Think Service, Not Suicide
“There is nothing new about combat stress. I suspect that if one had gone around the stoa in Athens in 485 B.C., there would have been people who were homeless and in distress who were veterans of the Battle of Marathon.” – The Earl of Onslow
From Herotodus to Hemingway, soldiers real and fictional have suffered the horrors of war. The tools of war may have changed since the Peloponnese, but the effect of war on the warrior has not changed since its ancient incarnation. As the sun sets on the longest wars in American history, it is shocking — but not surprising — that veteran suicides persist.
In 2011 we, a former Navy SEAL and Marine, mobilized to Pakistan with the disaster response organization Team Rubicon to provide aid after floods submerged one-fifth of the country. Our team of 8 veterans and medical personnel traveled through ungoverned areas of central Pakistan where the local Taliban targeted Western relief workers, and where few relief organizations were willing to go.
A Trusted Friend
Our lifeline was a satellite phone connected to our makeshift U.S. command center. No matter when we called, the same calm voice answered, asking: “What do you need?” Clay Hunt, a former Marine Scout Sniper, was on duty for us 24/7.
Clay’s position “in the rear with the gear” wasn’t glamorous. Nor was it easy supporting a group of former soldiers traveling around Pakistan without weapons. For Clay, this assignment wasn’t that different from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan: Troops in the field depended on him. He rolled up his sleeves, slept little, and made sure we weren’t alone as we spent long days treating children suffering from cholera and waterborne diseases. During our successful two-week mission to Southern Punjab, the team provided life-saving aid to thousands of Pakistanis. We were proud of our work. Six months later, Clay was dead by his own hand.
Clay’s suicide was a turning point for Team Rubicon. As his family and Team Rubicon reeled from Clay’s loss, we questioned our mission. If our work was important, why did Clay kill himself? How did we not recognize one of our own in despair? Does our work matter if we lose a team member to suicide?
There are no easy answers. But at Clay’s memorial, there were insights. His father spoke of Clay’s struggle with depression, exacerbated by combat in Iraq. When he came home, Clay was lost. In hindsight, we realized that his only armor, the only antidote to his depression, was his work with veterans. It wasn’t that his work with veterans didn’t matter; rather, it kept him going. But in Clay’s case, service alone wasn’t enough. Depression, divorce and the demons of war were too much to bear.
Healing the Wounds of War
Today Team Rubicon is building a program to help mitigate reintegration issues like depression. With support from Give an Hour and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), we’re integrating suicide prevention into volunteer training and the aid we provide.
While Clay’s loss is a stark reminder that service is not a panacea, it can be a critical part of the solution. For thousands of veterans in need, volunteering makes a difference.
After serving overseas, young men and women report missing the community and mission of the military. Platoons of veterans across the country are continuing their service out of uniform. Team Rubicon first responders deploy to tornado-stricken Oklahoma; The Mission Continues fellows teach in the Bronx; Team Red, White & Blue members are building community through physical training. As Mission Continues founder Eric Greitens says: “When we help others, we help ourselves.”
Finding Hope, Saving Lives
Team Rubicon volunteer Chris Dominsky lost six good friends while serving in Baghdad in 2004. Retired from the military due to injury, he “missed that sense of brotherhood. I couldn’t find that in the civilian world.” He tried to cope, joining a biker gang, drinking, fighting nightmares: “I hit rock bottom.” Chris tried to take his life twice.
He heard about Team Rubicon through a friend. With the organization, he cleared homes demolished by Hurricane Sandy and worked 14-hour days when Oklahoma was ravaged by a tornado. The work nourished a part of him that he had forgotten was there. When a fellow volunteer tossed him a shovel, or he tasked someone to cut down a tree blocking the road, Dominsky felt an esprit-de-corps he hadn’t felt since Iraq.
Sleeping in a warehouse, surrounded by veterans, Chris stopped being alone. Team Rubicon, he says, saved his life.
Past generations of veterans found community and support in the VFW and the American Legion. Many from this generation are turning towards new and non-traditional institutions. More veterans everyday are finding their calling in nonprofits and veterans groups nationwide. Many institutions are helping veterans transition home, and challenging them to help others. Accepting that challenge, veterans demonstrate the strength it takes to tackle others’ problems as they heal themselves.