As I begin to touch on the sensitive subject of suicide prevention–and I am not limiting this conversation to our veteran community–please know I am grateful to you all each and every day for being part of my audience. Years ago, I was told not to “write a book” as I prepared for my first deployment. This unfortunate statement haunted me for years. It stymied my trust to share–outside my trusted circle of friends and family–what it’s like to serve because I would be subjected to potential trolls just waiting to pounce on my flaws, mistakes, and gender. This fear creeps in as we draw closer to sharing my Veteran Vision Project photo. Already I see nasty comments made to other recently shared photos on the Veteran Vision Project Facebook page.
Let’s remember for (hopefully) more than the few seconds it takes to comment that we’re looking at real people. The individuals portrayed in these photographs are not actors and actresses portraying characters, but living through their own experiences, not ones scripted for them. They are not models paid for their time but people who may want to send a message to others or people who want nothing more than a family photo that merges the past and present. Both are perfectly acceptable reasons to participate in Devin’s project. Devin Mitchell photographs these individuals because it is work he loves doing and yes, his book will sell: he deserves to profit from his work. I hope it is successful long after we all pass from this earth.
He is uncovering the details of military service tucked in the margins of history: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), MST (military sexual trauma), suicide attempts, and issues of hate geared towards same sex couples and transgendered persons. He also showcases individuals in their happiest moments: expecting children, their new careers, or donning collegiate graduation attire. America needs someone like Devin to remind us the gap of understanding between civilians, service members, and veterans is due in part because we choose–quite often–to not see the full picture, to not inquire beyond our perceptions.
On this note, I share two different observations and reflections on the same situation: a Marine committed suicide outside my barracks on Camp Blue Diamond in 2004. (I made some rash judgements in my initial journal entry and it’s important to share my failings as a person here, too.We all make mistakes, but we have the power to change, and should strive, for the better.)
(Saturday) 18 Sept. 2004
Another day gone in Iraq. On a day to day basis, it doesn’t even feel as though I’m in a combat zone and then I’m brought back down to Earth. Earlier this week, maybe on Tuesday, we had a Marine commit suicide. He shot himself with his own rifle in one of the portajohns outside my barracks, only nineteen years old, too. It has been weighing on my mind and I’m disgusted and disappointed that he thought his life wasn’t worth living. Besides the fact, he was only here two weeks and for the most part we see no action here at Camp Blue Diamond (Ramadi, Iraq).
I have started to shift my focus because I know there’s nothing [anyone] can do now and worrying is only hurting me. I will never know why he thought his life was so shitty to die (kill) himself. As Marines, we are just suppose to be better than that.
We also had two mortar impacts on base on separate days. One day a Corpsman took minor shrapnel to the leg and walked himself to BAS [battalion aid station] and the other attack happened last night. I was on guard outside my work and I heard this loud boom, louder than the sound of thunder. It impacted on base. Usually when it’s off base it vibrates the buildings and the sound isn’t as loud.
No Marines got injured last night, which is good. I do reports all day long and someone is always KIA [killed in action], WIA [wounded in action], and that includes enemies, too.
29 Sep 04
A Life Wasted is Still A Life Remembered
Today is Wednesday, but here in Iraq it is yet again another Monday. All days are Mondays and typically called “Groundhog’s Day” as well by those that have seen the movie of reliving the same day, day after day. I consider it Monday as Monday is that dreaded day of the week after a wonderfully nice, rested weekend (or any weekend for that reason) because that feeling is how I feel in Iraq. Being stateside was the “weekend.” I [had] so much time that I did not know what to do and most of it was wasted on being lazy, sleeping in, and waiting for the weekend to end.
Although my life was “wasting away” back there because I wasn’t actively involved in trying to better myself, by PT or classes, it wasn’t until here that I truly learned how someone could waste their life away.
Iraq makes you think in ways you may not have thought of before. Each place is different and luckily I have been blessed here. I enjoy a relatively safe camp I stay at equipped with solid living quarters [versus] the tent that other service members reside at in other camps, a chow hall where I only have to watch out for spoiled milk instead of consuming the usually, unpalatable MRE [meals ready to eat], and I have a meager gym where I can keep in shape. These commodities are a rarity in some places and being that we are in the technological age, I also have access to phones and the internet, something unheard of in the days of Vietnam. Yes I am blessed. For all the good things in my life, I am still here in a “war” and have seen some of what it can do.
