When One of Your Friends is One of the “22”

Today I write with an exceptionally heavy heart.  On Wednesday, I received the devastating news a friend/former work peer/fellow Iraq veteran committed suicide last Saturday, November 14th.

It is absolutely impossible to capture fully the extent of my grief for so many reasons.  I don’t think there is a single one of us–family members, friends, his Former Recon buddies, instructors, and so on–who had any inkling he was struggling.  In fact, his life was choke full of so many great achievements; I’ve always known him as an avid athlete and this year completed a Master’s degree.

My connection with him began when I started working for Arizona State University and since then, we negotiated a fine balance between friends and professionals in this setting.  In times of great stress, I reached for writing like I often do.  I sat down and made notes on where our stories began together in 2013 and the changes over this time period.  It may sound funny to say I was almost immediately smitten by him when we first met.  I know ‘smitten’ is often used in the romantic sense, but he was–as some people are–someone, regardless of gender, that I was instantly drawn to and I felt quite comfortable in his presence.

I am happy to tell you why his life was so meaningful to me.  When we first met, I learned rather quickly he served in Iraq during the same time period as my first deployment.  I spent so much time on that deployment constantly taking in the numbers of injuries and killed persons and here I was finally meeting a fellow Marine from this deployment; we shared a common thread from that time in Iraq and I felt so proud to see one of our guys who made it safely home.  We laughed easily that our paths did not cross sooner as well.  He had also been at Camp Pendleton–and more specifically we’d been at the same camp within Camp Pendleton, Camp Margarita–but here we were at Arizona State University finally meeting.  He was one of the work study students in our Center when I started my career with ASU and I spent a number of semesters observing him with his peers.  He was not shy as well discussing his successes inside and outside the classroom, particularly athletics.  I had the great pleasure of participating in the Spartan Race in 2014 and we bonded over our participation in the event.  I knew I wouldn’t place, but he was supportive of my efforts.  At the event, I introduced him to my husband and watched him and a friend begin their race in an earlier heat than ours.  Later that day, I heard him cheering for me from the stands near the end of our race and I was thankful again the camaraderie that exists in the Corps was still so prevalent in my life.

As he began his Master’s program, I no longer worked with him as a peer but as his particular School Certifying Official, which I do for a number of ASU students.  With his decreased presence in the office, I recognized I knew less about him, but we still kept in touch via social media.  He constantly posted photos from various athletic competitions, his international travel adventures, and his graduation photos.  With this fall enrollment–and a huge increase in our student population–I found myself keeping less track with all my friends on social media.  My time spent on Facebook detracted significantly from my studies and so I’d only gloss through a few things when I needed a moment of reprieve.    However, I’d still greet him warmly when he’d come through our Center to say hi and take a few moments to hear how he was, as I like to do with my students.

Writing to you all today is probably the calmest experience I’ve had–since learning of his passing–in talking about what I’m going through right now.  Veteran suicide is an issue I have not taken lightly since I first came home from war.  I discussed this issue with you all earlier this year and organizations such as Mission 22 discuss it as well.  I really wish I had known he was struggling, and I wish to know when anyone I’m close to is struggling with mental health issues.

At any point in our lives, we can encounter trauma and the identities we carry in the military do not often allow us the opportunity to say “I need help” without the consequence of losing opportunities to train or deploy, and so we don’t.  As well, the stigma associated with mental health (and getting help) significantly hurts us as a community, and we lose people, like my friend Kiernan, and each death–like his–was 100% preventable.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.  It takes an incredible amount of courage to say “things aren’t right and I can’t fix them all alone”.  No one can.

I think about what I would have liked to say to him had I known of his  struggles.  I could have discussed the pain I experienced coming home in 2005 and feeling like I lost my purpose since there weren’t great opportunities to shine back in the States as there is in Iraq.  I could have told him how much I only wanted to go back to Iraq back then because the experience of serving there was so meaningful to me and yet, my family wanted none of that for me.  They wanted me to be safe and home.  I was specifically asked to not volunteer again, but I went out again a year later.

I think about how any one of us would have taken him to any appointment he needed and stayed in his apartment through tough times.  We’ve slept on cots–and some have slept in holes–but we would have taken shifts to help him make it through each day, if that’s what he needed.  We would have opened our own homes if he didn’t feel like being in his and fed him and cared for him, with no regard to the financial burden of caring for another person.  We would have done anything to help our friend, but we didn’t know he needed it.  And sadly, all he had to do was ask us.

I am not mad he didn’t ask for help.  I am incredibly hurt feeling like he may have thought it wasn’t there.  None of our friends are substitutes for professional help, but we are the links to get there.  We are not therapists, but we understand combat.  We are not prescription bottles of meds, but we understand when the warmth of a hug from a good friend has medicinal power.  Some of us have stood suicide watch in boot camp, MCT, at our duty stations, and perhaps, even during a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.  We would have done it again to keep our friend safe.

