We want to discuss a topic near and dear to our hearts. This subject will contain a lot of transparency and vulnerability. However, do not be hesitant to ask us anything that it may stir inside you. Open discussion is the key to understanding.
This past weekend our nation celebrated Veterans Day. A day to pay homage to those that have set aside their rights and privileges as citizens, as a means to secure the ongoing lives of the civilian population.
Consider that statement for a moment. Anyone that has taken the oath of enlistment has conceded their rights as American citizens. That’s monumental. Free speech inhibited and no protection of unreasonable searches or seizures. To name a few.
Instead, the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provides the rules of the military culture. A somewhat broad-stroked collection of laws set to establish the chain of command, starting at our Commander in Chief, the President of the United States.
And it works. I (CJ) believe one of the main reasons for our military’s ability to remain effective is this framework. Everyone is aligned. No matter your race, creed, orientation, religion; the military structure works. Everyone together focused on the same goal.
***Note. There is a distinction between military effectiveness and the usage of our force. I am specifically looking at our military and how it operates, internally, not if it’s appropriately used. Let’s leave politics out of it.***
When those men and women take the oath of enlistment, they’re ushered into a new set of principles. Integrity. Honor. Duty. Selflessness. Excellence. It doesn’t matter if you were drafted or volunteered, each person is ingrained with these core values. A shared set of principles that create a cohesive unit.
From the moment a person raises their right hand, relinquishing their rights to the UCMJ, they are introduced, through the rigors of basic military training to their new values. And as long as they remain within the military, anywhere between 4 and 30 years, they will continue to be reinforced with those principles. Consistent.
Focus on this experience. Put yourself in those shoes.
Now imagine what it looks like to leave the service. How would you feel?
A lot of people may say, “Heck yeah. No one barking orders at me. Telling me where to be every second of the day. Telling me how to cut my hair and how to wear my clothes. My rights restored. I can now disagree out loud with the Commander in Chief. My life is my own. Freedom!”
When I signed my retirement orders, it was a much more pleasant experience than when I entered service. You know the one where they ripped me from my momma’s hand, screamed in my face, shaved my head and took all of my earthly possessions.
The transition back into the civilian sector was a relatively peaceful undertaking. Quiet. Freeing. “Now I can chase MY dreams. Exercise my rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.” Seamlessly back into any chosen facet of ordinary American life.
This is what I THOUGHT my transition would be like.
What my family thought my transition would be like.
What the military community thought my transition would be like.
What my civilian counterparts thought my transition would be like.
Even what my doctors thought my transition would be like.
But to the contrary, I found myself facing depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Many believed, “It must be his experiences in combat. You know he did a lot of work over there. He just kept volunteering and exposing himself to a lot of bad things. He must have gotten PTSD.”
But I wasn’t having nightmares or severe uncontrollable thoughts of traumatic events from the battlefield. I wasn’t unsettled with my experiences. I was blessed to have been able to serve that long in harm’s way without the weight of emotional trauma on my mind. I didn’t have the idyllic conditioned responses of a seasoned warrior. At least not the ones portrayed by Hollywood.
Others, including myself, thought, “What in the world is wrong with you? Pick yourself up and press on. You have everything you need to be successful. You faced off against some bad dudes in foreign lands, and now you’re gonna get all sad.”
From the outside looking in, I had it all together, but even my internal monologue was concerted with, “What do you have to be all upset about?!”
There was an emptiness. A part of me left hollow, with nothing to fill the void. I kept having “crashes.” Kylie would find me in confusion. Blindsided by the eruption of emotions. I would consistently sob and say, “I don’t understand this place. I don’t fit in here. I should have died where I belonged.”
She bore the burden of being my rock for a long time. And even today, when I begin to slip back, she is there to help me move forward.
This is an amazing feat, considering she has no connection or relationship to the military. Remember, we were married AFTER my military service was ended. I believe the single factor in keeping me from taking my own life was that God blessed me with a caring and talented woman. A woman that is patient with me and leans on Him to provide understanding and the support we need.
But, back then, I just didn’t have a place to fit in.
I looked like you. I sounded like you. I was American like you. But I didn’t (and still don’t in many ways) think like you.
