First, let’s clear the room of any false assumptions. Like many firearm owners, I see firearms as a tool. I’m not afraid of them – in fact, I actually enjoy a day at the range myself.

Too many tragedies to count — one common theme

An invisible enemy stalks us. For years, our warriors have been taken out by a silent predator — their own demons. I’ve personally received countless heart-breaking notifications from veterans I work with about the loss of their beloved brothers and sisters. The common theme: firearm suicides.

How many funerals will we have? This past weekend, I learned of two more firearm suicides from those in my circle. In May, I’ll be publishing a book called WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever written. WARRIOR takes a critical look at how our current suicide prevention strategies can be improved. The conversation about firearms is one urgent area that needs a fresh look. What follows is drawn from this content in WARRIOR.

How can we protect those we love from the lasting devastation of suicide?

As a society, the coronavirus pandemic has hit all of us with a tsunami of stress. Like a rogue wave, it came out of nowhere, splintering the ship we thought was secure and dumping us into a raging sea of unknowns. Many of us have lost jobs. Some of us are suffering from the loss of purpose and identity. Trapped at home, some of us are fighting with our families, and drinking alcohol to cope with our stress.

As I said in my most recent Military Times op-ed, this kind of stress is familiar to many veterans — the same sudden cut-off of identity and relationships often happens during military transition. As a Marine once told me: “Transition is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would go through the Crucible 100 times and it would barely equate to the last three years of my life.”

After Shock comes Helpless Rage

After the shock of this change wears off, many of us will start to feel helpless rage. An extended period of social isolation will begin to take a toll. Consider this language from the Marine Rifle Squad manual: “An isolated unit is easily destroyed by the enemy.” The same principle then applies to any isolated individual. In the coming weeks and months, many of us will be at increased risk for addiction, mental health struggles, and suicide. An invisible enemy stalks us.

Cast into this sea of fear, concerned about what could happen if we descend into lawlessness, many of us have armed up. A recent article in the New York Times shows a dramatic increase in sales of firearms and ammunition, with first-time buyers accounting for a large part of this spike in sales.

Yet, physical warfare is only half the picture for many Americans — there is also mental warfare. Mental warfare is often a private struggle, with only our closest loved ones as witnesses. The veterans I work with talk about “being hunted by their demons.” Demons are equal opportunity predators; they stalk both veterans and civilians with the same deadly intent.

A Tactical Analysis of Mental Warfare

We can’t adapt and overcome without a good understanding of the battle we are fighting. We won’t get traction if we lack insight on what the enemy can do, what weapons he will employ, and what his strength is. Years ago, I read the Marine Rifle Squad Manual from cover to cover. I fused the content with my psychological insights on suicide and developed A Tactical Analysis of Mental Warfare. The full description is in my next book WARRIOR, but this can’t wait – not even two months – for the book to be published.

First, knowledge of the enemy is the basis for a good plan of attack. So, the enemy must be identified. This invisible enemy — what veterans often call their “demons” — is as sly and cunning as a fox. This is guerrilla warfare of a psychological type. The enemy uses stealth and attacks us when we are alone. The enemy creates feelings of shame that further separate us from the tribe of those who could keep us in the fight.

I’ve asked several of my patients to describe their demons. They are often described as “a voice without a body” that “tells you over and over that you are a worthless sh-tbag.” This voice can shift over time. As many of my patients put it, “At first, the voices are those of other people — telling you that you are a screw-up. But over time, the voice becomes your own voice, telling you that everyone would be much better off without you.”

The Enemy Uses Predictable Strategies

The mental warfare campaigns of the enemy are predictable. They run along these four lines:

“You are a sh-tbird who is not worthy of the brotherhood.”

“If your family really knew you, they’d see that you are a monster.”

“You are a danger/liability to those you should be protecting.”

“You are worthless/dead weight and a burden to those you love.”

The tactical strategy of the enemy is to isolate an individual. The enemy separates a person from those whose love wields a power that is greater than despair. Like a predatory domestic violence abuser, the voices of our demons separate us from others who could shine light on what is happening.

The Perversion of the Warrior Ethos

In the context of these thought campaigns, the warrior ethos can be weaponized. Core to the warrior ethos is the protective instinct. The enemy can pervert what is honorable during an acute suicide crisis. The examples below are from three different warriors:

“I’m a terrible father and husband. I’d be better off locked away in a cell on an uninhabited island so I can’t harm anyone.”

