Coming Home: The Realities of Suicide in the Military

Spc. Chris Dombroski
Spc. Chris Dombroski

We called the disaster site The Pile; the mud covered 1 square mile and was as much as 70 feet deep, with dangerous pockets rescuers and their dogs could easily fall into. When the mud slide hit the tiny Washington town of Oso on the morning of March 22, 2014, 43 people were killed, including the aunt and uncle of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier Spc. Chris Dombroski. Chris traveled from JBLM to join the volunteers at The Pile, hanging on to a tiny thread of hope for his missing relatives. He was friendly and cheerful, his attitude surprisingly upbeat given the situation; his smile was sweet and instantly endearing. And while the atmosphere during the search was serious, it wasn’t as dire as one might think due to the small-town warmth of big pancake breakfasts for searchers and a constant outpouring of help from the surrounding areas. Driving into town I passed people standing on the street waving signs of support and encouragement and even as the disaster site grew near, it was clear the town was working hard to maintain an aura of hope. Chris clung to that hope, albeit briefly. He’d been a Stryker systems maintainer and had spent a year in Afghanistan, and when he walked away that Sunday night, those who had shared searching grid space with him did not expect what came next.

Chris drove his motorcycle to Capitol Peak and left it behind to enter the Capitol Forest in Thurston County; he entered the forest, and he never came out. Searchers found his body two days later on a Tuesday. The 20-year-old active duty soldier had taken his life, and the ripple effect across not only the military community but also the searchers in Oso was substantial. His smile had given away nothing, and his death is part of a disturbing trend.

22 veterans and 1 active duty service member will take their lives today.

The numbers first began to climb in 2005, peaking in 2012 to drop by a fraction of a percentage point last year before climbing again this fall. Military suicides occur at double and sometimes triple the rate of suicides in the civilian population, and no one really understands why. Studies have been and are being done, but the results are somewhat generalized. Regardless of where scientists claim the problems of the lost began, one thing remains true: our nation seems to be failing our military members on a massive level.

Coming Home

Yes, coming home from a war zone is a traumatic experience all on its own. Although you’re now physically stateside and in a far calmer, technically safer environment, you’re still mentally deployed. The necessary hypervigilance and constant state of readiness cannot simply be turned off like a switch and the strain emotionally and mentally can be great. For some, it’s too much.

TrainingOur military trains its soldiers for the rigors of combat, making entering a war zone from the peacefulness of home not only doable but easier than one might think. However, there is no training for the reverse, a downfall of logic the military has yet to correct. It is true services have been substantially increased offering help for those in need; for example, signs of PTSD are drilled into our heads at a rate so high is there truly one among us who cannot practically list them by rote? And yet, despite attempts to remove the stigma surrounding PTSD, there are countless soldiers who refuse to seek help. Either they don’t want to admit something is wrong or they believe they can handle it on their own; either way, the results are the same, and often deadly.

Your strength and self-reliance kept you alive in combat, but the same tenacity that served you so well overseas can cripple you at home. And sometimes non-verbal cues go unnoticed, such as one soldier returning from Afghanistan who began looking for war documentaries depicting missions similar to his own experiences. When he’d find one, he would have a friend or family member watch it with him, all in the hopes the end result would include them asking whether or not he was all right. Of course, once you’re asked, you need to remember the value of an honest answer.

There is no overnight adjustment, no magical method for returning to life in the States as though you never left. Of course you’ve changed, because combat affects you whether you want to admit it or not. Don’t pretend waking up at the slightest noise and reaching for your rifle or constantly scanning the horizon for a threat is a healthy way to live. Find someone to confide in, and do it. If that seems like an oversimplification, well, in some ways it is. But it’s also reality; having someone to talk to is a vital part of acclimating to life stateside. Be honest with yourself, and talk about it.

PTSD

SuicidePost-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We all know what it is – an anxiety disorder developed after exposure to traumatic events – and we should all know the signs. Although studies have proven the obvious, which is that we all have varying capacities to handle stress, it’s also true that no one can enter a combat zone and remain unaffected. In the military, PTSD is experienced from both sides of the spectrum, because service members experience the strain of being both victim and savior. It is simply impossible not to be affected by the violence and trauma of war, and although not every soldier will develop PTSD, it is far more prevalent than statistics show. So what are the signs?

