All of us who have been in combat have memories we would like to forget. I don't remember every single day of my service in Vietnam, not by any means, but images from the times when I might have died, but by pure chance didn't, are in permanent residence in my memory. Seeing another Marine blown to pieces, literally, is an image I will carry to my deathbed.
I was reminded of these violent memories when I read the searing New York Times story on Sunday about the Marines of Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, who were deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. Many in that unit were killed or wounded in combat, but when those who survived returned, the fatalities continued. Over seven years since their return, 13 members of that unit have killed themselves, most of them with handguns. As Marines tend to be, they were efficient at doing this last job.
These Marines have joined the epidemic of veterans in this country who are taking their own lives, who cannot tolerate another day with their memories and with the spiritual and moral desolation brought about by their experience in war. In June, we found out that the rate of suicide among young female veterans is 12 times greater than their non-veteran counterparts.
This is an epidemic so far without an answer -- and it hangs over our heads at U.S.VETS, an organization that has served veterans for 20 years. How do we intervene? How do we know who is at risk? How do we connect veterans to one another?
The VA, by and large, has failed them, with wait times that are too long, therapists who don't really understand, and powerful drugs that are prescribed too freely.
Out of desperation, on their own, the Marines in the Times story have begun to recreate the bond that held them together in combat. Through social networking, they are doing their best to keep an eye on each other, and reacting quickly when they sense trouble. Right now, this Marine support group effort appears to be the only method that stands a chance of stemming the tide of suicides. But can we do this on a national level?
As Marines, we are highly trained to protect our fellows, and to rely on them. The whole was greater than the sum of the individuals. What can we do, then, when the unit disbands? When combat veterans are dispersed across the country, often rapidly losing touch with the friendships and camaraderie they knew while deployed? The isolation veterans feel once they have left their units and returned to their homes is as dangerous as any firefight.
If we can magnify the support group model to encompass an entire community, we have a chance. But the question remains: What is the best way to let a veteran, alone in his or her room, know that there are people who care about his or her well-being, who have their back in this time of need?
At U.S.VETS' residential sites, we create a sense of community by connecting veterans with other veterans to help through the darkest times. This peer support model is more powerful than anything we can do as social workers.
The void that suicidal veterans stare into is engulfing them, and it is our job to infiltrate that void, and populate it with loving, compassionate fellow vets who care deeply about each veterans' survival.
We have got to find the answer.