I have a "dirty little secret". America and our military does too. I'll spill the beans below. First, I want to talk about someone else.
Sergeant Kenneth Omar Santiago
Yesterday, I was struggling with long COVID symptoms and spent most of the day asleep. I didn't even realize it was Veterans Day until I woke up and started reading the news late in the evening. Veterans Day is pretty meaningless to many veterans. It's just another bank holiday for many Americans.
The first article I saw was about the suicide of Sergeant Kenneth Omar Santiago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. My heart goes out to his friends and family. What an absolute tragedy for them and for our country. This loved, bright, strong, awarded, apparently happy young man had taken all he could stand and had given up on the longest, toughest battle of his life.
Nobody ever knows who is struggling or [waging] wars the eye cannot see. What does chronic depression even look like? At times I think my close friends just tolerate me. Moreover, I feel truly alone. I always have. For a long time (years) I’ve known I would take my own life.
May you find peace now, Kenneth 💙.
IMPORTANT: If you're struggling with depression and need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). If you're more comfortable texting, message the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
America's Veteran Suicide Crisis
Sadly, about 17 American veterans commit suicide every day. From 2001 to 2019, the daily veteran suicide rate increased 4.5% from 16.4 to 17.2. Some outlets have suggested this increase is due to the recent "forever wars". However, the increase intself is irrelevant to me. Just look at 2001. 16 veterans were committing suicide per day. Something was wrong then and something is still wrong.
This crisis is not new. It's endemic and has been for a long time. Perhaps my story might shed a little light on it.
My Dirty Little Secret
In 1994, I was "kicked out" of the Navy for suffering from depression. There, I said it. With the exception of my command staff, administrative personnel, my wife, and about 8 years ago my own family, no one has ever known my dirty little secret.
As best I can tell, I was born with depression. Seriously. It turns out, there are some really crappy genes in my family tree. Someone should have pruned them long ago.
My depression and suicidal thoughts began manifesting when I was about 8 or so. I never told anyone. At that time, society talked about "the loony bin" or the "nut house" - even on TV. Hugely popular sitcoms used this trope all the time.
I was a pretty bright kid. I could read between the lines. There was no way I was going to talk about this in public and end up in "a rubber room" or get spirited away and be "staying at his aunt's house in Mobile, AL."
When I joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 18, I absolutely lied when asked all the questions about suicidal thoughts and depression. "I can deal with it." Except, I couldn't. It got worse. People talk about the camaraderie and lifelong bonds they experienced from military service. I get that. I saw it. I made some really good friends. Yet, I also felt more and more isolated. The bonding I saw in others magnified the feelings of separation and loneliness I felt in myself.
However, I could never actually bring myself to suicide. I felt too guilty. I could not bring that shame down on my family. I could not make them feel that hurt. I could not make them wonder, "How did we not know?" or "What could we have done?" So, I suffered on - in silence. I hoped every day to have a tragic accident. I wanted to get into car wrecks and die. I hoped to die in a training accident. When these things happened to others, I felt so ashamed that it was them instead of me. I was angry that they had escaped and left me here to suffer.
I never actively tried to do any of these things except in Idaho in 1989. There, I discovered rock climbing. I would go to this one lake surrounded by massive cliffs. I'd climb around, secretly hoping to fall to my death. It would be that tragic accident that would give me the relief I craved without the stigma and pain for my family. At one point, I got into a jam and truly did nearly fall. At that point, I realized I still did retain a glimmer of hope for a happy life. I crawled down carefully and never climbed without ropes again. There's a funny story about this as well....
Despite my glimmer of hope, I still struggled endlessly. I was with friends but alway alone.
Moreover, I feel truly alone. I always have. 😢
In 2002, I met someone - my future wife. In two weeks, we connected somehow after just spending no more than 12 or so hours together over a few days. Due to a health emergency, she had to rush home to Ireland. On the evening before her departure, I asked if I could write to her. She said "yes", fully expecting to never hear from me again.
I did write! I personally subsized the U.S. Postal Service 🤣 and Ireland's too. I'm not sure why, but I poured my soul out to her. She wrote back frequently. She talked to a family friend that was a medical doctor. He advised her that it sounded like I was suffering from Major Depression. She convinced me to seek help.
