Category Archives: suicide

A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

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Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

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Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, ministry, PTSD, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, suicide, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, world war one

A Senseless and Fanatical Sacrifice: Kamikazes Enter the War at Leyte Gulf

 

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                  USS St Lo exploding after being hit by a Kamikaze

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Again I am taking some time off from current events as fast as they are moving, and I am posting edited articles about Battle of Leyte Gulf. The battle was the largest naval battle every fought and harborslessons that redound to our day. This article deals with the first use of Kamikaze aircraft whose pilots would attempt to dive into Allied warships, committing suicide rather than attempting to bomb a ship and return home.

In an age where suicide bombers and attackers do such things it is important to remember that this is not new. The Kamikaze pilots for the most part brainwashed by the Samurai ideology which had been drilled into them since they were children. One who survived because of engine failure and did not get a second chance told the BBC:

“Common sense says you only have one life,” he says, “so why would you want to give it away? Why would you be happy to do that? But at that time everyone I knew, they all wanted to volunteer. We needed to be warriors to stop the invasion from coming. Our minds were set. We had no doubt about it.”

While most Kamikaze pilots hated that ideology, some did not. Regardless, such a mentality is true of many fanatical idealists and terrorists even today. Such men and women span the religious and ideological spectrum. That is the truth, and it is profoundly depressing. Human nature being what it is means that there will be many more like them, the terrorists of September 11th 2001 were little different than the Kamikazes, but instead of the Bushido creed of the Samurai, it was a fanatical belief in Jihad.

Peace

Padre Steve+

In 1944 one of the leading Japanese Naval aviators, Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi wrote:

“In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of A6M Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier…” 

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It was a tactic born of desperation but one that fit in well with the philosophy of Bushido. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” in June 1944 and the slaughter of land based Japanese Naval and Army air forces based in Formosa in September of that year Japanese leaders began to look to a tactics born of desperation but which fit their Bushido based ethos of sacrifice.

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                                                        Lt. Yukio Seki

Suicide attacks were nothing new to the Japanese, but until October 1944 they were tactics decided on by individuals who saw no alternative to the choice. In October 1944 that calculus changed, instead of individuals or isolated units which had no hope of victory conducting suicide attacks, commanders decided to employ suicide attackers as a matter of course.

When the American forces invaded the Philippines Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi was commander of the First Air Fleet based in the Northern Philippines. He was not a fan of Kamikaze tactics and viewed them as heresy. However after the slaughter of the reconstituted Naval Air Force at the Battle of the Philippine Sea he reluctantly changed his mind. I say reluctantly based on his previous views and because after he committed ritual suicide following the Japanese surrender he apologized to the estimated 4000 pilots that he sent to their death and their families.

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                                                Admiral Ōnishi

But in October 1944 with Japan reeling from defeats in the Pacific and its supply route for oil and other raw materials threatened desperation was the order of the day.

The 201st Navy Flying Corps based out of Clark Field near Manila was the major land based Japanese Naval Air Force unit in the Philippines. Among its pilots was a young Naval Officer and Aviator named Lt. Yukio Seki. Seki was a graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima and was recently married. He was not an ideologue or believer in suicide attacks. When questioned by a reporter before his squadron launched the first Kamikaze attacks he remarked to Masashi Onoda, a War Correspondent :“Japan’s future is bleak if it is forced to kill one of its best pilots. I am not going on this mission for the Emperor or for the Empire… I am going because I was ordered to!”

On October 25th 1944 Seki led his group of 5 A6M2-5 Zero fighters, each carrying a 550 pound bomb took off and attacked the Escort Carriers of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s “Taffy-3.” The five pilots all died in their attacks but two damaged the USS Kalinin Bay and USS Kitkun Bay while two aircraft, one believed to be Seki’s hit the USS St Lo causing mortal damage which sank that ship in less than half an hour with the loss of over 140 sailors.

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The attacks of Seki’s small squadron were a harbinger of what was to come. Over the next 10 months over 4000 Japanese pilots would die in Kamikaze attacks against US Navy and Allied Naval units. Numbers of ships destroyed or damaged by Kamikazes are debated by some historians believe that 70 US and Allied ships were sunk or damaged beyond repair and close to 300 more damaged. 2525 Imperial Japanese Navy pilots and 1387 Imperial Army pilots died in Kamikaze attacks killing almost 5000 sailors and wounding over 5000 more.

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Another pilot, who did not swallow the propaganda was Lieutenant Ryoji Uehara. He wrote his mother before his final mission:

“Tomorrow, one who believes in democracy will leave this world, he may look lonely but his heart is filled with satisfaction. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany have been defeated. Authoritarianism is like building a house with broken stones.”

Admiral Ōnishi who made the decision to make Kamikazes a part of Japan’s offensive strategy in 1944 appeared to regret that decision. In his suicide note he urged young Japanese to rebuild the country and seek peace with all people and offered his death a penance for the nearly 4000 pilots he sent to their deaths. Accordingly when he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) he did so alone, with a second to finish the job and died over 15 hours after disemboweling himself.