After I took off the uniform, each time I faced a setback or something that didn’t fit into my service worldview, it deepened my confusion. I couldn’t connect with anyone. I couldn’t find people that saw the world as I did. I couldn’t find people focused on the same goals. I was lost and ready to remove myself from the equation.
There is an interesting study commissioned by the Department of Veteran Affairs. A deep dive into suicide rates for military Veterans. The results were pretty sobering. When comparing Veteran rates to civilian rates:
- The Veteran suicide rate was 25% higher for males and
- 150% higher for females
But that’s not the interesting part. The most eye-opening finding was that:
- No significant correlation between combat experience and suicide was identified.
Today’s Veterans account for roughly 1% of our population. Of that single percentage point;
- Less than 10% of them will enter a combat zone.
And of the 10% that enter a war zone;
- Only 10% of those will be engaged by an adversary.
Furthermore, studies have shown that when service members face trauma in combat,
- They are MORE LIKELY to be resilient in their lives than those that have not.
So why are Veterans taking their lives at such a high rate? And, if it’s not combat, then what?
My hypothesis and personal answer: Transition
This is an issue that ALL Veterans face. And it’s an issue that can be addressed by an engaged culture.
I have been asked many times, “What can we do to help?”
I think understanding is key and a significant first step. Veterans are not the most loose-lipped bunch. We tend to hold onto our honor and remain quiet about our experiences. At least until we get around a bunch of other Veterans. Then, all bets are off.
But if you want to help, begin with understanding. Do not borrow your viewpoints from an outside source. Cultivate a relationship with someone that has recently served and seek to understand at a personal level.
Not every Veteran has the same experiences. Not everyone went to Iraq or Afghanistan. Not everyone piloted a jet. Heck, I was an Air Force guy that wore Army and Marine Corps uniforms and drove the roads with Afghan Police and trained the Iraqi Army how to neutralize roadside bombs. Do you know how insulting it is to be asked: “What airplane did you fly?” I hate flying!
Even more so, never ask, “Have you killed somebody?” We are your “sin-eaters.” Those that have chosen to put ourselves in harm’s way so that you can continue the American experience. It’s tempting to want to know more, honest curiosity most of the time, but please be respectful.
Ask questions like;
- How long did you serve?
- What branch? (Soldiers = Army / Sailors = Navy / Airmen = Air Force / Marines = Marines)
- Where were you stationed?
- What was your favorite place?
- What was the coolest thing you did?
Break the ice. Small talk. Don’t assume anything. Chances are the floodgates will open when you approach with genuine interest.
From there, help. Don’t give a handout. Help.
This means teaching these men and women how to be a civilian. This may seem simple to you, but to the recently transitioned, it is a culture shock. You have no idea what a good mentor can do to get us on the right path. I have three solid mentors that I lean on when I need a push in the right direction. It is an investment of time and attention that will yield immeasurable gratitude from those you connect with.
For instance. I use my mentors to help with making connections and providing professional guidance. They are my “Executive Board.” Some, I have invited to be a part of my board. Some other mentors simply call to catch up and make sure I’m still pressing forward. I am the CEO of my career, but they help steer me toward my vision.
Many new Veterans have been career warriors. They dream in military language. All they know is how to function in the military system. Help them tone it down. I have found that simple conversation helps ease the tongue and quiet the “roger thats,” the “say agains,” and the “affirmatives.” Dead giveaways of a past career in uniform.
Finally, be patient. This word is harsh but, we were institutionalized. It takes time to unravel a life dedicated to service. When we slip, help us get back up and teach us.
Failure was not an option when our team’s lives depended on us being successful. My own military community’s mantra was “Initial Success or Total Failure.” (Explosives don’t leave a whole lot of room for mistakes.)
But the margin of error in the civilian culture is tolerable, and I have even come to welcome it as an exercise in character building. Understand that failure is a new experience for most of us.
We need your help to combat the magnitude of Veteran suicide. And if you feel moved to serve those that have served, there are several outlets. Feel free to contact me to assist you in finding the proper connection.
Be proactive in your engagement. Seek to understand. Look for ways to help. Be patient.
Helping a Veteran get their feet under them will strengthen our communities and yield you a lifelong, faithful relationship.
KJ & CJ