The calls come in at all times of the day and night, to the National Veterans Foundation crisis hotline, and to my personal cell phone. They come from active-duty vets in the field, and from vets trying to transition back into civilian life. Tell me how to get unstuck before I pull the trigger.
So I listen. With my whole mind and body I listen as if my life depends on it. I concentrate every nerve and fiber to the story that unfolds on the other end of the line because in fact, a life does depend on it. I listen and I ask questions and I ask for more of the story to keep that voice talking to me for as long as it wants to.
I started working with veterans over forty-two years ago when I returned from duty in Vietnam where I served as a psychiatric social worker in the Army. I've been listening ever since. Lately, I've been thinking about the act of attention, the intense one-on-one receiving of someone else's pain and suffering.
The anguish doesn't diminish over time. As many older vets commit suicide as veterans returning from these two most recent long-running wars. The rate of suicide in the military was 22 per day in February of this year.
Dr. Peter Linnerooth served over five years as a mental health professional in the Army during the height of the surge in Iraq. After his service he spent two years working for the VA. His story was featured in Time in an article by Mark Thompson in January of 2013. A dedicated professional, Linnerooth took his own life on January 2 of this year, leaving a young son, a grieving family and friends and many, many vets whom he helped.
Let's make this simple. War is the theater of man's inhumanity to man. The face of war is the face of a dying child, an anguished mother, a trusted and dying comrade-in-arms. It's indelible, bound up in physical and emotional injury and with it comes the isolation that results from carrying those images back to a society that doesn't get it, doesn't want to hear about it. So a veteran shoulders the weight alone. How can we expect men and women who've been repeatedly traumatized to return to civilian society unmarked by their experiences, by what they've seen and been a part of? And more, how can we help them heal? Especially the healers among them, like Peter Linnerooth.
We know now about PTSD. We know the warning signs of a potential suicide, and if you don't they're easily found on the internet. There are crisis intervention lines like the one we run at the NVF and support groups and different modes of counseling. The mission of the military doesn't necessarily include compassion. That's a tough thing to say and even tougher to accept, but there it is. Less than 1% of the population served in these most recent wars. If you include all veterans, the percentage is still probably less than 10%.
Why the numbers? Because there are more of us than of them. We've asked these men and women not only to put themselves in harm's way, but to open their most private, vulnerable selves to actions and images that scar. No wonder the transition back is so difficult for many of them. Try to imagine the disconnect.
Listening, just listening, without questions, with getting squirmy and uncomfortable hearing the story can be a powerful healing force. Compassion doesn't require training. Anyone can do it. Anyone can say if I had been through what you have, I'd probably feel the same way.
Those simple words of understanding can be an opening, a beginning. Do we need to offer more mental healthcare? No question. Through the VA? Yes, especially to troops who've seen combat and as soldiers transition out of the military; but also through other sources like private medicine, groups like Wounded Warrior, the NVF, the Soldier's Project, Give an Hour, community-based organizations and other veteran service organizations.
But nothing can take the place of one-on-one compassion, and it's in everyone's power to offer that. It would be a start.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255