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                                                     A Final Toast

The Kamikaze campaign did not alter the course of the war, but it did introduce a new dimension of terror and misguided sacrifice. Despite the propaganda of the ideologues who urge men and women to undertake suicide missions, there is no honor for those that do so. I do pray that one day war will be no more and that even though I expect war to remain part of our world until longer after my death  that nations, peoples or revolutionary groups will no longer send their best and brightest to certain death.

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Filed under culture, ethics, faith, History, Military, Political Commentary, racism, Religion, suicide, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

A Last Drink before Surgery in the Morning

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I lift this stein, an hour and a half before I can neither eat and drink before by arthroscopic knee surgery Thursday I wish you all the best. Sadly, in order to get to the hospital where the surgery will be done I will have to be up way before sunrise. As anyone with any sense knows, the darkness of the morning is God’s way of letting you know you should still be in bed.

I had a great day having lunch with a Navy Chaplain who I now call a friend who I threw a coffee cup at in between missions in Al Anbar Province in 2007. Yes I was already dealing with PTSD back then but didn’t know it. He’s a great guy, and my wife Judy loves his wife as a dear friend. Then this evening I dinner and a couple of beers with a fellow progressive Navy Chaplain of my age who suffers from many of my afflictions and others far worse.

Now, I have every bit of confidence in the surgery that will be conducted on my left knee Thursday, which is like a few hours from now, which is kind of like today if I lived in Germany. But by the time you read this dear reader it will be today, unless you ready it tomorrow or sometime after that, but I digress…

That being said, my right knee, which I had a Platelet Rich Plasma treatment on a week ago still hurts like a motherfucker. If that continues I will probably need a knee replacement which could throw my projected retirement date into doubt. Honestly, I don’t give a flying fuck so long as it gets fixed before I leave active duty and have to surrender valuable private sector work in order to wait on the VA to fix it. Call me selfish and entitled, but after nearly 38 years of throwing my body under the bus for the country I deserve getting it taken care of before I retire and am cast off into the abyss of veteran care.

So anyway. Whenever you read this, lift a pint and say a prayer for me, and those far worse off than me. There are a lot of them, and most are too intimidated by the system to throw the bullshit flag like I have been doing for the past decade. I owe much of this to my military and civilian therapists and psychiatrists who encouraged me as a Chaplain and senior officer to tell the truth and speak out. Sadly, quite a few of the senior officers and Chaplains I have known swallowed the pain and taken their lives, and there were times that I would have done the same if it wasn’t for Judy and our dogs, especially Molly who decided she wanted to live with me in North Carolina during the times I most wanted to die. I couldn’t kill myself because she was so devoted to me. Now I have Izzy, Pierre, and Minnie. Judy would love all of them, but Pierre and Izzy are devoted to me. Strange how things like that keep you alive when nothing else does.

Until tomorrow, have a great night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, Loose thoughts and musings, mental health, ministry, PTSD, suicide

I Won’t Shut Up Until It’s Fixed: Military and Veteran Mental Health Treatment

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I came across the story which threw me back in to the abyss of PTSD. I still suffer terribly from it. I have terrible nightmares and night terrors and often physically act out my dreams. Since 2014 this has resulted in two Emergency Room visits due to the injuries incurred in those dreams, including a broken nose. In the deepest depths of anxiety, fear, depression and at times paranoia I contemplated suicide many times. The only thing that kept me from it was what the effect would be on Judy and how my dog Molly would understand that daddy wasn’t ever coming back.

Anyway, I read about the story of Colonel Jim Turner who committed suicide in the parking lot of the Bay Pines Florida, Department Of Veternas Affairs Medical Center. He had dressed in his Dress Blues with Medals, got out of his car, sat on his service records, and killed himself with a rifle. The story struck so close to home because in July of 2014 I was at the same point following an encounter with a a provider and what was a very inhuman and machinelike system of treatment at Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth, Virginia.

I had been getting treatment and therapy since the summer of 2008 when I crashed following my return from Iraq. In 2013 I thought that I was doing well enough to discontinue therapy. But in early January 2014, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two, Captain Tom Sitsch committed suicide outside a hospital in New Hampshire. He had been retired about five years and his life was falling apart, but when I met in the spring of 2008 he was the only man who seemed to care about me, and how I was coping as I was crashing. His death hit me really hard and I realized that I needed to get back into therapy at least to have someone to talk to every couple of weeks to make sure that I was  okay.

I wrote about these encounters on this blog a number of times from the day until it happened until the situation was resolved by the intervention of my former Commanding Officer at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, NC who had since been promoted to Admiral and put me in direct contact with Rear Admiral Jeff Moulton who commanded the Medical Center and Naval Region East.

After my encounter with the provider, a young Psychiatric Resident physician, I was considering suicide in a very similar way to how Colonel Turner killed himself. I was goi g to purchase a chrome plated M1911A1 .45 pistol, my favorite or all weapons I used in the military, clothe myself in my choker whites with full medals and put a round in my heart. I was ready to do it, and then I thought of the effect on my wife Judy, my dogs, and the people who would witness what I did.

