In July 2015, on a typical Sunday night at home in Wilmington, North Carolina, I prepared to attend a suicide prevention course the next day as part of my National Guard duties.
Suicide in the military and veteran community had been steadily rising for years, and the hope was through prevention training, those of us serving could intervene early and slow down the trend.
That evening, I received the call veterans dread getting.
My friend and battle buddy, my brother in service, Jimmy, a fellow soldier with whom I had deployed to Iraq a decade earlier, had taken his own life.
The news was difficult for me to even comprehend. Jimmy had come home safe from a deployment. He had built a family. He had a successful career, full-time with the National Guard. He seemed happy from what I could observe.
So many veterans of the wars of the past two decades grapple with dark thoughts — we made it through so much, we are finally home, and then suddenly the life of one more comrade in arms comes to an abrupt and tragic end. We can’t make sense of it; it weighs on our souls. Jimmy’s story weighs on mine.
Perhaps the saddest downside to military service: losing friends I served with to suicide has become a part of my life as a veteran, as it has for thousands of other veterans and service members.
Military and veteran suicide is a tragic hallmark of the post-9/11 wars, and a greater killer than enemy weapons. More than four times as many post-9/11 service members and veterans have died by suicide than during combat operations.
The rate of suicide among veterans increased almost 50% between 2007 and 2017 alone, today an average of 17 veterans take their own lives each day.
On Memorial Day, we tend to think about those killed in combat. We think of lives lost on the beaches of Normandy, in the jungles of Vietnam, and in the sands of Afghanistan. And we should, because those men and women made incredible sacrifices for this country.
But we should also reflect on those whom the war followed home, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Those whose service resulted in tragedy too, just delayed. Those deaths are service connected, too. Dead of wounds sustained earlier to the mind and soul.
I will honor brothers and sisters I lost in Iraq and Afghanistan like Segun, Kevin, and Mark, as well as Jimmy, Eric, and Joe who I lost later at home. Each of them served their country bravely and honorably. Their sacrifice deserves our respect and recognition this weekend.
I’ll also be thinking about my own responsibility to honor their sacrifices and memory.
Suicide has become an epidemic affliction in the veteran community. But it is a problem we can strive to solve. Veterans are not broken, and we are certainly not weak. We just need to connect and empower one another with support, and to ensure there is access to the care that truly helps us overcome and live healthy lives.
That’s how I honor those we have lost to service, both in combat and at home.
John Byrnes works on VA reform and suicide prevention as deputy director of Concerned Veterans for America. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and Army National Guard who served tours in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
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