THERE NEVER HAS BEEN A COMING HOME: WHY IS SUICIDE THE ONLY CHOICE TO SOME?
by G. Duff
We have another war, decades later and CBS is, again, "telling it like it is". Last time it was CBS against General Westmoreland. CBS was claiming, among other things, that Vietnam Veterans were killing themselves in alarming numbers. General Westmoreland managed to "prove" that their claims were false, that PTSD did not exist and that the lives of Vietnam Veterans were the rosy picture that he wished them to be.
Of course, Westmoreland spent most of his war back in the states visiting the Pentagon or on speaking engagements as his travel records show. His time in Vietnam was spent in his fabulous "compound" of restaurants, air conditioning, manicured lawns and "hot babes" (and boys). We Marines wanted him dead and gone. "Charlie" was nothing compared to "blowhard Westmoreland". This was how it was then but since we are a nation of mythologists and liars, we can chose to see it differently.
We sat on our hands, and 50,000 vets died. Most could have been saved. Now we find that 5000 have died at their own hands that may have been saved if we had just stopped lying. How do you get a government owned and operated by religious fanatics and oil companies to care about the lives of servicemen, real servicemen, when one day after the "Mission Accomplished" sign came down, our military was old news…
Why is everything involved in this war always about "spending" and "politics". Last week Congress and the Bush Administration addressed "Suicide Prevention" as goverments always do. As usual, they are throwing money and "bull" at a problem.
Our soldiers, our vets, are dying across our country. According to CBS, the young, 20 to 24, are killing themselves as though being pushed by some invisible need for self destruction planted by an alien god.
The new programs will eventually help but communities and families across America have to act now. Good information is now "out there". Reading is not enough. We have to act, we have to change, we have to ENGAGE.
I am a combat vet from another era. I can only guess what this war is like from playing Call of Duty 4 and watching TV. I have become a "citizen". Yesterday, one of my friends, a Vietnam Vet (one who was on General Westmorelands staff, actually) visited for the day. We went out to lunch, talked about things I was writing, politics and our lives and kids. Today I called another one of my friends, an Army officer from Vietnam who had just gotten his DD214 and is filing a PTSD claim 40 years late.
He lives in Texas and I am trying to get him to visit so I can judge if his "meds" are working and if he is "safe". We still have to watch Vietnam Vets in their 60s and our kids are killing themselves by the thousands. How did we get here? What is it we don't understand?
Vets without families are sometimes form new families with each other. It is not the only way but it is "a way". "Perspective" can save lives. Talking, writing and reading gives us perspective. It is about sharing. It is about growth. It is about ENGAGEMENT.
Yesterday the Army announced that they would be screening returnees six months after getting home for PTSD. Of course I don't trust the Army. Their record of selling their own down the river is far more prominent than their new "help the troops" noises. We will watch. We will check on what they really do. We will also tell everyone who qualifies to show up and give the Army a chance but to also keep us informed.
The biggest job for all of us, old vets, interested readers and guys serving now or coming home and their families and friends is to learn to keep a focus on some very important things. You, the returning soldiers, men and women, from the Global War on Terror are going to have changed. War does this. Sometimes serving in "relative safety" of rear areas can be more stressful and frightening than daily combat patrols.
We had a large number of rear area suicides in Vietnam DURING the war while troops serving in combat killed themselves later and, frankly, are still doing so. It is important that everyone be treated the same, "tip of the spear" troops and support personnel. Everyone is at risk. War is like this, maybe, someday, a "study" will tell us why. Until then, listen to the "old guys". They can tell you what they went thru. They want things for you to be better, trust me on this.
Adjustment to danger and combat changes how you feel and look at things. The movie, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH expresses it better than anything else I have seen or read. Gregory Peck, playing the commanding officer of a bomber unit in WW2, tells his men that in order to get the job done they have to assume that they are "already dead". Otherwise, the fear will paralyze them and kill them even quicker.
Men and women who adjust to fear, death and living without family, "normal jobs" and community support will suffer when they return. Assuming anything else is wrong. Assuming that the military or the VA will make a big change thru drugs and counseling is a dangerous guess also.
However, treatment should be started, even if just to bring "seratonin levels" up to normal to stop feelings of "hopelessness".
But, ENGAGEMENT is the only real treatment that is PROVEN to help. Assume the returning combat vet is going to be emotionally dead inside, totally isolated and "acting normal" just to make people around him comfortable.
"Call" him or her on it. Tell your vet that you know something is wrong and that you are there. Ignore nothing.
We have to stop pretending. We have to be there for the real problems people have or they will never survive or never really return to us. This will take honesty and time, something that is totally free but spent too often like it was more valuable than gold.
Expect a combat vet to be fearful of crowds. Expect them to seem cold and distant. Expect them to be angry and act out. Expect them to want to be dead much or at least part of the time. It is how they will be, learn to expect it.
Don't learn to accept it. Know that it can and will change if you deal with it, talk about it and share it.
Combat vets are the finest people in the world. They are the best people I have known all of my life. I am proud to be one. I am proud of my friends. I also know that we are keeping each other alive.
Doing this, in some ways, is like the job we did "over there". We never stop caring for our buddies. Now we have new "units" that, if we are lucky, are opened up to our friends and family who are willing to accept who we really are, who we have really become and to help us get thru it.
Those without this support can often die and thousands have. All problems are not fixed in a hospital or out of a pharmacy. Fewer problems are solved out of a bottle or worse. We are a nation of good people but too many have been told for too long to let others "take care of us". That "mind set" has to end.
We have to find new ways of telling our returning vets that nothing is ever solved with a bullet. Suicide is not "unthinkable" for someone we would like to believe has everything to live for. The dying has to stop and the power to do this is in all of our hands together.
War is only "photo opportunities" and parades for five minutes. Many of our soldiers have spent years living in a distorted reality of combat and a society and culture in utter upheaval that makes our domestic worries about the decline of "family values" a joke.
Vets who hurt have to learn to share, sometimes with people who will seem stupid and uncaring. Vets who feel bad, feel like dying just need to say to themselves every day, "THIS TOO SHALL PASS". I BORROWED THIS FROM A WW2 VET NAMED KURT VONNEGUT WHO DIED RECENTLY.
The message is simple. "The pain will go." Things will be better but only for those who live long enough to enjoy it.
Vonnegut WROTE A BOOK ABOUT WAR CALLED "SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE". READ IT.
For vets, things will never be as they were. Some friends will never really be the same for you. Accept that maybe they were never really friends in the first place.
For vets, accept that you may have learned much more than you are aware of. You are a different person than you were. Every combat vet I know is a better person. Being a better person can hurt. Learn to deal with hurt, learn how to share, how to seek help and how to be patient with yourself. Learn to wait.
For families, stop pretending. Stop lying. Vets don't need to be "carried" or babied. They don't need pity. They need trust and friendship. They need respect.
For families, what you give, you should also expect. If you give respect and patience, expect your vet to give the same. Demand it of your vet. Feeling angry is ok but hurting people you love is wrong. Vets should learn to be angry at the Army, or "terrorists", or the "oil companies" or people who talk on cell phones when they should be paying more attention to their driving.
Everyone should expect that they are going over "new ground". Isolation is not acceptable. Hiding feelings is not acceptable. It is dangerous. It can be fatal.
We have no "guaranteed" cure for PTSD but seeking treatment is advised. Seeking treatment "carefully" is also advised. If meds make you feel worse, get your meds changed. If things don't seem to be working, chances are they aren't. If one doctor isn't helping, find another one.
You have that right, exercise it.
For those who have read this far, get the word out.