Just a few days ago, I wrote at great length about the subject of servicemember suicide, speculating some of the multitudinous factors that are contributing to the rise in incidents the military is now seeing. While many will probably lump military and veteran suicides into the same category they are, at least as far as I am concerned, entirely different matters, rooted in remarkably different reasons.
As I have surmised previously, the emotional situation that leads any servicemembers to contemplate ending their own lives often centers around a feeling of total entrapment. They are unable to leave the military (which may be the perceived source of the problem), and also feel unable to change their lot where they are. Perhaps only few try. At any rate, veterans, having now left the military, will no longer subject to any sort of binding oath preventing them from simply walking away from something that bothers them. Therefore, the explanations for their increased suicides must lay elsewhere.
I know from personal experience that the transition from military to civilian life is exceedingly challenging, for a number of reasons. Foremost among them, I was, for the first time in exactly four years and five months, master of my own domain. Nobody was telling me to be any particular place. Nobody was yelling at me. There were no consequences to being late or simply not showing up at all. Finally, I had virtually no responsibility – in stark contrast to Marine life where I was accountable for well over a dozen men and perhaps millions of dollars of equipment. Before me stood great opportunity and lots of doors – perhaps an overwhelming number.
For many, the urgency of finding a job, a house, and settling into a career keeps them sufficiently preoccupied to not dwell on the vast expanse of opportunity before them and struggle to make a decision. For them, even if what they’re slipping into is more of a rut than a groove – it is responsibility, necessity, and routine. That, at least coming from an organization where routine is critical to getting things accomplished, is beneficial. They are avoiding idleness.
My situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that I had no family to support, and only myself to worry about – and I had saved a good chunk of money for just that. In fact, I had no need to work – for a very long time. The best way to look at it is that I was set completely adrift. I could do virtually anything, yet didn’t know where to start.
Another reason the transition from military to civilian is troublesome is physiological. Young Marines (myself included) are accustomed to staying up late, getting up early, burning lots of energy with physical training, yelling and work, and then retreating in the late afternoon to do other things. That’s when we’re stateside. When we’re overseas (I am speaking for combat troops), our days are a constant inundation of high-stress missions, orders, and racing to get things done “yesterday.” Chemically, the adrenalin, endorphins and other hormonal factors become the new norm – though they are quote abnormal. In fact, they could even be described as an addiction. Even our circadian rhythms are adjusted to sleep whenever we can, move with purpose when we must, and find ways to find respite from it, however brief, and give ourselves some rest. Yet as new civilians, still trained to sleep whenever we sit down, and run hard when we must, boredom quickly appear in the absence of responsibility. And then we find ourselves missing the action, so to speak. Combat isn’t addictive. At best, it’s utter chaos and confusion, and at worst it’s tragic. But the hormones and their consequences can certainly be addictive. We pursue other things to entertain ourselves and alleviate the boredom.
Some of us buy motorcycles (I bought two) and keep living life on the edge. Some start spending money (I spent at least $20,000 in eight months), and a few others simply slump into boredom – and start occupying themselves with destructive behavior (I struggled with heavy drinking for a short while).
The reality is that many of our friends now are no longer recognize us for who we once were. Even our spouses, parents and children, for that matter. Our personalities have changed, for one. Additionally, we’re more alert, responsible (sometimes), and less inclined to simply relax, let our guards down, and enjoy a casual social atmosphere. And honestly, we don’t have nearly as much in common with these people as we did at one time. We are decidedly different.
We went away to war, in a manner of speaking, and come back to find them doing the same things they were doing when we left. They don’t exactly know how to view our service, and we don’t know how to tolerate what appears, at least on the outside, to be a profoundly boring existence. Their lives are terribly uninteresting, untraveled, and not in the least bit fraught with difficulty. They’re worried about the performance of their favorite sports team on Monday night. We, at least at one time, were worried if we and our buddies would come back alive from a mission. We have lost our sense of normalcy – or perhaps our toleration of it.
As the realization hits that we are different and not well adapted to “normal” life, an ugly seed of bitterness is given permission to take root – and potentially grow quickly, and destructively, into total isolation.
I have said before, and heard others say it, too, that our civilian peers are out of touch with reality, that they are unconcerned about the world in which they live, that they are apathetic to the daily horrors that many millions face, and are content to simply not think about them and focus on their lives – which to us are terribly small. We, though, having seen the world, are unable to settle for such determined ignorance. It seems counter to reason, justice, and responsible living. Many, and I have done this too, back away from civilian life because we don’t WANT to fit in. It seems boring, apathetic, and insular.
But unless one is surrounded by a cadre of like-minded companions (veterans), such thinking results in little more than a total disassociation from the reality we are supposed to be embracing. Life, they say, is pretty darn dull at times. It’s what you make of it that redeems it. Many refuse to make that concessions, since it would require “shutting off” the parts of our brains and hearts that have been awakened by service overseas, combat, and seeing the plight of those living in fear. Yet now, no longer in the military and supposedly making a difference, we have lost our sense of purpose to resolve these matters. We are truly adrift.
Many veterans are so unable to accept that life is often quite uninteresting, begin drinking simply to escape from it. Either they cannot sleep because their circadian rhythms are so scrambled that an alcohol-induced coma is the only reprieve, or, as they draw away from everybody else, the drink becomes their only remaining friend. But like all addictions, it is indulged in to assist the problem, but in the end considerably worsens it. Alcohol begets more alcohol.
