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 frightening 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. After all, what can be more frightening than warfare?
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 area of civilian life-skills such as academic, vocational, social and interpersonal as I entered my rite of adult passage in a place far from home. Everything I’d learned in my 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 imagine, my adjustment to civilian life was very difficult.
As I stepped off the Greyhound, I soon began to realize that things were quite 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 out in droves to visit me when I was home on leave were now nowhere to be found. As I looked down at the military service 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 age, race, 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 was nearly 60 years old, and not representative of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans generation.” What is going on here?
In order to address the veteran depression and suicide epidemic, we must first understand the underlying nature of its causes. In my opinion, the post-service challenges of adjustment and transition to civilian life for most veterans can be overwhelming. Just as veterans prepared themselves to become members of our elite armed forces – physically, emotionally and psychologically – they must equally prepare themselves for life after the military. The “transition from military to civilian life” training must be implemented while the veteran is still on active duty 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, community acceptance, education, employment, health-care access 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 as well as other physical and emotional disabilities. There should be no room for compromise when it comes to the state of health and wellbeing of our veteran population. The veteran, beginning with his or her time on active duty, must be encouraged to seek help free of stigma and ridicule from their chain of command. While great strides have been made by the military as well as by federal and local veteran agencies to better the quality of treatment of veterans, more must be done. In my opinion, the core objective of veteran advocacy groups 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 and understanding between exiting veterans and their civilian “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 feelings of despair I felt when I left the military was the utter sense of isolation, lack of purpose and loneliness. While the Marine Corps tirelessly instilled in every Marine the ideological virtues of “esprit de corps” – the common spirit existing in the members of an elite organization that inspires unwavering enthusiasm, devotion, and strong reverence for the honor of the organization – there was a notable absence of such when I returned home as a civilian. After all, there was no unified mission to keep our morale up. Additionally, loneliness quickly set in as I no longer had 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. There was little in common between me, a recently discharged combat veteran and my civilian counterparts. The sense of isolation and lack of purpose, if left unattended to, can quickly turn into anger, resentment and despair.
In speaking to many former military personnel today, they too have shared that one of the greatest missing components in civilian life is the lack of brotherhood and esprit de corps. Exiting veterans, particularly those that have served in combat theaters, are often warriors without a mission when their terms of military service expire. It is time that society recognizes the significance of this void.
Therefore, a fundamental shift in our approach to combat the cataclysmic rate of veteran depression and suicides is to first recognize that exiting veterans desperately need to retain their sense of identity, purpose and community. Veteran advocacy groups must work with the communities of exiting veterans to promote a “band of brothers” (“sisters”) support groups that are distinct and specific to each branch of service, tour of duty, and shared experiences, if possible. The more a veteran has in common with the peers from his or her support group, the better it is for the veteran to find acceptance and commonality. These support groups must be publicized prominently in every city and town so that returning veterans can come forward at their readiness to seek membership engagement. If formed properly, such “band of brothers” support 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
Executive Director of Spark of Hope