Once my deployment ended, I went to a private psychiatrist in Hawaii. There was no way I was going to start with my submarine's corpsman or the local medcenter doctors. Unfortunately, I could not afford to continue paying the doctor's rates. So, I eventually, secretly, made an appointment with the mental health department at the medcenter. I got to see a psychiatrist a few weeks later.
After 2 visits, he diagnosed me with dysthymia (mild chronic depression). Clearly, this was a misdiagnosis. Maybe that was because I had not fully opened up yet because I was afraid of anyone finding out. Maybe it was because the military doctors found that to be the most expeditious way to get people like me discharged. I don't know. However, it was a grave disservice to me, and I imagine many others.
Immediately, wheels went into action that I did not intend but could not stop. My command was notified of this diagnose and my commander was informed of the recommendation for a General Discharge. Commanding Officers have wide latitude in this regard. My Captain was a pompous bastard that refused to allow the discharge. I was relieved by this until he told me why.
He explained that depression didn't exist. It was "all in your head". He could "fix it with some weekly counseling sessions one on one". He declared he was going to reject the recommendation, order me to no longer see the psychiatrist, and require me to report to his quarters for weekly meetings. I was absolutely appalled. There was no way in hell I was going to tell this man my deepest, darkest secrets.
So, I went back to the doctor and explained what happened. He gave me the choice, I could accept my command officer's path or he would order a medical discharge. I shamefully accepted the medical discharge.
Since I was only diagnosed with dysthymia and the discharge had been written as "phys disability-not ratable because the disability did not become unfiting for duty while entitled to base pay", I did not receive any medical benefits or disability.
Now, the hell began. My command was furious with me. My new XO, whom I had never spoken to before, interviewed me aggressively and demanded that I tell him everything I'd told the doctor. I refused. My CO never spoke to me again. My COB was even more of an ass than usual.
I do thank my XO for one thing. I asked a favor of him. I asked him to spare me the humiliation and shame that most sailors getting medical (especially mental health discharges) receive. I asked permission to remain in my current quarters during the discharge process instead of the "discharge barracks". He agreed. My COB was furious and tried relentlessly to kick me out. My XO stuck to his guns.
Here's where most people in my situation really start to suffer. They are taken away from their command, their friends, and their comfort zone then dropped into the oldest, worst quarters available. They are lumped in with a hodgepodge of people being discharged for any reason - drugs, violence, rape, medical ... you name it. The stigma is intense. The shame is unbearable.
Next, they are assigned the most menial duties - trash collection, galley duty (pots and pans), painting, guard duty, etc and put on the crappiest shifts and schedules available. Shit work. They are out of reach of their friends. At first, their friends come to pick them up to go to the beach or the bars but that eventually withers away. They are alone and isolated and left to suffer for the many long months that a medical discharge takes.
I was incredibly lucky. I got to stay in my pretty comfortable barracks. I told my friends I was being discharged due to my knees giving out. I continued going to the beach and the bars. I wasn't ostracized, but there were rumors and talking behind my back by other shipmates.
Somehow, I got even luckier. After a few weeks of painting duty at old family quarters, I showed up at roster duty and got called for a new job. It was office duty at the Recruit Commanders Office. I was permanently assigned there and did office duty, raised flags on the USS Arizona Memorial for retirement shadow boxes (another funny story...), learned even more about computers, and most importantly, I got to keep some dignity. No one there knew why I was there.
I was also very fortunate I continued to see my doctor during this time and continued my medications. This kept me somewhat stable through this whole process.
I called my COB an ass earlier. He was in so many ways. However, I suspect he may have had something to do with my new assignment. If so, I thank him or whomever helped me land there. After about 9 months, my medical discharge finally completed, and I left the Navy and headed home. I lied to my family and said I took an early out. Early outs were offered for some skills at the time, but certainly not for my highly in-demand skills.
After a while as a private citizen, I began seeing a psychiatrist who immediately diagnosed me with Major Depression.
Here I am nearly 30 years later, still under medical care. I have more glimmers of light in my life. I love my wife and kids and family. I've found new friends and communities to share and feel welcomed in. I still wish I could be blinked out of existence as if I had never been here - as long as no one else was impacted. Recently, a member of our community was lost in a tragic accident. He was so loved and had impacted so many lives. Why him instead of me? I still struggle with this.
