I am in a hotel in Fredericksburg Virginia tonight as I will be attending a Celebration of Life for Captain Tom Sitsch, United States Navy. As those who follow this site know, Captain Sitsch was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two and though I didn’t know him long he made a big impact in my life when I most needed human compassion.
I traveled this evening, driving in the bitterly cold dark January night up Interstate 64 and Interstate 95, un-melted snow from the most recent winter storm still covers the ground on either side of the highway. The dark shapes of trees lined the road, silhouetted against the night sky, most stars unseen because of a thin cloud layer.
The trip took about two and a quarter hours, good time if you know how traffic can be on these roads. When I got to the hotel I discovered that I had forgotten by sleep medications and what I call my “docile pills” so I expect that sleep will be a challenge tonight, even though I am quite tired. So I walked over to a nearby restaurant and had a couple of beers and some wings at the bar before coming back to my room.
Captain Sitsch took his life two weeks ago. A war hero, who suffered from PTSD he saw his, career, life and family collapse around him. He didn’t get the help that he needed and as things collapsed he was pilloried in the media. His wife and children had to suffer as well. Living with mental illness is not easy; families often don’t know where to turn when the person that they love falls apart. I wrote about this a number of years ago, my wife has suffered watching the man that she loves struggle with the ravages of PTSD, something that she too knows all too well having been abused as a child.
This is especially true for military families who are used to their loved one being the strong one. The sad thing is that while this is a big problem in the military, it is also a problem in the civilian world. Some studies estimate that nearly one third of Americans either live with or work with someone afflicted with some kind of mental illness.
The problem doesn’t just extend to families but the society at large. Our military compared to our population is quite small, all volunteer and quite often isolated from much of society. The horrific pace of wartime deployments and now the shift to doing more with less amid a major reduction in force, even as the wars wind down has a terrible effect on service members and their loved ones.
Those who don’t serve, or have not served do not really understand, even those who are sympathetic and actually care. I think that we will see a phenomena similar to the years after the Vietnam War, when our society rushed to forget the war and were often embarrassed by those who served. Stereotypes of soldiers shown in the media, on the news, or in entertainment then, presented veterans in almost comic book like caricatures, often in the most negative manner possible. Today the media coverage is a mixed bag, some making us to be uber-heroes and supermen, others men and women who deserve pity, and sometimes the negative portrayals that were so common after Vietnam.
If it was just a media and society issue it be one thing, but even as men like Captain Sitsch fall through the crack there are those in the private sector and their political allies in Congress pushing the government to cut the pay, health and education benefits promised to those that served in the military, even those who came back wounded, or changed by war.
Those wrestling with budgets in Congress, look to solving budgetary woes not by cutting weapons systems that the military no longer wants or needs, or by cutting superfluous bases in their congressional districts. Instead, they choose to cut the benefits that they had promised to veterans and their families before and during the war. The proposed cuts now include health benefits as well as pensions, balanced unfairly on those who have spent the majority of their careers at war, many of whose skills do not translate in the civilian economy.
Of course these actions will have even more drastic effects on military members, veterans and their families. We can expect that more heroes like Captain Sitsch and their families will succumb to the pressures of service and what happens after they leave the service. Divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide have been on the rise for years in the military and there is no empirical or historical evidence to suggest things will get better anytime soon.
I predict that it will get far worse before it gets better. Lieutenant General Hal Moore, famous for his book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young noted how his generation of warriors were treated after Vietnam.
“in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publically questioned.”
Sadly, things have not changed that much. Rudyard Kipling wrote in his Poem Tommy:
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!” But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot; An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please; An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”
Tomorrow I will be present to pay my respects to a tragic hero. Tom Sitsch, deserves to be remembered for all the good things that he did defending this country, saving lives and putting himself in danger time and time again. I pray that those present will know the comfort and peace of God as well as the special bond of friendship and family that we share as part of the Brotherhood of War. I also pray, maybe against hope that our country will not throw veterans under the bus as they have so many times after war, and that no more men or women will have to be overcome by the despair that Captain Sitsch had to live with for God knows how long before he took his life.