Another Memorial Day, Another Day Missing Friends
In between this Memorial Day and the last, a former soldier with the 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry and a veteran of our 2008-2009 OIF mobilization, walked downstairs in his parents’ home, where his mother was eating breakfast, and put a gun to his head.
His last words were, “I am in so much pain,” before pulling the trigger. He lived long enough to donate his organs, so that at least four other people might live. His BAC was high, an indicator that he had lost the battle with PTSD and addiction.
Our old unit has lost more soldiers to suicide than it did to combat, and that is not unique among National Guard units.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 10 years, since our dear friend, Jimmy Wilson, took his life, trying to find a way to help struggling veterans. I’ve worked with veterans in addiction recovery, helped veterans find jobs, and homes, and in those efforts, we’ve lost a few along the way.
I won’t mince words: many of the boilerplate programs are absolute shit. The Veterans Court programs themselves are, in my opinion, mostly about letting civilians feel like they’re “giving back,” and trying to manufacture at least a pastiche of the discipline that kept these folks in line when they were in uniform. And yet it still has yet to find its footing with military sexual trauma, PTSD-related domestic violence, and helping people find their value. You can make them meet appointments, perform public service, you can keep them on the straight and narrow with a 12-step program that’s more martial so as to be reminiscent of military discipline, but you can’t compel self-worth through government force.
It works if you have a strong mentor system. Mentors are the veterans that “send the elevator back down.” We provide rides to appointments that if missed result in “sanctions” for the court participant. We buy gas, get a suit dry-cleaned. Some of us take those 3am phone calls when their minds go to dark places. Most of us are from older generation of veterans. In my forties, I have consistently been one of the younger mentors in programs I’ve worked with. Fortunately, the experiences relate, but the nature of the pressures has evolved since Vietnam.
I’m proud of the work, but mostly, I’m grateful that I can let a floundering veteran know that someone will move heaven and earth to help them, and in so doing, reflect back to them their value. The worst one is the estrangement from spouses and children that sometimes comes with the burden they bear. Many veterans, male and female, are sundered from their children because of their struggles. I see it all the time, and it breaks my heart. It’s the one thing I can’t help them navigate, other than from the voice of experience. If any lawyers are reading, providing legal defense funds or pro bono work for veterans caught up in family courts would be a giant step in the right direction.
But those losses, those names we don’t read alongside the war dead each Memorial Day, weigh on us. We post suicide hotlines on Facebook, talk about push up challenges, but the actual act of “being there” very often suffers from benign neglect. We don’t mean to not answer that call. If we only knew, we would do so much more for someone, but we often don’t. And that’s not your fault or my fault. We’re not clairvoyant. We aren’t omniscient. All we can do for others is the best we can. We are going to lose friends and family to this; all we can do is attune ourselves better to the signs in the wake of such a loss.
But that circles me back to Memorial Day, and why I hate it. Don’t get me wrong, I feel its value. I see the loved ones left behind who are comforted by the remembrance. I see those who have turned loss into action, and I admire them. I stand before this or that memorial and salute a familiar name, particularly in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and I feel the enormous responsibility to share the stories that belong to them.
And I will. I always will. I’ll tell them that in spite of your gruff, prior-service Marine demeanor, you had a heart of gold. I’ll tell them how you extended your capable hands for the good of a suffering city. I’ll tell them how you gave comfort to one desperate woman, and what we know that meant to her. And you aren’t lonely. All of our departed have those stories; evidence of big waves left in your wake, even if they were done anonymously.
But I get mad at 18 years of meat for the machine. I get mad at 18 years of suicides. I have 18 years’ worth of names I’m reading tomorrow at synagogue. And now, we’re saber-rattling with yet another Middle Eastern nation. When do we stop?
It’s hard for me to see Memorial Day as anything but a superficial display of patriotism and gratitude. There are rays of authenticity—every single veteran who honors their departed peers means it, usually. We’ll read the pretentious elegy poems like Freedom Isn’t Free or Flanders Field. We’ll have moments of silence. We’ll wave at the remnant of the Greatest Generation on their floats.
And then we’ll go right back for our casual disregard for the beautiful young volunteers that make up the present warrior class. We will, without a second thought about them, doom them to be haunted by the same experiences that warfighters past should rail mightily against. We’ll tell ourselves that out of control defense spending is the only appropriate way to honor our service members, forgetting that seeking peace is a far better way to honor them.
If these words sound familiar coming from me, they should be. America has not given me reason to change my mind. Left, right, center, the political class and the citizens that vote for them generally forget what we commit these amazing young and women to with each diplomatic failure.
So after Shabbos, my Memorial Day tradition is to head into the woods and find isolation. I’ll privately reflect on the memories I have of my friends. I’ll stare off a mountaintop and think about drunken poker games and this one time in New Orleans. I’ll see their faces, and continue to miss their company. That’s how I memorialize them.
I’ll honor them, on Tuesday, by resuming the work of ensuring others don’t follow in their footsteps.
And I will pray for swords into plowshares, speedily and in our days. G-d bless America, and G-d keep our friends who wait for us in Valhalla (I know, not Jewish, but I want to hang out with my buddies in the afterlife).