It is 2004. I have been back from Iraq for a few months.
The gun is heavy in my hand, cold, solid. I sit on the edge of my bathtub and stare at it. The door is shut and I am alone. I can hear my own breathing, uneven.
This I can control.
It feels like the only thing I can control. I can't control my anger, which flares up unexpectedly, making me lash out at those closest to me. I can't control the moments when my boyfriend, who sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury in Iraq and has severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, gets lost in his own rage and isolation. I can't control whether or not the Army will stop-loss me, or let me out and then call me back to Iraq before my contract is up -- back to another year with no control over where I sleep, what I eat, if rockets will fall on me in the Port-a-John, if an explosive will blow off my limbs.
I can't control the memories that suddenly, with no warning, invade my consciousness: images of men screaming, thrashing, bleeding on the ground. I can't control that the smell of diesel makes me feel like I'm in Iraq again. I can't control my physical reactions, swerving to avoid trash in the road, flinching at sudden noises.
Can't control my dreams, can't even remember them, but I know they must be bad because I awaken drenched in sweat, heart pounding.
But this, this I could control. This gun, this choice. It offers me a way out, and freedom from the fear that nothing will change.
I can't imagine going to my Chain of Command, being put on public, humiliating suicide watch with no shoelaces or belt. I can't admit these feelings of weakness in front of my leaders or -- worse -- my soldiers. Can't own up to the shame of not knowing if I can do it anymore, take it, keep going at all. Can't talk to my friends from before -- can't even conceive of explaining the war to them; I'm not who they used to know. I can't burden my family with this, they are dealing with enough. I can't let everyone down and face them afterward.
When I went to a civilian psychologist, she told me I didn't have PTSD and sent me to the Army psychiatrist -- the single psychiatrist for the entire division -- to get antidepressants. I sat in the waiting room, painfully aware of my uniform and visible rank, feeling my cheeks burn as I listened to the clerks crack jokes about the last patient. I went into the psychiatrist's office and tried to explain my fears -- that I would never get better, never readjust, never make it in the civilian world. Shoulders stiff, tears leaked down my face. He snorted derisively, "Well, you'll definitely never make it in the civilian world if you start crying all the time." I never went back.
I sit and stare at the gun. This is mine, my choice, my way out, my freedom, my escape from fear and hopelessness and desperation.
What will they go through, my boyfriend and my roommate, dealing with blood and brains and death on the bathroom floor? What about my father? I'm his only surviving child; he lost his sister to suicide.
I can't do this. Not now, not today. But the option is there. If it gets worse. If nothing gets better. I could control my ending, if nothing else.
That was 2004, and I only deployed once. We don't own a gun anymore. But recently, the Pentagon reported Army suicides are at an all-time high. In January, more soldiers took their own lives than were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined. The latest reports indicate that the same will be true of February, when suicide numbers remained high. Those soldiers didn't feel that they had any other option.
To all those soldiers still struggling today, know that you are not alone. You are part of a community of veterans who understands what you're going through. Civilians may not understand, but they do care. The question is, do our leaders? Why do they continue to let this problem spiral out of control? Immediate steps should be taken to ensure that all soldiers have access to evidence-based mental health services and to reduce the stigma that prevents them from seeking help.