Commentary

The searing pain of losing a service member to suicide calls us to action

On Monday, I received the same horrific phone call I have dreadfully received too many times before here at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

A grieving family member tearfully informed me that yet another one of our MRFF clients died by suicide.

The shock and despair, as always, come forward at the speed of light. There is no defense to it, nor should there be.

The full magnitude of the hurt is not possible to describe in the written word.

Again, no mitigation is extant, nor should there be.

The young man who took his life had only recently been honorably discharged. He had been decorated multiple times for valor in combat in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

I had spoken to him only a few days ago. He seemed happy and resolved to fully engage his new civilian life pursuits. He had his whole life in front of him.

He had the GI Bill and was going to go to college. He wanted to become an engineer.

I came to know him because of our work here at the foundation. He was a Christian but had been repeatedly targeted by his military superiors for not fully embracing their fundamentalist version of Christianity. MRFF had successfully weighed in on several occasions to help him through the years. We had developed a bond, and communicated frequently.

I thought he would do so well and live a happy and productive life he had so well earned, just as he had so courageously and selflessly fought for our country.

I was wrong.

As is so often the case, I — and the people who loved him — are at a loss in understanding why he took his own life.

His suicide is the third one among our 71,000-plus MRFF clients in the past 27 months. (The 15th overall since we began in 2005. The other two MRFF client suicide victims over these last 27 months were Muslim and atheist.

As many of you know, there is another pandemic ravaging our nation besides COVID-19.

It is the shocking number of daily suicides among America’s service members and veterans.

Approximately three active-duty service members and 17 veterans kill themselves every day, according to the latest study from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In a cruel way, we have been fortunate at MRFF because the numbers of suicides among our clients are below the military-wide rates. But that is no comfort.

This dismal national outrage must stop, and we are all complicit unless we do something to help.

The family member who called me yesterday told me something else.

Our now deceased MRFF client had been found in his bed.

Besides the pistol he had just fired, next to his body, was the Purple Heart he had earned…and something else: the MRFF Challenge Coin he had so happily received from us several years ago.

When told of this tragic fatality scene by his family member, I lost all emotional control.

There was no way not to. Nor should there have been.

Our active duty, reserve, Guard, cadet and midshipmen military members and veterans deserve much more than merely our fervent “thoughts and prayers,” gratitude and respect for their service.

They deserve our proactive energies directed to stopping this tidal wave of self-inflicted death.

Stay in close touch with loved ones and friends in uniform. The usual conversations about what they are doing and the plans they are making are fine, but in your conversations with them, be unafraid to go deeper. Encourage them to expose, in a loving and accepting environment, their worries, their fears, their insecurities, perhaps their despair.

Be bold. If you know they are struggling, get it out on the table and talk it through with them. Do everything in your power to help them through the darkness. Help them to see that a long, successful and fulfilling life awaits on the other side.

Be decisive. Urge them to get help if they need it, and don’t take “no” for an answer.

Spread the word. Be a leader in your circle of friends and colleagues. The stigma of mental health issues, whether real or perceived, is perhaps the biggest hindrance to suicide prevention, especially among members of the military. Do your part to eliminate it.

Refuse to leave anything unsaid. Don’t find yourself in the position of wondering, “Could I have done more?”

No more phone calls should ever have to be made like the one I received Monday.

Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 honor graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, is the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on service-related First Amendment issues. He served as legal counsel in the Reagan White House.

Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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