Military Suicides by the heartbeats, not the numbers

Military Suicides by the heartbeats, not the numbers

July 16, 2010 – This morning, USA Today reported that Army suicides for June were at a record high of 32 for the month. I want to point out that this number reflects only one branch of our Armed Forces.  The Marine Corps has reported only one suicide and nine suicide attempts for the month of June. The Corps would like for us to think that they’ve got things under control, but they have the highest suicide rate of all branches so I sadly predict that low numbers won’t be the norm.  Just keep reading to find out why I say this.

I’ve tried to come up with an absolute number of suicides and suicide attempts within the past year (July 16, 2009 – July 16, 2010) but it is nearly impossible to track this information….and I believe it is intentional.  Do an online search for these statistics and you will find that you have to read through all sorts of information listed on numerous websites.  You will have to take notes and use your calculator to try and put it all together.  It’s pretty obvious that the Department of Defense is trying to present the information in a way that keeps anyone from truly understanding the magnitude of the crisis at hand.

Here is what I could come up with….if these numbers are accurate.  By November 24, 2009, there had been 344 suicides amongst active duty troops. December took the lives of 16 more from the Army. We don’t have numbers for the other branches.  Looking at the reports for 2010, it’s obvious that the numbers are growing and I just read that someone in the military tries to take their own life every 2 hours.  I got that little tidbit of information from the Marine Corps NCO Suicide Prevention Training Instructor Guide. If that number has any truth to it, there are twelve attempts a day which totals 4,380 attempts a year! (Remember, I’m not even including veterans.)

Why, you ask, am I so interested in all the numbers.  Let me be clear.  These are not numbers.  These are lives!  Lives that are destroyed by war and the system.  Each number represents a human being with a beating heart who has sacrificially served his country for the rest of us.  He has been forever changed by the cruelty of war and returns home to an environment that offers no help.  Our troops are suffering in silence because, despite what is claimed by our military leadership, there is not much help and the stigma is far too damaging for anyone to take a chance on speaking up about their problems.

July 16, 2010 – One of the numbers tallied in June 2008 represents Sgt. Travis Brake, USMC, MarSOC, friend, teammate and roommate to my son.  I went to Travis’s funeral.  I felt the family’s devastation the moment I entered the funeral home.  I felt the anger and despair expressed by my son when he found out Travis was gone.  It’s been two years, but I’ll never forget the pain.

Another number, tallied in August 2009, represents the life of Cameron Anestis.  Cameron was a Marine who attended my son’s high school, as well as The Citadel, and served in Iraq before taking his life.  He left behind a wife and daughter.  We didn’t know Cameron, but we felt the pain that swept through our community when he died.

May of 2010 is the month that tallied the number representing the life of Sgt Thomas Bagosy, another Marine from MarSOC who was tormented with PTSD.  When he took his life, he left behind a wife, two children, parents, siblings, and friends who are still trying to understand how this could have happened.  I watched at Arlington National Cemetery as the Marines folded a flag for his wife, his parents, and his four year old son. I listened to the sobs of his wife and mother.  I couldn’t bury that memory if I tried for a thousand years.

I’ve been to two funerals in the past 8 days, both for Marines who struggled with PTSD.  Two of my dearest friends just buried their only child on Tuesday.  It’s likely that his death was accidental. He was fighting the demons of PTSD and was just trying to get some sleep.  I still can’t believe that LCPL Adam Puckett is gone from this earth.  Just 25 years old, he was here in Lexington, home on leave after completing his second deployment.  We all waited anxiously for his return only to lose him 10 days later.  His parents must now redefine their lives and we are all at a loss as to how to help them through this dark hour.

Today, July 16, 2010, marks one year since my own world came crashing down around me.  It was one year ago today that I was begging and pleading with my son to hold on and wait for help.  My Marine, who successfully completed three combat tours, who was a member of MarSOC, and who was well on his way to becoming a Staff Sergeant when he had been sidetracked by an injury that left him with a mild traumatic brain injury, was on the other end of the phone line telling us that he was holding a gun to his head.

What transpired in the next 45 minutes will forever be etched in my mind.  While my youngest son, only 15 at the time, tried to beg and plead with my Marine to please call for help, I went to another phone and called for help. We were over 600 miles away so I felt helpless.  I knew that I had the cell phone number for my son’s company commander.  In a panic, I called the captain.  I tried to remain calm and explain the situation knowing that I was breaking the unwritten rule…. Mothers NEVER, EVER call the Marine Corps.  I was almost more scared of what might happen to my son because I was calling to report his behavior than I was about the fact that he might pull the trigger.

