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.