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Veteran's Day: Knocking on Heaven's Door

The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B wood shop project. The dead man's boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top.
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Military suicides are claiming more lives than the enemy.

Pick the statistic that makes it mean the most to you: between 2005 to 2010, active duty service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. The Veteran's Administration estimates that a vet at home dies by suicide every 80 minutes. The Army reported a record number of suicides in a single month for June 2010, thirty- one soldiers in all, more than one a day for the whole month. For July 2011, it was thirty-two, a dubious new record. The Marine Corps posted annual suicide rates similar to the Army's. A journalist who had written a best seller about his long embed in Eastern Baghdad has started on a follow-up, a kind of where are they now about his soldiers and has given it the working title "suicide book" because so many have taken their own lives.

These sad, dark numbers are reported in a new report on military suicides entitled Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide, by the Center for a New American Century (CNAS). It is important reading about another horrific piece of aftermath of Empire.

The report raises some very scary points: military suicides increase among those who deploy overseas, among those who suffer brain injuries and particularly among those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- that nagging sadness, that feeling of depression, of regret, of loss, of lack of energy, a movie that won't stop running in your head because of what you saw and did on orders of the United States.

It Feels This Way in Here

You wake up some days and the sun and the kids are playfully noisy. Other days taking a shower seems an effort too much. For me, though I had seen less and done less than many (it doesn't really matter, but we still measure against each other), for days at a stretch after I first came home I could not get off the couch. Sometimes the TV was on, sometimes the blank screen was just as interesting, until one day it just seemed different and I got up. Not healed, but bearable, remembering T.S. Elliot said human kind cannot bear very much reality. I was going to be OK but not everyone is.

The exacerbating factors for those who find it hard to get off the couch can include a feeling of uselessness, driven home especially for Guardsmen and Reservists whose units disband or, all too common now, unemployment, those long hours of nothing in contrast to the intensity of being deployed. Disconnected. Family who missed you not being at home all those months now wish you'd get out once in awhile.

Efforts Have Been Made

Efforts have been made, the CNAS report tell us, but obviously fall short. More resources are available. Previously inaccessible domestic suicide prevention hotlines are now available abroad through the military phone system. Service members are now required to undergo PTSD and suicide screening before boarding flights home. The requirement to do so is a good idea; the CNAS report cites the military's macho culture and its aversion to "needing help" as a problem. Some troops told me of being afraid to tell the truth, fearing that the doctor might prevent them from reuniting with their family, or limit their onward duties, especially if they were officers. For others, the screening was presented as a kind of test to pass to get on the plane. The macho code then chases the veterans home: about half of all of their suicides are by a self-owned gun, with another fourteen percent done with a service weapon. Firearms are the most commonly used means of suicide among both males and females. Alcohol is often involved.

It Feels This Way Out There

Though all are in a way the same, each is tragically unique. Here's what I saw, taken from my book, We Meant Well, that the CNAS report missed.

At one of forward operating bases (FOBs) I was stationed at in Iraq, Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson (name changed) put the barrel of his M-4 semiautomatic assault rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. He was college-aged but had not gone and would never go to college.

I heard about his death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. I took a quick look inside and saw the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. Blood like this smelled coppery. It reminded you that you were not welcome. Even if you'd never smelled pooled blood before, you didn't have to learn what it was, you already knew something was wrong in this place.

The death of any soldier reverberated through the FOB. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The comfort of ritual stood in for public expressions of actual feelings, which were best kept private and close. And the ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Hamilton, Ohio, or Marietta, Georgia, for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box, made and brought to Iraq for this purpose, with holes for the US and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased's rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B+ wood shop project. The dead man's boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the cheapness of the ritual. Before the event started, the hum in the room was about future meetings, upcoming operations, food in the chow hall, the workaday talk of soldiers.

There was a program, done up on a word processor, with the official Army photo of the deceased, wearing a clean uniform, posed in front of an American flag -- young, so young, you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The program was standard fare -- some speeches, the chaplain reading the 23rd Psalm, and a final goodbye.

The speeches were strained because the senior officers who feel it important to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. As with every other briefing they gave, albeit without the Power-Point, the officers read words someone else wrote for them to give the impression of authority and familiarity. The dead man's job had something minor to do with radios and most present couldn't say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself that the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction. He did understand why we were all here, and that a task had to be done, and that he need not be Pericles or Lincoln to do a decent job of it.

The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted personally with the deceased, a friend if one could be found, a junior leader or coworker if not. In today's ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life and had done so after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this FOB. Nobody really had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the FOB made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. "I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn't have no nickname and he didn't spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don't know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That's all I have to say."

This was how the Army healed itself. It was a simple organization, a vast group of disparate people who came together for their own reasons, lived in austere conditions, and existed to commit violence under bewildering circumstances. Simply, we will miss him anyway because he was one of us. The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was "anyway." It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the President, hate the Iraqis, but we could not hate one another.

The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man's unit. Each member answered, "Here, Sergeant Major" after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man's. "Brian Hutson?" Silence. "Brian E. Hutson?" Silence. "Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?" Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.

Our wars are terrible enough that they should not suffer more. Think twice before sending more of them to fight. Take care of your soldiers, America. Support the troops.

Need help? Know someone who might? Contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Press 1 if you are a veteran.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this article.

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