.
When we have such a high rate of attrition, sustained for many years without yet adapting to and overcoming the problem, the real failure is likely high up on the chain of command. When I went to boot camp ten years ago, we were taught that violence and ferocity is the best solution to nearly every problem we would ever face. And indeed, in situations where you or your allies’ lives are in immediate danger, violence and ferocity often is the best solution. But when violence as a solution is applied to every situation too broadly, it becomes counter-productive and overly destructive. On the battlefield, excessive violence takes innocent lives and turns survivors away from you and toward your enemies, which in turn means more people shooting at you and more of your friends dying, all very bad things which perpetually escalate in a vicious cycle.
On many levels, the difficulties we face in civilian life are similar to the challenges we face in war, minus the need for violence. In the transition from active duty to civilian life, the balance between external and internal challenges is usually reversed. We face both in both worlds, but during active duty our external challenges usually outweigh our internal ones. The enemy is always somewhere just outside the gate, often lobbing indirect fire towards you. We have to deal with continually pissed-off first sergeants and we have to climb steep hills with heavy packs. In the civilian world, our internal demons are always nearby and taunting us, we struggle with how to handle our relationships and loss, and we often have to fight uphill battles with addiction or landing a career. Maybe later in life, when our physical health begins to deteriorate, that balance will shift back the other way, so it’s always important to stay fluid and be able to apply our strengths and skills appropriately from one area of life to another.
Our demons can be just as menacing and deadly as the enemies we faced in combat. How can we confront our worst experiences or feelings of meaninglessness and really overcome them? First by keeping in mind that we are not alone in this fight—we are still in it with everyone else facing their own demons and struggles, right alongside them just as we were with every other Marine, soldier, sailor and airman facing the same enemy.
You’re stuck in an ambush, maybe one or two of your friends have just been killed and some more are wounded, maybe even you’re wounded and your quick reaction forces are a long way away, but there are still a handful of you alive together — would you ever allow yourself to be so overcome with grief and hopelessness that you shoot yourself before the enemy does, leaving your friends to face the enemy without you? If not, then do not ever give up, at any point in your life, ever, because you may feel like you’re struggling alone, but there are actually many of us still in this together, just a little more dispersed now. Life is never really easy for long, for anyone — it’s still quite a mystery what we’re even doing here. Since the meaning of life is not given to us, we have to find our own meaning, choose our own mission.
How many of us are depressed because we feel like our life is now meaningless and no one is truly compassionate enough to help us through our difficulties? From my experiences in group therapy, mental hospitals and the street, a lot of us suffer from feelings of meaninglessness and a lack of compassion from others. The cure to this ailment is an expansion upon the Golden Rule: Make the meaning of your life to stay here beside yourself and do your best to be the source of compassion you wish others were for you. Often our urge to give up on the life we are living is correct, but giving up on life itself is wrong. If you have experienced the great human tragedy of war, then you know the futility of any worldly pursuit beyond helping others through the pains and fears that are inherent to this world. If you have not devoted yourself to this, then you will feel an urge to end the life you’re living — that’s natural because it’s in our nature to live for others as well as ourselves, and not simply for ourselves alone. Too many of us, trained and conditioned to face our difficulties with violence, feel this urge and make the awful mistake of suicide. It is right to stop living only for yourself, but that doesn’t mean you should stop living altogether. Take small steps each day to help others around you more so you think about yourself less.
I’m still here because I choose to face this struggle called life along with everyone else still facing it, and I want to help as many people as I can get along without anyone feeling alone or neglected. Now all of my worst experiences — even my horrible mistakes — have meaning because they connect me to everyone else who has had or is still having similar experiences, and that makes me more suited to help others by empathizing with them and understanding their fears and pains.
From here the rest is easy to figure out… If your first sergeant knows you’re going to do everything you can to stay in the fight with him until the end, then he won’t get so pissed off that he would actually give up on you — in fact he’ll probably go an extra mile to help you succeed in all of your goals. If you’re facing that steep hill alone with your heavy pack, then it’s pretty easy to stop for a picnic and a nap, but you are not alone. Facing that hill with your platoon makes it a lot easier to forget your own burden while making sure everyone else is handling theirs. The military is already teaching courageous restraint on the battlefield, but to solve this major problem we need to face it at its most common denominator. It is absolutely necessary, from day one, on every level of basic training that everyone is taught why to never give up — not in uniform, not many decades after it’s taken off, not ever, because just as war is life sped up, according to Mr. Hemingway, life is like slow war and we cannot leave our friends and all of the vulnerable people to face life’s challenges without us.
How better off would many thousands of people had been if Hemingway’s last chapter or two were of him setting the example for others to seek the care they need and deserve? No one should be embarrassed to seek help from others for mental or spiritual problems — this is the other half of the war they don’t tell you about when you sign up, and it’s the most responsible way to face your challenges. Calling a friend or seeking professional help is the most courageous way to face this shadow enemy, because we all need to be here for each other, and we all need more people to set this example.
Vince Perritano is a former Marine Corps infantryman. He currently lives in Istanbul where he teaches English. He is the author of After We’re Free, a novel he wrote in Ramadi, Iraq during his second tour there in 2007 and published on his last day of active duty in 2008.