Best Defense

Veteran suicide: Here is a name to put with the numbers that numb us so

I share this story because so many veterans and servicemen and women still struggle with suicide every day.

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By Sebastian Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

The pistol barrel tasted like dirty pennies in my mouth, covered in carbon.

For half a second, I contemplated cleaning my pistol before shooting myself. It only seemed right. I wanted to die like a Marine and a Marine should never have a dirty weapon. But before I could finish the thought, my head leaned forward against the pistol, heavy from the empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor. I remember how cold the bath tub felt against my bare skin and how I laid out towels on the floor to help with the eventual clean up. That also seemed proper and right to me. As if someone would walk in and discover my limp body and say, “Hey, at least he left towels for me.” In the end, I didn’t want my final act of selfishness, of cowardice, to be completely devoid of manners, of civility.

I closed my eyes. Shoved the pistol deep into the back of my mouth. Wrapped my finger from the trigger. And I waited for the end… but no bullet left the chamber. The pistol, covered in carbon from the last day at the range, made me gag — unleashing a torrent of vomit onto my lap as the pistol dropped into the dark pink mixture. And as my consciousness faded into a drunken stupor, I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m in the bath tub…”

Call it divine intervention. Call it stupid luck. Call it an intolerance to liquor. Whatever you want to call it, that singular moment was rock bottom for me. I couldn’t see a way forward, but most of all, I couldn’t find a reason to try. So, like so many veterans and servicemen and women, I succumbed to the basic impulse of our fragile human nature — to find relief in any form. And in that moment, death was the final relief, or at least it was supposed to be. I craved any reprieve from the relentless self-flagellation of questions: What if you were better back in Iraq? Why didn’t you do more? What were you fighting for out there? Was it worth it? Did it mean anything at all? Why are you letting this get to you?

Why aren’t you stronger?

I wanted answers, but had none to offer. So I ran — ran straight into the bottle, searching for solace at the bottom until I was too exhausted to care, to try. But unlike the 1,868 veterans of the Global War on Terror who committed suicide from 2001 to 2009, I was lucky enough to be crawl back from the ledge.

I share this story, a secret I have hidden for most of my adult life, not because I want to paint myself a martyr or as some broken war hero — because I’m none of those things. I share this story because so many veterans and servicemen and women still struggle with suicide every day. The well-intentioned Mission 22, an organization seeking to end veteran suicide, has inspired the viral 22 push-ups challenge on social media to raise awareness for the supposed 22 veteran suicides every day. Although the exact statistic remains contentious, as noted by the Washington Post, which highlighted that the 22 veterans a day statistic is often taken out of context, and that the true figure more closely resembles roughly one veteran suicide per day. Nevertheless, according to the American Public Health Association, “Studies indicate that 56 percent to 87 percent of service members experiencing psychological distress after deployment report that they did not receive psychological help.” To make matters worse, the Department of Veterans Affairs remains woefully incapable of providing the healthcare, especially mental healthcare, to veterans in need. In 2015, Military Times reported, “The GAO [Government Accountability Office] report documents failures and neglect that needs to be remedied, not in some distant future but literally right away.”

Yet in the end, the numbers don’t matter — not really. Because whether 22 or only one a day, each tally represents a human life lost, a veteran life forgotten by society, a life dedicated to service and country that faded away without notice. And isn’t that the great tragedy of it all? That we, as a society, reduce human lives to digestible and debatable numbers, disregarding the faces behind those climbing numbers. Because ultimately, I could have been a mere line in a statistical report, a footnote to a government document that sits on some forgotten shelf somewhere.

And I’m left wondering, “When did we become a nation comfortable with the fact that more veterans die by suicide than by combat?”

Sebastian J. Bae, a frequent contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in violent non-state actors and counterinsurgency. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianBae

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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