I'm still alone. I always will be. Don't worry. I'm okay. I can deal with it. I'll never make anyone else feel that hurt.
America's Problem is the Military's Problem
The problem with veterans commiting suicide doesn't really start with the military. It starts with America.
We have a long history of mental health issues that have been our "dirty little secret". In the past, society shamed anyone that didn't fit the mold. If you weren't the Ward and June Cleaver of your generation, there was something wrong with you. You were an outsider. You were "different". If you had a "problem", you were hidden away and not talked about. Access to mental healthcare is prohibitively expensive and socially unacceptable to most of America. Lots of other bright kids noticed this and they bottled all those feelings and differences way down, deep inside. It festered.
Many of these kids were low on the socio-economic totem pole (🙋♂️). They saw the military as a way out of their low quality of life. They saw opportunity where there was none before. Most volunteered to honorably serve their country but they unashamedly were also trying to serve themselves (🙋♂️) and their families.
The American military has always needed and often taken advantage of the disadvantaged in America. At the same time, it has offered great opportunity and enrichment to them. However, the mental health issue has never been properly addressed. The military must know that most people lie about their mental health as I did. They know these people need to get in that door. Yet, they turn a blind eye to it or ..... actively encourage the lying (don't ask - I won't tell).
America and our military needs to wake up to this reality and deal with the problem head on. Instead of turning away potential recruits because of mental health issues, perhaps they should accept them but immediately begin a program of therapy and support.
Instead of kicking men and women out for finally admitting they need help, the military should take care of these heroes and patriots. They should temporarily put them on medical hold, get them the treatment and support they need, and then reassign them to the fleet/field when they are ready.
Instead, the military compounds the shame. They stigmatize people suffering with depression with "general discharges". Try explaining to a "white collar" manager what a "general discharge" is. Why should a fast food restaurant manager hire a veteran with a dodgy seeming "general discharge" when they can hire a high school kid for the same pay and no worries about any "odd behavior"?
The military makes it hard for these veterans to face society. Veterans are thrown out on their ears without any mental healthcare because their condition was supposedly not exacerbatted by military service!
These veterans have no jobs and no money to get help once they're shoved out the door. They find themselves on the streets or the verges of society. They are in the morass of the Veterans Administration receiving no assistance while a president proposes giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone that just stepped across a border.
Not many American businesses or American citizens do much more to help. "Veterans Day" is really just a day of marketing for most of them. "We're giving away jelly donuts to every American Veteran! #WeSupportOurTroops" or the platitudes of "Thank you for your service!".
You want to thank veterans and active duty military members for their service?
- Support legislation to increase base pay for active duty members of the military.
- Support legislation to ensure mental health care for veterans discharged for mental health reasons.
- Support legislation that prevents "general discharges" of active duty military members with mental health conditions.
- Ensure your business is proactive in recruiting, hiring, and supporting veterans.
- When you renew your license, register a vehicle, or buy a hunting or fishing license - donate a significant amount to your state's veteran's assistance fund.
- Help fund new homes for disabled veterans
- Do a search and see the countless ways you can help veterans and active duty military members.
- P.S. Please do something other than "care packages". They are wonderful but they aren't the solution and plenty are already being distributed.
P.S. Stop making the military about politics. Veterans and active duty members don't care if you "supported the war". They don't care if you think you "were lied to about ... ". They don't care if you think "the surge did/did not work".
They care about staying alive. They care about making it home to their loved ones. They care about coming home in a box and their family being protested at their funeral.
You may strongly support or despise the women and men of the military. It doesn't matter. What matters is that these men and women stepped forward to do something that their country asked them to do - right or wrong. They are doing something you weren't willing to. They are ensuring you have the right to do and say as you please. They are trying but often failing to do something right in the world. They are trying to give others they same chances and opportunities you have.
Sometimes, the failures are their own. Mental health issues lead to bad outcomes sometimes. More often, those failures belong to our leaders whose positions and support flap like our flag in the wind to keep your vote.
Please stop seeing our veterans and service members as "the military". See them as people that need your support and do whatever small thing you can do to encourage them, support them, and keep them safe. One day, your own safety just may depend on it.
"Veterans Day" by Vox Efx is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/