I am sheltered here, as a female, and do not go on patrols where our Marines can encounter any array of weaponry used against them to include IEDs [improvised explosive devices], rpgs [rocket propelled grenades]. mortars, and other such things. Getting to my camp here, I still faced the possibility of seeing such things, but I lucked out. No excitement, no casualties. Sadly boredom has taken on a new role in my life. It tells me that nothing is happening that can cause harm to Marines or myself. I can say today that here, bored is what you want to be.
Boredom can cause you to think though and I work too much to do much of it. The schedule is a twelve hour day, seven days a week, and on top of it all, I spend my mornings running and usually get various odd tasks accomplished at night. For me, it’s the best way to pas[s] the time and not to think of the fact that I am in Iraq. I still think of what happens to my Marines here and how some of them never quite will make it home to tell of what they’ve seen, but there will be a flag draped coffin where a Marine should be standing. [Please know, this last sentence is more haunting to me now; I made it months before my watch officer was killed on 2 February 2005.]
Their ages vary and their stories are never the same. Back home wives and children, siblings, and parents, who have no answers that satisfy why their loved ones were lost, are left behind. Posthumously honored medals, ribbons, and ranks cannot make up for the life that is lost. Fellow Marines can piece together memories from Iraq for the family but they are bound to be hesitant as to share the often horrendous details that led to a fellow Marine’s death.
I haven’t yet encountered losing a Marine as KIA and I pray I never will, but here in Iraq we still lose Marines, and in this case, by this Marine’s own hands. I have heard some people call his action selfish, sad, and others are almost indifferent as it is another death locked into the experience of being in a combat zone. One could blame his actions on a lack of leadership attention, depression, boredom, hormone imbalance, but we will never know. It’s what we do know that’s gruesome.
Only a few weeks ago, in the middle of the night this Marine went out by himself, weapon in hand, because our weapons follow us everyone. This Marine holed himself up in a portajohn, about the only private place one could find here, and decided to end his life. His age: nineteen years old.
After his rifle went off, Marines rushed out there, from what I was told, to discover a fellow Marine committed suicide. In the mi[d]st of it all, accountability was being taken to see who it was as the Marine was quite unrecognizable. I didn’t even know of this incident, which happened several feet outside my barracks, until the next morning. I feel almost guilty because I slept peacefully through it all. [Dear audience, please remember, I was pulling 12 hour shifts.]
Hearing about the suicide the next day was strange. I found it too hard to believe because we had a good camp, tucked away from major violence, and then this happens. I walked by that portajohn the next morning to find it duct taped up with a sign declaring it secured, a used up chem light still hung on the door, a dried blood trail on the bottom ledge, and a piece of combat camera equipment that was either a lamp or other gear that reflected light.
The details I still remember as two of my roommates are in combat camera, one of whom had to be on scene and took photos of the suicide victim. She called him unrecognizable, appearing to be “Chinese”, although his ID photo showed he was not of an [Asian] background. No one could tell at first who he was and the whole scene of it was shocking. The image that I think of is of Pvt Pile from Full Metal Jacket, but I would never want to see those photos to see if I was correct or not.
I think of the fact that this Marine that I know only as a “suicide victim” left behind so much in his life. I would be wrong to say he’s selfish because I don’t know the inner turmoil he dealt with that caused him to take such drastic measures. He didn’t know the resources he had available, nor the countless Marines that would have gladly taken out a pack [of] cards and played a game with him or smoked a cigarette with him if he smoked. I don’t even know his name but I will remember someone who had so much to live for if he had only known. Even if he goes unremembered by many here, I will never forget he was a person. He was a Marine.
I don’t know why I went back and wrote further about the Marine’s death, but I’m glad I did. I didn’t realize then how much power it could have today, eleven years later. Suicide is still a prevalent problem with veterans (and service members). Our civilian peers should also not be overlooked. Their lives mirror many of the same struggles and personal tragedies (bullying, sexual trauma, etc.). These communities can (and should) work together to prevent the loss of any one person from suicide. Touching even one life is a monumental difference in this world.