An Open Letter To All Veterans. #EndVetSuicide

Let me preface this with a simple statement and then a warning: I am not, nor do I claim to be, a veteran of any combat action that the United States government recognizes. I am not a holder of the CAB, CIB, or any other warfare device – fact is, I never even got dolphins. I never even held an M-16 during my enlistment. Hell, I even skipped going to the range with the other recruits because the Company Commander knew I could shoot. I didn’t carry a satchel charge to an enemy bunker, I never parachuted out of an aircraft, and I sure as heck didn’t get any bullet holes in my hide during my five years of service.

And, now, the warning: I am about to rant. If you don’t want to read my opinions on the subject of Post Traumatic Stress in veterans, then go away now and keep your pie-hole shut. Seriously. This is not a scholarly piece, but it is from the heart.

If you want to read the rest of this, take a moment to click on this link about Post Traumatic Stress at the National Institute of Mental Health. It will set some basis for my commentary.

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For the three of you still reading the blog at this point, I would like to make a statement:

I, Joseph Courtemanche, deeply apologize if I have ever given the impression that I doubted you when you said your mental health problems were caused by, or exacerbated by your service in the United States Armed Forces. I didn’t doubt you, and if I left that impression, I am deeply sorry.

With that out of the way, I would like each of you, veteran and civilian alike, to reflect on the fact that suicide is a serious problem in the military. It follows you out the gate when your enlistment/office is over, and it takes the lives of far too many veterans every day. Mocking someone for expressing a need for mental health care does nothing but notch the Grim Reaper’s sickle.

I am not a victim of mental health issues. I even have a letter from the government that says I’m mentally fit. I make no claim to any current disability due to my service in the mental health area.

But that can change. In an instant. And, once that instant is passed, it may last forever.

This past week a veteran killed himself in Minnesota. It made the news – a rarity. The press dismisses these deaths for the most part. This poor soul had sought help from the VA and was sent to a hospital to be medically cleared before they would help him. He left the hospital emergency room at a civilian hospital and was dead about an hour later.

I don’t know what happened at the VA, or in that emergency room. I don’t know what the police did/didn’t do for/to this fellow. None of it matters. He’s dead. Do better next time if you were deficient.

What has me white-hot-angry is the response of some who identified themselves as veterans in the comments section of the newspaper website I visited. The comments ranged from “He served in Germany in the 90’s. That was great duty, how could he really have PTSD?” to “He just wanted free stuff and was a loser.” Maybe not those exact words, but close enough.

I understand the natural instinct of some vets to think that if their service was “easy” it was for everyone at the same place/time/era. I also understand the inclination of combat veterans to be dismissive of those who didn’t “see the elephant.” Both are natural, human responses. We all measure ourselves by what we have done in our own lives, and weigh others as lesser, or occasionally greater, as a result of that perspective.

My friends you cannot possibly know what that individual faced. Nor does it matter: they are a brother/sister veteran who has a problem and needs help. Start by acknowledging them as important. Pray for them. Guide them to help. Under no circumstances reply that “You ain’t seen **&* compared to what I did.” Not only is it not helpful, but you’ve just dismissed someone who opened up to you in hopes of understanding. You’ve struck another blow in their lives that they did not need. You made it easier for the Grim Reaper.

That’s pretty much the rant. Be kind. Love on your vet. Listen. Help. Pray.

Because while you drank beer in Thailand and horsed around with your buddies, the guy asking for help was in the engine room of the ship that caught fire and killed their best friend. They were in the tank that ran off the road in Germany and landed upside down in the river, killing everyone but them. You were in Minot watching the days go by on the flight-line and eating donuts, but they were responding to crashed aircraft, spouse suicides, gruesome traffic accidents, and God knows what else as a Military Police Officer. That quiet woman who sits next to you at work? She was on the radio with the kid who fell out of the helicopter. The kid who was a cook at Fort Leonard Wood? How could a cook get PTSD? He was in the field kitchen when the Bradley ran over their sleeping tent in the dark, and he can’t handle confined spaces ever again.

All of those things, and 10,000,000 more would scar you. You couldn’t just walk away if you were in the military. You got up the next day and did it again. And again. And again… You numbed yourself with booze, you ignored the tears in the shower when nobody was around because the other people would think less of you. You didn’t come to grips with it until years later, and then it was too late. You were damaged. And when you sought that help you needed, the guys at the VFW laughed at you and told you it wasn’t bad enough to be an issue.

Well, it was. And it is. And God help us if we don’t take care of each other.

I’m done. If you’re a vet, and need help, you can hit the tabs on the bottom of this page for veteran’s assistance lines. You can post a comment (I screen them all and will keep it private) and I’ll respond. I’ll call you. I might even show up on your doorstep if you need that to make it one-more-day.

Why? Because too damned many of us take our own lives, and you’re way too important to lose. You’re my comrade and I love you.

********* ********** *********** ***********


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An Open Letter To All Veterans. #EndVetSuicide — 4 Comments

  1. I had an interesting discussion about this with a friend who was a Navy Corpsman in the 80s assigned to SOF in El Salvador. Lots of combat ops and all of it classified. Hence, no VA recognition for many of these seriously needy Veterans. As a fellow Cold War Intel Warrior you know we had some weird, mind-altering classified experiences. I spent several hours of my life on the receiving end of a hostile interrogation by a US “ally” while on an overseas deployment in the early 90s. For years afterward I had trouble working with people of that particular ethnic group because of my memories of mistreatment. But the entire incident was classified and was regarded as a “peacetime” operation. And to this day I am haunted by the death of one of our instructors during an airborne operation stateside. You never forget. Meanwhile, I have a son deployed to Afghanistan who has a pretty dangerous mission with daily operations in the field yet he complains that it’s more boring than being back in garrison stateside — hahaha! Ironies that civilians will never understand, that’s all. May I recommend a fantastic book on the real cause of PTSD in our Veteran community: social isolation. And it’s devastating effect on the human personality of our Vets. It’s called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. I wish every civilian and Veteran would read it. It helped me understand some things I couldn’t work out in my head about what made me and my Veteran friends so different than my civilian friends… and why we were so different from the older vets like my dad who experienced a universal draft but never deployed anywhere. Thanks, as always for your insights and your service, Joe!

    • Brother Tim:

      Thank you for your kind words. My military friends, even if they served in another era and another part of the world, are closer to me than any civilian friends. You’re right: the social isolation is a problem for many of us. I know a few other vets who just can’t deal with civilians because “they have no clue.” Civilians, on the other hand, no matter how good their intentions, cannot sometimes appreciate “The Suck” as the current generation calls it.

      I am very blessed in not having had the reactions you and others have had. I joke that I was a mess going in and it didn’t impact me the same way. There is a great truth to that, and I know from some studies that I’ve been involved in as a long-term test subject, that they’re getting closer to finding genetic markers for people more likely to experience mental health issues as a result of traumatic incidents during their military service. God gave me whatever gene makeup it took to take the bad and forge ahead.

      One of the wisest people I know said that all vets have “slow-rolling PTSD” and it’s just a matter of degrees.

      Thank you for sharing the book with us. You, Sir, are a good friend to the community.

      Rangers Lead The Way is your lifestyle, not just some silly chant in a bar.


  2. Thank’s for the post. My brother-in-law has gotten the same comment you mentioned. “You never served active duty during Vietnam.” His answer…who do you think handled all those body bags in Hawaii?