The captain, who will not be identified for now, told me that he would talk to my son in the morning.  Can you believe it?  I called to tell him that my son is talking about taking his life and this man says he will speak to my son in the morning.  He is the commanding officer for the company at Wounded Warrior Battalion East and he is going to wait until the next day to look into this situation.  He went on to explain how PTSD affects the Marines and while I had half of my attention on what he was saying, I had the other half of my attention on the phone call between my sons.  At some point, the captain said he would give the 1st Sgt a call and look into the situation and he hung up.  We waited for what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only about 10 to 15 minutes.  It was obvious that no one was responding.  My younger son was still trying to keep my older son calm and I was about to panic thinking that if my oldest child pulled the trigger, my youngest child was going to hear the gunshot that would take his brother’s life.  I couldn’t breathe and I finally called the captain back to see what was going on.

It was clear that nothing was going on.  The captain was still trying to counsel me and it was obvious that he considered me to be nothing more than a neurotic mother.  At some point I screamed that my son was ready to pull the trigger and with that the captain said he would get right on it and call me back.  The phone line was still open between my sons and after waiting several more minutes and realizing that no one was going to my son’s aid, I picked up the phone and called one of my son’s friends.  He immediately responded and 45 minutes after the initial call I finally knew that someone was there to help.

One year later, I’m still waiting for the captain to call me back.  You will also be interested to know that no one from the Marine Corps ever went to my son’s home to physically check on him that evening.  Several minutes after my son’s buddy and his wife arrived, we hung up leaving them to tend to our distressed Marine.  It was at some point after that the 1st Sgt finally called to see if my son was okay.  My son, frightened about the fact that his command now knew he was fragile, lied and told the 1st Sgt that his mother was just upset and that he would never commit suicide.  The 1st Sgt seemed satisfied, hung up, and likely went back to his movie and popcorn.

I have researched and read the leadership guidelines for suicide prevention that are supposedly used by the Marine Corps. I’ve watched the instructional videos, and I’ve even read the instructional training guides.  Nowhere have I seen it written that an officer is supposed to simply speak to a troubled Marine “in the morning”.  There is nothing that specifically details that a phone call is an acceptable choice of contact. What I did find is that it is mandatory that “all hands” take any troubled Marine for help. The Marine should not be left alone.  Even if one feels that a Marine is fabricating an attempted suicide, he is obligated to escort the Marine to a medical facility….just in case.

These leadership guidelines also stress the importance of reducing stigma and encouraging Marines to ask for help.  To prove there is no stigma, these publications and movies introduce Marines who have attempted suicide, gotten help, and later gone back to promotions and successful careers.  Nowhere did I see guidelines instructing commanders to tell the Marine on the following day that he was a disgrace to the uniform.  Sadly, that is exactly what my son was told.

Since July 16, 2009, I’ve pressed every rank from the Battalion Commander to the Brigadier General who works directly for the Commandant.  In fact, I’ve even written to the Commandant, but he and the Brigadier General have never responded to me directly.  Instead lengthy papers discrediting me and my son have been written and sent to lawmakers interested in this case.  Each one has given a different version of what they want to be believed as truth.  They all claim that protocol was followed, but my memory, as well as that of both of my sons, and my digital recording of the event say otherwise.

These high ranking officers claim that they have phone records to prove me wrong.  I say “Bring it!”  I have phone records too.  They say that the 1st Sgt was following protocol with his phone call.  I say, “Show me the leadership guide where that one is written!”  I’ve read all of them.  It’s not there.    A year later they are still twisting the truth in hopes that congressmen and senators will lose interest and walk away from our case.  There are a few who have done that, but lawmakers like Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, who truly care, know what’s really going on here and they are just that much more determined to seek the truth.

My son is still breathing and for that I am very grateful.  If not for the grace of God, Congressman Jones, and the willing hearts of my family who have sacrificed much to allow me to give my full time and attention to this fight, I’m certain that my son would be just another number in the monthly tallies.  He’s soon to be medically retired from the Marine Corps at the ripe age of 24.  He will make it because he’s got a family that loves him and we will never stop helping him through his journey of recovery.  What concerns me, however, is the numbers that continue to add up every month.  Over the past year, while I’ve been crying out, approximately 400 more troops have ended their lives, and the military leadership has continued to shove the problem under the rug and look the other way.

How many families will be suffering a similar loss by this time next year and how much debris will be under the rug?

Originally published by the author on fellednot.com.

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