As I have seen all the media hullabaloo leading up to Memorial day this year it has caused me to reflect on my own military service as well as that of my husband. I joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school and served for eight years. My husband waited a little longer to join, he was a few years out of school, and served for 7.5 years. We met while serving and had our first two children together while on active duty. My husband is now currently serving in the National Guard.
We are both proud of our service. We did hard things. We deployed. We were part of something bigger than ourselves. We were willing to die for our country. This is what you hear from most active duty and veterans. What you don’t hear, and what you probably don’t want to hear, is that there is a dark side to service.
The military is one of the most emotionally sick places that I have ever been in my life. It was a dark time for me emotionally and spiritually. The worst mistakes I made in my life were a result of trying to fit in and be a part of a culture that was the polar opposite of the values I had been raised with. The incongruity between my actions and what I knew to be right caused me to struggle with depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
Did you know that roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day? Some articles will try to tell you that this is a trumped-up statistic as the majority of veterans are older. They say these veterans shouldn’t count because their reasons for suicide are the same as any other civilian of that age. I don’t buy it. Military service affects you in a way that never leaves your mind, especially if you have been in active combat. Sure many of these vets may fight their demons off for years, but that doesn’t mean that it affected them any less, or that their suicide is unrelated to their service.
Why is it that mental issues like depression, anxiety, and even suicide are so common among military members? Well I can’t say it any better than my husband did on a recent Facebook post where he accepted a challenge to do 22 push-ups to raise awareness for veteran suicide:
I wanted to accept this challenge because what I can do to raise awareness is to talk about my experience in the active duty ranks of the military. If we want to see a reduction in suicides, we need to address the culture of the military that pressures service members to be supermen and women without feelings. We need to hold military leaders’ feet to the fire with the claim that they care about families. To the military, caring about families means spending money on them when it should mean creating an environment in which the family member who serves is not destroyed by the pressures of the job. We need to transform the culture that celebrates pornography, promiscuity, and alcoholism into one in which service members can feel it’s normal, okay, and healthy to seek help in overcoming problem behaviors. While service members do have access to chaplains and mental health professionals, they are often called names and counseled that their careers will suffer if they use those resources. Leaders don’t want their people to have problems, be weak, or discuss poor leadership with anyone outside the chain of command.
If you think military suicides are a problem, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that the American military is the most mentally unhealthy, destructive place on the planet. Going after suicides can and should only lead to the discovery that the problem is much deeper, much bigger than gets reported in the news. If you want to solve this problem, you have to be committed to going all the way. So called “suicide awareness” campaigns are only a last-ditch effort to prevent the consummation of a tragedy that has been building for months and years in the minds of affected service members. Our young people suddenly leave families and friends, endure the pressures of basic training, and enter a world in which power-hungry, ego-tripping maniacal senior leaders bark orders ad nauseam with no (or feigned) regard for the well-being of their subordinates—to say nothing of the horrors of war many of them experience. After work, these young people live in a world where sex and alcohol are easy to find and seemingly limitless. With young people beginning their lives away from home this way—essentially living like college students with the added dangers of a high-stress job, less supervision, more freedom, and more money to spend—it is no wonder so many of them can’t handle it. I’m proud of my military service and what my brothers and sisters in arms have accomplished for this country, but there is much work to be done. Yes, suicides are a problem, but at the root of that problem is the destructive culture. The problem will continue until the root is cut.
About 3 years into my service I went to see a counselor to address my depression. I had one appointment. When requesting further appointments I was told I had to schedule them during non-work hours, they would not excuse my absence from work for a 1 hour counseling appointment. The counselors on base are only available during work hours. When my husband once sought some anger management classes he was advised against it because it could negatively impact his career. When a young marine I was in charge of took rat poisoning trying to end his life the SSgt over me made the comment “If he really meant it he would have succeeded. Don’t worry about him. I’ll straighten him out.” He was then moved to another direct supervisor because the SSgt thought I was babying him by showing concern. I spent many hours sitting and talking with those who had nowhere else to turn with their problems. When I left the Corps a few marines commented that I should be called Mama Smith instead of SSgt Smith. I was an oddity because of the level of true compassion I showed towards my Marines. “They’re tough, they don’t need you treating them like sissies” was once said to me by my top enlisted leader. When a fellow Marine asked those sharing his changing area to remove a pornographic poster that was on the wall he was ignored and ridiculed for the rest of his time in the unit. I could go on and on.
The fact is that the Military is a dark place full of unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. If you don’t conform to their beliefs then you are an outcast, often ridiculed and unjustly persecuted. Add in the pressures of war and the effects of PTSD and it’s no surprise that so many veterans, especially those who were raised with much higher moral standards, are struggling with mental illness and suicide.
So what can we do about it. Unfortunately I haven’t found a way to influence a culture change. What I can do is support those organizations who try to assist veterans overcome the problems that their service has created. At the top of my list is The Valhalla Project. The Valhalla Project is a 200-acre pilot property in the Ozark mountains with homesteading programs for post-9/11 military veterans. It is a retreat and reintegration facility for post-911 combat veterans and war zone civilian workers transitioning back into the civilian world. They work the land as a form of therapy to help deal with the trauma that they have experienced. One of the best ways to help them is to check out their critical needs wishlist on Amazon and send them a gift. You can also follow them on Facebook to be updated on any needs, and share their message with others. Direct donation via Paypal is also available on their blog.
Here are some other organizations who are fighting the mental health battle against veteran suicide:
- 22 Too Many
- IAVA Campaign to Combat Suicide
- VA’s Veteran Crisis Line: 800-273-8255 and press 1 for immediate support for suicidal thoughts
- Stop Soldier Suicide
- Real Warriors Suicide Support
Do you know a veteran or are you a veteran with mental health issues related to your service? Do you know of any additional resources for those who want to be part of the solution? Please share your stories and resources in the comments below.