Op-Ed: This weekend I had two very interesting conversations with two brothers who served with me in the Special Forces Regiment and specifically in the 7th Special Forces Group. Both suffered catastrophic injuries and now confined to wheelchairs.
And after speaking with both of them, it became clear, that although we in the Regiment and generally in Special Operations overall, we do a pretty good job of keeping up and reaching out to our brothers who are injured with the visible injuries but we’re all lacking at helping the brothers out there dealing with depression and PTSD.
Just this past year, two men I knew very well from 7th SFG, men from my era, committed suicide and it drove home the realization that while these men were some of the best soldiers and men that we had served with, it shows, no one is immune. More recently I read about a 5th SFG trooper who took his own life. Reading about his bio and speaking with some of the guys who knew him pretty well here at SOFREP, it is obvious the demons and guilt he carried with him, not only didn’t go away but got worse as time passed.
Everyone knows that the military community is struggling with veteran suicides, as many as 22 a day and that is 22 too many. The vast majority of those are within the first three years of a soldier separating from the service. That’s an awkward time even for those who aren’t suffering from the invisible injuries of combat. I’ve read that the suicide rate among women veterans is nearly 250 percent higher than with civilian women.
Losing the built-in support system of the unit, having a sounding board amongst the brothers and sisters of the services, and having a sense of normalcy of knowing that you have to get up and go to work with your unit every day is a difficult transition, especially the longer a soldier has served.
The number of the first three years being the definitive spike in veteran suicides struck home on Saturday evening. I had the fireplace roaring as the East Coast has been in the deep freeze since Christmas and was watching the Chiefs-Titans NFL playoff game when the phone rang right at halftime. It was my old team leader from A-712 Danny C.
He got injured in Central America a long time and has been a quadriplegic ever since. But a more upbeat guy, there has never been. Danny is uber-active, more so than myself which made me think about my own level of activity. Although confined to a wheelchair, he goes skiing in Aspen, plays in basketball and bocci ball tournaments and even went skydiving again when a former SF brother came up with a harness that allowed Danny to be strapped to him safely. He wants to continue to skydive, but his doctor is adamantly against it, stating that if he were to break a hip, he wouldn’t survive.
“Thirty-one years, I’ve been in the chair,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago…I always think back to that last deployment with the team, those were the best days of my life.” That’s when he dropped the bombshell.
“You know, after 31 years, I’ve been heavily involved with the disabled veterans and the Wounded Warriors and I’ve met so many young kids who are coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan and I tell them, ‘your life isn’t over, it is just going to be different’, but the sad fact of the matter is, so many of them give up and are gone in just 3-4 years.”
He told me that he reaches out to many of the young guys to spend time with them, especially in that darkest time for them soon after their injuries. But many of them shut down and shut everyone out. It is a sad thing, Danny said. I’d concur.
On Sunday night, I got an email from what I thought was a ghost. Another SF (7th SFG), Timmy H. was injured in El Salvador and was confined to a wheelchair even before Danny had. I had heard thru the commo grapevine that he passed away at the Cleveland VA hospital years ago. So, needless to say, getting an email from a ghost was surprising. Obviously, Tim had heard the same rumors. “The reports of my demise, have been greatly exaggerated,” is how he started it off. He had read one of my NFL columns, from another media organization and reached out after too many years.
His message was similar, but the one thing that both of them had in common was a tremendously positive attitude and the fact that many of the brothers from the Regiment had been there for them. There’s no doubt that both probably went thru (and still do) some dark times. But that’s where us other veterans come in. Danny admitted as much when he said, “You and Luis Colon kept me alive when I wasn’t sure I’d be around, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
But it is the guys who have those invisible injuries, the PTSD sufferers who are afflicted and (at least in their own minds) alone. And it isn’t just to fellow veterans but to all our citizens I ask that we, as a country need to do more. We need to reach out and help the men and women who suffer the invisible scars of war. You are not alone and just as our credo says, we will leave no man behind.
If one of our veterans is still stuck somewhere in his own mind, we need to reach out. If you haven’t heard from a close friend in a while, don’t wait for him to call you, reach out and call them. And if a veteran is having suicidal thoughts, you aren’t alone. Call your friends, they’ll be there for you just as they were in the service.
We’ve been standing shoulder to shoulder since Lexington and Concord. And nothing will change that. Our veterans deserve that and all of us can do better. DOL