What is created is a scenario where a young man or woman, presumably in the prime of life, is relegated to lonesome contemplation along the lines of, “I don’t fit in here, and nor do I really want to. Everything is stupid, and everyBODY is stupid. I’m bored out of my mind, and don’t know what to do about it.” This self-focused thinking can devolve quickly into total isolation, misery and boredom – especially when veterans convince themselves that there is nobody else like them, that nobody cares about them, and that there will never be anything exciting happening in their lives.
When the standard demons of service are added to this fray, disaster can quickly follow. Most combat vets wish they had done more, seen more action, saved more lives, and taken more of their enemies. Some regret decisions which they are convinced hastened the deaths of friends. Some still see their dead friends faces. Some, in total self-flagellation, wish they, too were dead with them. It appears, at times, more appealing than the survivor’s guilt. In short, it works effectively to further distance veterans from civilians, and solidify their conviction that nobody understands them, that they will never fit in, and that nobody will have any clue how to relate to what they have endured. And, there may be some truth to it. Enough, at least, that many veterans lose the once-natural will to live.
It is here and only here that the explanations for the rise in military and civilian suicides overlap. The conditioning we received in the military worked highly effectively to reduce our value in life. Such things are essential to making successful combat troops. The innate disinclination to take another human life is now damaged, if not destroyed. Companion to that is recognition of the sanctity of one’s own life. This, combined with training that has successfully activated our ability to kill, eases thoughts of death, morbidity, and suicide. The unthinkable is now quite thinkable indeed.
The consequence of the isolation, the boredom, the lack direction/responsibility and the demons leads many to seek their escape in death, convinced that they will never find their place in society. As I have said before, many feel that, in fighting for civilians, they have lost their place among them. There can be no other explanation for the fact that veterans under 29 are twice as likely to take their own lives as their civilian counterparts.
The obvious next question is what can be done about it. Having clearly identified a problem, and hopefully explaining some of its sources, what, realistically, can now be undertaken to help these young men and women so ill-adapted to civilian life? As strange as it may be, though refreshing, MUCH can be done.
For the friends of veterans (especially combat veterans), expect that your companion is going to come back a different person than when they departed. They’ve been through a lot. Much of they have little interest in talking about – mostly because they don’t think you’ll understand, or that you’ll be so horrified or disturbed by it that you’ll never wish to spend time with them again. Be prepared to make a new friend, for the old one is now gone. Rather than delicately skirt the subject of their service, gently encourage them talk about it. This needn’t be so much done by prodding them for information, because such things will be poorly received. What you can do, however, is open the door of communication and invite them to walk through it. The rest, as much as it may frustrate you, is entirely up to them. But talking about things, especially difficult subjects, is a balm to us. Never speaking about the obvious means it is obviously trapped within us. There, it fosters innumerable problems.
Speaking from experience, one of the worst things that a veteran can endure when he or she is freshly returned to civilian life is to be left alone. We do not need our space, despite what people may say. We need our friends, and we need our families. You, collectively, have much to offer us – mostly your friendship and your unconditional love for a bunch of people that are undoubtedly difficult to love.
Do not consider us victims, for victims we may then very well become. We have been through a lot, yes, and often survived quite well, but to assume we are victims will lend credence to whatever victimhood we may already feel. What will follow is bitterness and a sense of entitlement. Neither of which are constructive. It is acceptable to ask questions rooted in curiosity, and you will probably get a very lengthy answer. Be careful, however, not to touch on certain subjects, like horrifying experiences, deaths of friends, or how many the veteran may have killed in combat. These should never be asked. If the subjects are ever mentioned at all, they must be completely volunteered. None of us want to be interrogated.
To help alleviate the boredom, involve your veteran friend/family member in things. Invite them out with you and other friends; include them in your social life, even if they’re radically different from everybody else. Do not let them slip into isolation, self-imposed or otherwise. If you need help with something, ask them for their assistance. Encourage them to go to school, to read the news, to find work, and then keep up with them on it. Discuss it with them. Ask them about their day, their studies, and their jobs. And rather than pretending to care, truly do so.
If the veteran shows a strong propensity to drink and act violent, do not do them the disservice of perpetuating the problem. Avoid excessive drinking, or perhaps drinking altogether. If they don’t like terribly violent movies, don’t watch them in their presence. If they are hellbent on telling you their opinion on a matter, just listen. Argue, but carefully so. The idea is to include them in your life, not do anything that would drive them away. Do not, however, make any moral or character concessions on account of them being troubled veterans. Expect much from them, but in love.
If he or she shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD – the new name for an age-old problem), help them. Encourage them to seek help somewhere, preferably from other veterans. While counselors all over the country may feel equipped to address these matters, few “get it” unless they “did it.” Veterans, naturally, make the best counselors for veterans. Rather than look at their struggles as a weakness, focus on the boldness and strength it takes to do something about it. Besides which, having a struggle with killing is not a weakness; it’s natural. NOT having a struggle with it is the bigger problem. As much as the term may be overused and obnoxious, encourage the veteran to “plug in.” Again, it’s isolation that does the most profound damage.
The biggest complaint that a civilian friend or family member has in dealing with “their” veteran is that they have nothing to offer. On the contrary, you have everything. You have yourself. You loved this person before, probably prayed for their safe and quick return, and now you are presented with the opportunity to demonstrate it. They needed your support when they were overseas, and, all the more they need it now. Veterans don’t necessarily need each other; they need you. And so, should they have difficulty fitting in or feel isolated, you, as friends, spouses, family members and Americans, are there to lift them up.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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