“I can’t be the father or husband I should be. I should just go away so they don’t have to suffer with me. I’m becoming the demon or monster that chases me in my thoughts and dreams.”

“Your family hates the person you are. You should just leave and never come back. If your family knew what you feel and how you think, they would not love you. If your wife knew the real you, she would not let you near the children.”

The Achilles Heel of Warriors

The warrior ethos involves self-sacrifice to protect others. This is the Achilles heel of our warriors. When warriors apply this ethos to mental warfare, they are vulnerable to seeing suicide as an honorable act — in a way that resembles the Japanese cultural tradition of hara-kiri (ritual suicide by throwing oneself on one’s sword).

In tactical terms, the enemy has infiltrated a warrior’s mental defenses. The warrior now feels that the enemy is grafted onto him or her and can only be conquered through an act of self-destruction. This is a major reason among several why warriors, including first responders, have a higher suicide rate relative to the population at large.

Now, let’s return to the urgent question at hand:

In our ownership and use of firearms, how can we protect those we love from the lasting devastation of suicide?

Here are some thoughts to inform your response:

1) The decision to reduce the risk of firearm suicide is one that each of us must make for ourselves. Policy makers, researchers, and clinicians cannot make this decision for us — any that feel they can are simply entertaining an illusion of control. This is a personal, private decision.

2) This decision is about what we value. It should be based on our deeper moral code – what warriors call their “Warrior Code.” Each of us must take the time to consider whether our firearms may put our families at risk from the invisible enemy that stalks us, the one we may not see coming.

3) Suicidal urges can reach a peak very quickly as the result of a perfect storm of stress. Alcohol can increase this risk further. Family and relationship stress can compound risk. Changes in roles and loss of purpose create a storm of stress in our lives. Right now, we are in a perfect storm of stress.

4) The fundamental lie that drives suicide is the thought that our death is somehow a gift to those we love. It is not. Suicide causes massive collateral damage and lasting devastation for those we love. In the veteran community, each suicide puts military brothers and sisters, and civilian loved ones, at higher risk of suicide. These are hard truths, but we must reckon with them.

5) Most likely, many of us will retain our firearms right now. Even so, there are many creative ways to decrease suicide risk in the context of mental warfare. Putting time, space, and our deeper values between ourselves and a tragic outcome is critical.

Is there a Way to Reduce Suicide Deaths For Those Who Own Firearms?

Some years ago, I partnered with a Marine combat veteran named Brian Vargas to develop an innovative suicide prevention strategy. It is called the Warrior Box Project. A Warrior Box is an ammo can that holds tangible objects that remind us of the people and values we would die for in battle. These are the same things that have stopping power when it comes to mental warfare. We can put the key to our firearm lock or gun safe, or the firing pin from our firearm, underneath reminders of what we hold sacred. That way, we force ourselves to confront our deeper values before we make a decision that can end in tragedy for those we aim to protect.

One of the most effective ways to reduce risk is to put our sacred values in between suicidal urges and potential action. Brian Vargas has a Warrior Box. In his Warrior Box are pictures of his brother Marines, his rosary, his wife’s wedding vows, and jagged fragments of shrapnel that nearly killed him in Iraq. On a day when he was acutely suicidal, his Warrior Box stopped him from ending his life. You can hear the story of this day on the NPR program “Shrapnel.”

Connection Saves Us

When we connect, we survive. So, we created tools within the Warrior Box to help us help others who are struggling. There is also language to help us connect with those in our tribe when we ourselves are struggling.

The Warrior Box Project was developed in partnership with, and for, warriors, but the concept has far-reaching potential for any American with a strong protective instinct, including our first responders, our firefighters, our police officers, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and aging grandparents — anyone whose will to live comes from the fact that others need them to stay in the fight.

If you own a firearm, chances are that you own an ammo can. The choice is yours, not mine, but I do know this: There is an invisible enemy that stalks us, and, despite the lies of that enemy, you are irreplaceable to someone.

Dr. Shauna Springer is the chief psychologist for Stella Center and a leading national expert on trauma, close relationships, suicide prevention, and initiatives that impact the military and veteran community. Her next book, WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us brings the worlds of the warrior and those they protect together to shine new light on things that many of us thought we understood: Trust, Stigma, Firearms, The Imploding Mind, and Connection. She is the co-developer of the Warrior Box Project, an innovative strategy to reduce the risk of firearm suicide.

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