I will never forget the first day I heard the Ranger Creed, the motto of the Army Rangers that every soldier learns by heart before joining the famed unit. It was the fall of 2006, and my class of United States Army officers, the first to have joined out of high school after the attacks of 9/11, was preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. The hallowed passage laid out what was expected of us in the years to come, as we fought in Anbar deserts and the labyrinth of Baghdad, battled from Pashtun poppy fields to the valleys of the Pech River. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the third stanza would forever haunt me: Never shall I fail my comrades. While tragic and testing, losing friends in combat was expected. It wasn’t until I had left the military and friends kept dying, taking their own lives, that I felt I failed.
On this past Veterans Day, I contemplated writing about the epidemic of veteran suicide, in honor of two friends. They had come home from fighting overseas and killed themselves. I decided against it. I did not want to darken their lives by bringing their deaths into the harsh glare of the media. I wanted to avoid causing any more pain to their grieving families, to avoid the renewed anguish that the sight of their names in print would bring.
Three weeks later, a third friend joined their ranks. Again, the pain was fresh and the shock numbing. And again the scouring for clues and agonizing over what I could have done.
This third friend and I had learned the Ranger Creed together all those years ago; then he went overseas and tested what it really meant. He served for six years before leaving the military and joining the civilian world. Wrestling with demons born in Afghanistan, he had lost his job, quarreled with his girlfriend and given away his dog. He hanged himself the day after Thanksgiving.
‘It wasn’t until I had left the military and friends kept dying, taking their own lives, that I felt I failed.’
As I called our veteran friends to tell them of his death, each of us tallied our number, calculating how many comrades had taken their own life. The reckoning was horrific.
The reasons behind an individual veteran’s suicide are unique, numerous and opaque. Yet one fact remains: an average of 22 former service members take their life every day. Most commentators take the government to task for this failure. They ask what the Department of Defense and the VA could be doing better, which is altogether fitting and proper. But, as we who served know, it is not only about them. Even the best bureaucracy, guided by the most enlightened policy, will never offer a complete solution. The government can do better but ultimately this is about us. We are the front line now, as we were in the wars of the past decade.
I know in my darkest moments I relied on my Army comrades. The military instilled in us a belief in the team—an ideal that we made real through the crucible of service and in our sacrifices for each other. Even out of uniform, those bonds remain.
The week after my friend’s funeral, I read David Brooks’ article on suicide in the New York Times where he describes Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book “Stay: A History of Suicides and the Philosophies Against It.” With my friend’s death still haunting me, one passage in particular stood out.
“Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives… People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.”
Or rather: if you want your Ranger buddy to survive, you have to accept help and fight through your own battles.
I have no training in psychology or therapy or counseling. Each suicide has their own reasons, and the turns of mind and depths of torment that bring people to this decision are beyond my understanding. The VA has a crucial role to play in providing adequate care and counseling to veterans, as does the active duty military whose soldiers at the unit level can form the front line in identifying those at risk and guide them to help. But there is a role for us as individuals also. Veterans who never shunned responsibility while in uniform and now, after returning home, when we thought the hardest battles had been fought, find that our duty continues. We, as a community, need to help stop this cycle.
And so, to my fellow veterans: Reach out. There is support waiting for your call. At my friend’s funeral, over twenty old Army buddies came to grieve, from New York City, West Point, D.C., Colorado, Tennessee. All of us would have done anything we could to have saved our friend. If only he had asked.