- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
This blog is probably not the best place to run this column, because many of you will know instantly what Blake is talking about here. But I am happy to have him start here, and I hope others, outside of those who pay steady attention to our wars, will hear what he has to say.
I am turning the whole column over to him today.
By Blake Hall
Best Defense guest columnist
Every day is a national tragedy. This is not hyperbole. Eighteen veterans kill themselves every day, a figure that represents twenty percent of the suicides in this country, and veterans constitute twenty-three percent of this nation’s homeless population. Veterans represent nine percent of America’s population, so those numbers, to me, are staggering.
Last month, I sat down for dinner with my former battalion commander. I brought up these numbers and he responded with valid questions, “How much of that is self-selection? Were these vets already struggling with problems before the military? Were they already pre-disposed to engage in high-risk activity? How many of them fought in combat?” I noted that the figures don’t include the veterans who kill themselves with alcohol or who kill themselves on motorcycles or in single-car accidents, because those types of fatalities don’t fit into neatly quantifiable categories. But, ultimately, I do not have the academic knowledge or expertise to respond authoritatively to his queries. I can only comment on my former scouts and snipers, who call me from time to time, as they fight their demons.
I led twenty-four scouts and five snipers in Iraq from July 2006 to September 2007. Our mandate as a platoon was to kill/capture High Value Targets — typically Al-Qaida or Iranian backed militants. We were in some rough spots, and, as you can imagine, we saw some terrible things. It affected all of us. As the prophet Isaiah noted, “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.”
I’ve had two calls from my men in the last month and a half. One of them was from a sniper team leader I nominated for the Bronze Star with Valor for his actions in combat. The other was from a sniper I consider one of the bravest men in my platoon. Both men told me they considered killing themselves either during deployment or when they returned home from war.
In Mosul, the sniper team leader, “David,” rescued the crew of a Stryker Reconnaissance Vehicle taking heavy fire from three different directions. He exposed himself to that fire in order to secure a winch to the vehicle, which was in danger of rolling over into a draw. He saved the crew after he had emplaced and directed his sniper teams to engage insurgents firing four mortar tubes on a combat support hospital — an action senior commanders credit with saving twenty American lives, for ten coalition service members, some of them nurses, had already been critically wounded at the base from the mortar fire. And then he subdued an Al-Qaida militant in hand-to-hand combat inside of a building.
In Baghdad, another sniper, “Jonathan,” was on the rooftop of a building with my company commander during a firefight. Afterwards, the company commander walked up to me with shaky legs and said, “Blake, your snipers are crazy. They were walking around on the roof, bullets everywhere, just pointing and shooting. I was huddled behind the wall taking cover. You might tell them to get down once in awhile.”
Both men are brave. I want them by my side in a firefight — the highest compliment a soldier can give. So it breaks my heart when a soldier like Jonathan calls me and tells me that he wants to kill himself. Jonathan was brave in some of the scariest situations I can imagine, but it is the way that he is being treated now that he is back home that is breaking him down.
When Jonathan returned home from Iraq, he exhibited classic signs of PTSD, a term I hate, for PTSD is a disease that every veteran suffers from to some degree or another. He had trouble sleeping. He was nervous and hyper-alert in normal everyday situations. He couldn’t concentrate on a task for longer than a few minutes.
When he went to the chain-of-command for support, he was removed from the sniper section and placed into an administrative role while the command figured out what to do with him. I had moved to the battalion staff, but I took him to lunch one day and he told me, “Sir, I’m not even in the platoon anymore. I feel like a shitbag.”
That Jonathan could be treated this way, even by Infantry officers, many of whom have not seen combat to the degree that he has seen it, is unacceptable to me. There is a very real dilemma facing commanders who must decide whether they can allow a soldier to train with live weapons while they are dealing with psychological trauma, but, ultimately, the narrative needs to change. All of us hit lows from time to time, everyone who has experienced heartbreak in a relationship knows how utterly depressing the next few weeks after that cut can be, but, with the help of family and friends, you can make a full recovery and heal.
To understand the current narrative, read this quote from General George S. Patton:
The greatest weapon against the so called ‘battle fatigue’ is ridicule. If soldiers would realize that a large proportion of men allegedly suffering from battle fatigue are really using an easy way out, they would be less sympathetic… If soldiers would make fun of those who begin to show battle fatigue, they would prevent its spread and also save the man who allows himself to malinger by this means from an after-life of humiliation and regret.
From the moment a soldier enters basic training to the day he takes off the uniform, he is taught that to admit weakness is to invite ridicule. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien noted how the fear of embarrassment is the greatest motivator of valor. He focused on the negative. Certainly, a hunger for admiration can also enable bravery. But they both center on a certain primal desire for respect we all retain. When I was scared in combat, I knew that I could not shrink from danger, for I would never be able to stand in front of my men again with credibility. So I stood and fought.
We soldiers have been conditioned to never, ever admit we are hurt or suffering. But dealing with the aftermath of war, when you are no longer surrounded by the men who fought with you, when you are no longer working for a chain of command that can give you feedback from a position of authority, when you are alone — is a battle that far too many of us lose. When some of the bravest guys that I know can’t admit weakness, or do admit weakness, and then are subject to ridicule, then I posit that the narrative for the “after,” for the persistent battle that we veterans fight for the rest of our lives, should be distinct and separate from the Army’s normative weakness — ridicule relationship that is appropriate for combat.
I told Jonathan that he was brave when it counted. I said that when the chips were down, he faced the bullets and he moved forward, often at the head of the platoon. I let him know that I thought it was far more manly and heroic to admit weakness back here at home because it defies everything we have been taught in our culture that celebrates strength and filters out weakness lest it corrupt the unit.
After a long pause, he said, “Thank you so much for talking to me sir. I already feel a lot better.” He shouldn’t have to thank me, the nation should thank him. He should feel the respect and gratitude of the country every day by the way he is treated, not just in the popular culture that celebrates America’s service members, which all of us who have served appreciate.
Sadly, some of the articles I have read on this blog from the systematic mismanagement and scope creep that have ruined the Army’s Warrior Transition Units to single anecdotes about a veteran living alone with PTSD to op-eds that note some businesses are afraid to hire vets due to PTSD and TBI concerns (your article about Obamacare), reinforce the broken nature of the ecosystem of programs design to re-integrate American veterans. David visited a VA counselor three times to talk about the issues he dealt with every day. On his fourth visit, his normal counselor wasn’t there, so a new counselor saw him. The counselor asked, “Why are you here?” Then, the counselor sat back and expected David to fill him in on everything that he had already covered with his normal counselor. David got up and left, without treatment, because he got the sense that the therapist didn’t care. No one tried to stop him from leaving.
When you go to sleep tonight, eighteen more veterans will be gone by their own hand. Many more will lay their heads down without shelter, because they have lost their way. The thought that one day David and Jonathan could join their ranks is more than I can bear.
Veterans need to know that it is okay to admit weakness after dealing with the trauma of war. They need to know that they won’t be judged for opening up about their pain. They need to know that Americans care.
Blake Hall is a former Army captain and a member of the Army Rangers. He led a scout platoon in Iraq from July 2006 to September 2007. His military awards include two bronze stars with one “V” device for valor in combat. He recently graduated from Harvard Business School and co-founded TroopSwap, a platform for the military community.