September 25, 1991 was one of the proudest days of my life. It was the day I left active military service. It was also one of the most frigtening days of my existence. This may seem ironic coming from a United States Marine veteran who served more than 10 months in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Like many young American men and women, I’d enlisted in the military when I was still a minor at the age of seventeen. Shortly following my eighteenth birthday, I was boarding a flight to South Carolina en route to the infamous Parris Island, Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot. Needless to say, I’d possessed little in the areas of civilian life skills such as academic, vocational, social and interpersonal. Everything I’d learned in my adult life up to the point of my EAS (End of Active Service) was from the military, and in particular, from the Marine Corps. As you can guess, my adjustment to civilian life was frighteningly difficult.
As I stepped off the Greyhound, I soon began to realize that things were very different back home. The yellow ribbons that once adorned the streets near my house have long been put away. The friends and neighbors that used to come in droves to visit me when I was home on leave were nowhere to be found. As I looked upon the ribbons on my chest, I realized that they now meant little, if any value to the new world facing me. For the first time, I felt alone, isolated, resentful and scared.
23 Veterans kill themselves daily – more than twice the rate of civilians
Beyond alarming, this staggering statistic transcends demographical factors such as racial, gender, socio-economic and even rank. Just two months ago, Navy Vice Admiral Scott Stearney was found dead in his residence in an “apparent suicide”. The Washington Post reported that “the average age of veteran suicides with was nearly 60 years old, not representative of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans generation.”
In order to address the veteran suicide epidemic, we must first understand the nature of its causes. The challenges of adjustment and transition to civilian life must be tackled while the veteran is still “active” in the military. As the veteran is nearing the expiration of his or her term of service, strong emphasis should be given in the areas of civilian reintegration, education, employment, health-care and especially mental wellbeing care. Greater access to post-active duty healthcare must be made available to veterans dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Traumatic Brain Injuries, physical and emotional disabilities. The veteran, beginning with his tenure on active duty, must be encouraged to seek help free of stigma and ridicule. While great strides have been made by the military as well as by the federal and local legistatures to better the treatment of veterans, more must be done. The core of our efforts should be focused upon the transition of our veterans from the battlefields to the fields of civilian life. We must do more to foster supportive community relationships between exiting veterans and their “home bases”. We must create robust partnership programs infusing the private with the public sectors to bridge the gap between those who serve and those who do not.
A Band of Brothers – Esprit De Corps
Perhaps the greatest sense of despair I felt when I left the military was utter isolation and loneliness. While the Marine Corps taught me tirelessly about the idealogy of “esprit de corps” – the common spirit existing in the members of an elite organization that inspires enthusiasm, devotion, and strong reverence for the honor of the organization – there was a notable absence of such when I returned home. I no longer have the luxury of relying upon my brothers in arms to cover my back during the tough times. I had difficulty dealing with my peers in the civilian world. This sense of isolation, if left alone, can quickly turn into anger, resentment and despair. A fundamental shift in our approach to combat the cataclysmic rate of veteran suicides is to recognize that exiting veterans desperately need to retain their esprit de corps identity, purpose and community. Veteran advocacy groups must work with the communities of exiting veterans to promote a “band of brothers” support groups that are specific to each branch of service, tour of duty, and shared experiences, if possible. These groups would go a long way to ensure that the veteran “feels at home” when he or she reaches the end of active military service. After all, birds of a feather do indeed flock together.
David N. Lam