Hard to believe that our returning Veterans and service members- Warriors reluctant to be called heroes, Soldiers who have survived repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, hand to hand combat in the streets of Fallujah and the cemeteries of Najaf, IED's and sniper fire in the Korengal Valley, are dying in towns across America every single day, from suicide.
These Warriors who proudly served our country in combat, protected our freedoms and the lives of their fellow Warriors overseas, are more likely to become casualties of war after they've come home. Combat Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are committing suicide every single day -- this is a fact, and it is becoming a dangerous epidemic.
To be clear, more Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have died from suicide than from injuries sustained in combat overseas. These numbers are seldom talked about in the media, and they are rarely part of the conversations about war that those of us in the civilian world might have at the dinner table. Every day, upwards of 22 returning Veterans in the United States take their own lives. That's a low estimate. Some days there are more suicides, and one day, we hope there will be less. But the fact remains this: today at least 22 families lost a loved one who had returned to them after serving our country in combat. Yesterday 22 other families had to plan a funeral for a son or daughter who survived the fight on the front lines of war, only to lose their lives back home. Tomorrow another 22 families will get a phone call they hoped to never receive.
My boss Jake was almost one of those statistics. He too struggled with the moral, physical, emotional, and spiritual aftermath of going to war. Jake thought about killing himself every day for years. Based on his own experiences, his own search to find a community of Veterans who were struggling with PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress) and having trouble re-adjusting to life in the real world, with a basic introduction to meditation and finding inspiration in Karl Marlantes' book What It Is Like To Go To War, Jake knew he had to do something. He might have a chance to defy the logic, and the statistics.
Jake had two options: he could be another returning Veteran who decided to take his own life, or he could dedicate his life to helping find a solution to this problem. He chose to fight for his life, channeling the benevolent spirit that has existed through many Warriors' lifetimes, and he has dedicated himself to a new mission. He created the space, for himself and for his brothers who have served in combat, to face their fears and find value in their lives at home. Around here, we call the work we do, The Project, but officially, the not for profit Jake has built from the ground up is known as SAVE A WARRIOR.
At Save a Warrior, we are worried about the suicide epidemic our Warriors face, here at home. Between PTS, traumatic brain injuries, and the reconciliation that must take place between life in a war zone, and life back home, this transition and readjustment to civilian life is harder for most Warriors than they expected. There exists a conflict within the minds, hearts, and bodies of these heroes, and this conflict can quickly become a dangerous enemy all by itself. The good news is, Jake and the rest of us at Save a Warrior have seen something magical happen, something we try to facilitate, to create a renewed bond between returning Veterans and a safe space for them to learn tools to help with the issues they are struggling with. Each month as a group of Warriors from all over show up on Sunday, we ask them to put their life in our hands for a couple of days, to trust the process, and most importantly, we ask that they don't leave The Project "before the miracle happens."
When someone asks me what I do at work, I like to say what we get to do is "pet a pony, do yoga, learn meditation, eat good food, share and listen about what is going on -- maybe we'll visit a museum or take the guys to a play or a baseball game or a concert (one of our guys is an opera singer! Surprise!)." It's not rocket science, and at first, I thought The Project was so simple, maybe even too simple, that there was no way it could work. I am pleased to have been extremely wrong. What I have discovered in knowing Jake is his ability to lead groups of fellow Warriors out of their own personal darkness, participating alongside his brothers in a daily practice of meditation to minimize the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress. Jake explained to me that he hoped to teach the Warriors how to effectively and safely access their own internal adaptive mechanisms.
For me, in taking on the position of Creative Director at Save A Warrior, I did not know what to expect from the group or Cohort as we call them, when they trailed into a conference room overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. I knew I was not one of them. I am a civilian, I am a girl with pink streaks in her hair, I am only 27 years old, and I am gay. Over the past year I have seen that not only did my being "different" from these groups of Warriors not matter to them like I thought it would, they embraced me and have continued to treat me like one of their own. That was something I did not see coming on the first Sunday I sat with Cohort 002 around a table in a conference room in Malibu. All I could think was, they are all so all different from one another- different in age, from different places, dealing with different problems. The only thing we had in common was that we were for the most part, strangers in a room in Malibu, listening to Jake talk about the suicide epidemic among Veterans, and what it was like for him to struggle with it.
By Tuesday of that week, I joined Cohort 002 for pizza in West Hollywood and I was stunned. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the notion that this was the same group of quiet guys I had met less than 48 hours earlier in Malibu; they had become a "unit" of Warriors with hope and joy in their eyes, and the spark of life that was barely flickering only two days before seemed alive in all of them. Over dinner, I saw them laughing, smiling -- I felt like I was meeting an entirely different group of people for the first time. It was a remarkable transformation to witness, and I have had the pleasure of seeing this kind of magic happen again and again because of Jake and the work he has done tirelessly, with much help, for the next group of returning Veterans who come and give us what is literally a last chance at saving their lives, in Malibu.
Jake and I have had many conversations about the suicide epidemic among returning Veterans. We know that if we do this work for the rest of our lives we will barely put a dent in the problem that exists for those who have served our country so bravely in combat. We hope to do this work for the rest of our lives anyway, because it is working, and in helping these guys heal their invisible wounds of war, through well-grounded, commonsense experience, unconditional positive regard, working in a safe place without judgment or criticism, we have found that our own wounds are healing as well. Jake calls this exchange parallel processing, and I tell everyone I know that I have the coolest, best, most fulfilling and inspiring job in the world.
It is an honor and a privilege to be part of The Project, and I am thankful to Jake for being the one who decided to build this sacred space, so it exists for our fellow brothers and sisters as they return home from war. The strength of the foundation of principles these Warriors live by is remarkable, and this sense of integrity exists everywhere they go. This Warrior strength, combined with sharp focus, is a way to channel their energies for a new mission- a mission to work alongside their fellow Warriors- and participate in building a community of recovery and service, and to make sure that this community is accessible for our brothers and sisters as they return home from war.
I have witnessed, not from their words, but through their actions, that everyone is welcome on this mission. Even someone like me- a girl with pink hair, who has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, who tends to say the F word more than Jake would like, is loved and embraced and most certainly welcomed by the Save A Warrior community. I always say to Jake, we must keep on building this space, because I know if we build it, Warriors will come.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.