There are many signs of PTSD, but some are more common than others. Topping the list is flashbacks, which involves reliving traumatic events as though they’re happening again right at that moment. These can happen both while awake and asleep. While sleeping, they manifest as night terrors and night sweats. Hypervigilance, as mentioned before, is another sign. Being constantly on edge takes a toll on your body. Depression often occurs as well, sometimes as a result of things a service member did or saw but can also occur for more generalized reasons. One sign many fail to think of is known as the loss of executive functioning, meaning you’re no longer able to plan out and execute your life or make good, solid decisions. Even just managing to make or keep an appointment can become impossible. There are more, including insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, and avoidance; these are simply the most common.

Triggers for PTSD are seemingly normally occurring events in daily life that cause an escalation of anxiety and stress. Although some triggers are obvious, such as sudden, loud noises, others are less obvious, such as standing too close to other people or being in an environment that is out of the service member’s control. One veteran of Iraq told of his mother ignoring his advice to always wake him from a distance; one morning she bent over and touched his shoulder, and the fact that he threw her to the floor remains a source of pain for him to this day. Different people have various triggers, and figuring out what they are is more important than you might think.

One of the best ways to combat triggers and to treat PTSD in general is a service dog, because dogs are able to detect subtle changes in a soldier before they reach a critical point. Unfortunately the military isn’t paying for service dogs right now, but there are a number of organizations out there willing and able to supply well-trained dogs to veterans. The VA also offers a variety of sources to help those struggling with PTSD, go here to browse their website for help and information.

Having someone to talk to is important, but it’s incredibly difficult for many veterans to talk about the cause of their PTSD. Or, worse, they’re afraid to admit something is wrong due to either embarrassment or fear of repercussions such as having firearms taken away. Find a way to ask for help one way or another. I guarantee you there is someone out there more than willing to listen and offer help in any way they can.

A Variety of Factors

There are many other factors to consider that heavily influence suicide. Substance abuse, mental health problems, depression unrelated to combat, financial problems… there is an almost unending list of reasons why a service member might commit suicide. Whatever it is that makes someone feel helpless, hopeless, and alone, that is a cause. The way studies attempt to classify causes is sad in some ways, because the reality is that life is hard and the fact that we have been a nation at war for well over a decade creates a heavier strain on members of the military than many seem to realize.

I’m Listening

Some time back a Vietnam veteran gave me the nickname of Father Flanagan in reference to the man who founded Boystown for wayward boys. The veteran had me pegged as someone to whom many veterans had or would talk to; he himself had finally spoken out after decades of silence. The most important thing you can do for the service member in your life is to listen. And although you may think that means hearing every detail of combat or whatever it is that could possibly be bothering them, it isn’t usually that straightforward. Listening has more to do with a willingness to pay attention and respond accordingly than anything else. Of course, active listening is also vitally important.

Suicide PosterDon’t assume you need to have a solution for everything, either. Not every problem can be fixed, and not every issue is a problem, per se. Just be willing to be there for them, whatever they might need in that moment.

Our nation’s veterans are having a crisis. Losing one veteran or active duty soldier to suicide is one too many, and the fact that we’re losing anywhere between 18 and 23, total, on a daily basis is a tragedy. With the rather monumental problems going on in the VA and the fact that over 65 million dollars has been spent on studies to analyze the factors leading to suicide in service members instead of putting those funds into more active solutions, such as service dogs, counseling, and medication, it’s no wonder the military suicide rate has reached critical mass. The military should be doing more to save these men and women; our nation as a whole should be doing more. Men who have seen combat have risked their lives protecting your many freedoms; isn’t it time we returned the favor by seeing to their needs here at home?

Losing one soldier to suicide is too many; losing 23 a day is a truly heart-breaking number.

Take a moment today to listen to the service member in your life. And if you’re a service member in need of help, you are not alone. Your sacrifices have been great, and your life is valuable. No man is left behind on the battlefield, and no veteran should ever be left behind here in the states.

You are not alone.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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