A few months ago I received news that a friend of mine, a former Navy SEAL and war veteran, had lost his battle with depression and killed himself. I felt shocked, then devastated. Which gave way to guilt–the “why didn’t I see this coming, and what could I have done to prevent it?” kind of thing. And eventually I settled on anger. Not at my buddy Rob, and what he did to himself … but at The Way It Is.
See, I’m not satisfied to simply cry a few tears, and raise a toast or two, or shake my head and say, “Man, that sucks.”
I’m angry that we’re supposed to accept this.
In record numbers, a startling number of these fine voluntary military personnel, after risking life and limb to preserve our freedoms, are choosing to take their own lives. This is a sad twist of malaise that after facing down a committed and deadly enemy, these warriors return to the embrace of their own country, only to succumb to hopeless depression and suicide. The “tragedy of war” some say … you just have to accept this is what happens.
Well, I’m not going to accept this. There’s got to be something we can all do.
I sat down with my friend, fellow actor, Ken Wahl, to discuss this horrible and disturbing trend. The irony is not lost on me that it just happens to be 10 years ago to the day that the Iraq War began – and Ken and I are talking about our returning Vets. And more importantly the tragedy of the fact that the suicide rates of returning Vets is soaring.
Ken Wahl: I could not believe, when I started doing the numbers on this, the sheer numbers. I’m thinkin’ what the hell is going on. This just isn’t right.
Gary Graham: It’s not right. We teach them to be warriors, how to fight, how to kill, how to accomplish their mission … and they do it professionally, with excellence, we throw them into a war theater, they experience the atrocities of war, then we bring them back take their weapons and say, “Thanks boys, have a nice life.”
Wahl: Yeah, but it’s gotta be more than that. Most of them come back and they handle it. When they come home, are they expecting to remain unchanged? I don’t think so.
Graham: I don’t think so either.
Wahl: There’s something deeper going on. It’s one thing to kill your enemy. But then to turn around and kill yourself? Especially for a warrior … who is trained to survive and kill the other guy … not yourself. You’ve got it hard enough with them trying to kill you.
Graham: Why make their job easier?
Wahl: Exactly. And right, some of them when they come back, just aren’t able to turn that switch off. Which is where they need our help. To help them turn that switch off.
Whatever is necessary–you just cannot have these guys killing themselves, and a rate of over twenty a day? That’s beyond my comprehension. They’re trained to kill … but not themselves! Nobody is trained to kill themselves. And if these guys are feeling that … hopelessness … ‘it doesn’t matter what I did, my life is meaningless, no one gives a shit’… And when people sit around and stew in that, it grows. And then it gets to the point that it is so burdensome, that the only way out is to eat a bullet. And it rips me to shreds thinking of these guys offing themselves. We gotta do whatever we can to stop that.
Graham: Some of them obviously are so filled with pain and internal demons … they just want to silence the pain, I guess. That’s why I loved the notion of what you were talking about of … helping them find a sense of direction. Even to the point of having an animal to take care of. Something that relies on them.
Wahl: That’s right. One thing I do understand–after getting in my accident and being paralyzed and having to learn to walk again … the depression that I felt was not only that I can’t participate in life anymore … but that I felt useless. And I know that these guys, being trained soldiers–one of the things about their mission … is that they fell that they’re helping people. And when they lose that ability to help, that in itself is extremely depressing. And what helped me, was just by helping an animal that I could care for. So what I came up with was, yes, it’s a small thing but it’s a start. So not only does the animal save you, as a companion … but you are saving that animal–which makes you feel somewhat useful. And it’s a little thing, but it does mean a lot. It’s therapeutic for both the animal and the human. It’s a start–just to take care of another living thing.
Graham: And it doesn’t seem to matter what sort of animal it is, dog, cat, horse?
Wahl: Right. Whatever it is that appeals to you. Small measures mean a lot. Any little bit helps. And that’s why I’m on this mission.
Graham: And your wife Shane told me about her friend’s organization … I understand they train rescue animals to be individually adapted to the veteran’s needs?
Wahl: That’s my mission, and I can’t think of anything more urgent. Ya know, these guys put their lives on the line to secure and preserve our freedoms … that so many Americans take for granted. And I don’t. I appreciate these guys and girls … I just really love them and I appreciate them. And I’m so grateful to them. And I know it sounds kinda hokey … but I don’t care. Ya know, I’ve been lucky enough to have been all over the world. And there’s a lot of places in the world that I really enjoy. But it’s still not America. Even America, with all its problems and all its difficulties…it’s really still is the best place on Earth, in my opinion. And it’s because of those men and women in uniform.
Wahl: Because being the biggest and the best like we are–that’s what puts the big target on our back. So many in the world are trying to knock us down a few pegs, if not completely eliminate us. They’re the ones who keep us as free as we are. I just thank God for the U.S. military.
Gary Graham would like to offer a big DITTO to Ken’s impassioned plea in support of our returning veterans. Now, more than ever, they need your assistance readjusting to life outside the combat zone. Get active in reaching out to our returning military. Give them a friendly greeting … invite them to coffee … make a how-ya-doing call. Make them feel welcome, and above all, useful. ALL of our veterans. We are free because they risk it all.