His death brings up a lot of other painful memories for me, so please understand the exuberance I sometimes bring to my writing may be missing for quite some time.  There will still be moments of joy in each day and I know that’s what he would want for all of us, but I am incredibly hurt right now.

I am blessed to have a wonderful partner to share my grief with, other combat veteran friends of ours who understand this loss, and professional counselors in my community to work through my guilt that I missed some incredible clue my friend was in such pain.

A chaplain once told me “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” The stigma regarding mental health needs to go away.  We cannot afford to lose any more of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and loved ones.

Kiernan Spartan Race 2014
Kiernan (on the right) prior to his Spartan 2014 heat.

 

 

 

Veterans’ Day 2015: Shirt Stories™ Formally Begins

Shirt Stories™, my desired tangible progression of this site, was unveiled today in a quiet, hopefully seen as respectful, manner.  I specifically chose Veterans’ Day because the story featured on this shirt tackled the necessary responsibility, I feel, veterans have to serve one another.  So many organizations have gone out of their way to serve veterans as a ‘thank you’ for our collective service.  In fact, I’ve been very privileged to enjoy tangible benefits based on my military service however, I do not wish to take advantage (negatively) of such offerings.  To further clarify this point, I do not plan a day’s worth of Veterans’ Day activity hopping to get discounts and freebies.

This year, we ate breakfast at Liberty Market, had ice cream at Petersen’s in Gilbert, enjoyed drinks at Bar Vinedo, and topped the day off with Taco Bell.  However, we paid full price for our drinks and meals at each restaurant, as we would have done any other day, with the exception of Taco Bell.  (The employees at Taco Bell accidentally created our order twice, which is the only reason why we did score free food today.) Our free of charge activity was our walk around the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.

I do go out and enjoy my day off of work, as clearly evidenced by my choices above.  I think all veterans (and certainly, our nonveteran) counterparts should.  We work too much in this society to not fully enjoy holidays, even if they are ones we don’t celebrate and/or honor.  Just go out and enjoy time off work, if that’s your thing.

This year, I decided I wanted a new tradition.  This goal was important to me because I see more of the negative facets related to ‘veteran entitlement’.  I see numerous organizations, civilian and veteran collaborations, serving our veterans every day and I realized I wanted to actively encourage veterans to serve other veterans on Veterans’ Day.  This token of appreciation could be big or small, locally focused on one’s veteran peer(s) or a gift given to a veteran stranger.

I spent today with my family sporting this message (see below images) to encourage my veteran peers to do greater things today (with their money, time, and miscellaneous resources) besides mapping all the destinations to hit up today for a free drink/meal.

IMG_7681 IMG_7678 IMG_7676Today, we gave back to the veteran community by establishing monthly donations to Puppies Behind Bars.  This very interesting collaboration involves inmates who serve as puppy trainers.  The puppies live with their trainers, in prison, for a specific training period to serve as service dogs for wounded veterans or as law enforcement working dogs.

Hopefully, this small action encourages others to do the same with their time, money, and resources.  Life’s too short to not help others.

The Week Ahead: The Marine Corps Birthday & Veterans Day

A meme I came across on Facebook.
A meme I came across on Facebook.

The week ahead will be a busy one.  The Marine Corps’ birthday on Tuesday will certainly disrupt–happily–an already short work week.  Typically, I see Marines ‘vanish’ on this day to celebrate our birthday in official and unofficial capacities. I generally expect a diminished workforce that day because we have so many Marines in my office. Although I have not attended a Marine Corps birthday ball in a number of years, this time of year my Facebook timeline is inundated with ball photos from friends still serving.

And it’s not like the motivation completely ceases once one leaves the Corps.  Some Marine veterans might attend a friend’s unit’s birthday ball as guests or go to a local Marine veteran organization for similar festivitites. Earlier this year, Marine Corps license plates became available in Arizona.  I had the pleasure of seeing one such plate earlier this week. $17 from the fee for this specialty plate goes to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

IMG_7618

Since Veterans’ Day falls the day after, I expect a secondary disruption to the work week.  Please note, I am not complaining!  With everything on my plate for school, I am happy to enjoy a break.  In fact, I benefit greatly from the additional day off of work to complete some school related tasks and spending time with my family.

Currently, I’m studying local veteran courts for my Research Methods class.  As many of my followers know, I’ve looked at different aspects of the veteran community since the start of my graduate program to include unpacking my own combat experiences; art therapy through the use of Guitars for Vets;  and how the Marine Corps’ represents female recruits and Marines via its Facebook page and Marine Corps Enlisted Opportunities Book (MCEOB).  Now, perhaps most importantly, I’m discovering what the veterans’ court does that is absent in other forms of the justice system.

My Veterans’ Day will be spent pulling together the research I’ve compiled for my course and also spreading a message for ‘She Wears Dog Tags’ via the contents of the package pictured below.   Thanks again for all your support.

~Cheryl

Unveiling: 11/11/15
Unveiling: 11/11/15