If Admiral Lane had not reached out to Admiral Moulton I might well have died by my own hand. But those men took the time to listen to me and ensure that I got help. They saved my life. I am still in therapy. I still suffer crazy nightmares and act out my dreams, even last week when I scared the shit out of my Papillon dog Izzy and Judy when I tried to defend myself from a enemy combatant who had a pistol pointed at me, but I don’t want to die.

But an interesting thing happened. While reviewing my medical records in preparation for going into the VA system I found that the young Psychiatry Resident had put in a very perjorative diagnois Of a personality disorder based on a brief visit and a phone call, in fact the diagnosis was put in weeks after I had talked with her and after I had talked with Admiral. I guess she never thought that I would know about it. I talked with my current therapist who could access her notes about it today. When we talked he gave the dates on her notes, he told me what she wrote, and so this evening I went to my blog archives because I knew I had written about it when it happened. The result blew me away.

If I was a civilian I could sue her for malpractice, but since I am on active duty I cannot due to to provisions of the Feres Decsion. Now at this point in my life I don’t want revenge, I just want to have the perjorative diagnosis removed from my records. Until today I didn’t realize that I had the evidence at my fingertips, my scrambled brain had me think that the encounter was in 2015, but my blog and the Medical records show that it happened in July and August of 2014.

Pray for me, and if you have any legal advice please let me know. I plan to go forward as the psychiatrist is still on active duty at another base heading a clinic that treats patients with PTSD. I wonder if she is using her position to slander young sailors and marines who disagree with her or do not want to use her as a therapist, and who don’t know that a provider can so easily use a medical record to prejudice other providers against them.

As I said back in 2014, I will not shut up until the system is fixed. The late Colonel David Hackworth who Inhad the honor of corresponding with before he died noted: “If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.”

That is now part of my mission, not just for me, but for men like Colonel Turner, Captain Sitsch, and the countless men and women who have been callously treated by military and Veterans Administration mental health providers. For the approximately 20 military personnel and veterans who take their lives every day. All of us deserve better,

By my calculations the psychiatrist who did this to me wasn’t even born whenI enlisted in the Army or had even entered medical school when I deployed to Iraq. At the time that she saw me she had never deployed, been in combat, or commanded troops, in fact I would dare say that when I saw her I had much more experience dealing with death and troops suffering from PTSD than she did. I’m pretty sure that when I told her I didn’t want to do therapy with her I told her that, perhaps she was offended that a non-physician would tell her that, but I tend to tell the truth, and call things the way that I see them.

So anyway, until tomorrow, or maybe since it’s after midnight, later today I wish you peace, and pray for me a sinner.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under ethics, leadership, mental health, Military, News and current events, PTSD, suicide, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy

I Don’t Have the Answers but You Might as Well Live: Thoughts on Suicide

Suicide-Hotline

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is a hard article to write because it takes me back to points in my life after my return from Iraq that all I wanted to do was die and even had plans of how I would kill myself. The worst period was between 2010 and 2013 when I was stationed away from my wife Judy on an unaccompanied assignment at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to subject my dog Molly to me not coming home, she helped save my life, as did thoughts of Judy and the friends I had at a local bar who cared for me during that time.

It wasn’t my faith or for that matter most of the people I knew in the Chaplain Corps or my former Church that kept me from it, it was a dog, my wife, and regular guys that I ate and drank with regularly: Mike and New York Mike, Walt, Eddie, Felicia, Bill, “Judge Ito”, Billy, and other regulars at Rucker Johns in Emerald Isle made sure that I lived. So did friends at Granger Stadium in Kinston North Carolina where I would drive an hour to and back to watch minor league baseball games two or three times a week: Toni and Jerry, Anne, Cara, and Negro League Hall of Fame player Carl Long. Sadly, New York Mike, Judge Ito, Walt, Cara, and Carl have all passed away since I came back to Virginia.

During those dark times I had friends including men and women that I had served with in the military or their family members kill themselves. I can visualize their faces as I write this. They ranged in age from barely twenty years old to nearly sixty, all at different stages of life and their career. Quite a few were combat vets of multiple deployments and in one case both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. They were real heroes but they defeat the figurative demons within them. I also have had a great grandfather and great uncle who afflicted with terminal cancer killed themselves.

I still struggle with the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Moral Injury. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, thankfully not nearly as bad as it used to be. I still avoid most crowded places unless they are very familiar to me. I am still hyper-vigilant and on guard. I plot escape routes or have memorized what I as an unarmed person would do to neutralize a threat in a public place because I don’t plan on going down without a fight or let innocent people get killed.  I also suffer from frequent flashbacks and terrible nightmares and night terrors. I threw myself off the bed in the middle of one again Thursday night. Thankfully I didn’t get a concussion or break my nose leading to emergency room visits like happened in 2014 and 2016.

Suicide is something I try not even to think about because it takes me back to very bad times that I don’t want to experience again. At the same time when I have to deal with suicides at work or read about high profile suicides, such as those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade I feel all of the anguish that I went through during the worst times, but without any desire to kill myself, I think that is a good thing.

At the same time when I deal with or hear about a suicide my mind starts playing the them song from M*A*S*H; Suicide is Painless, which was written for the movie by the fourteen year old son of director Robert Altman. Altman wanted the song for a specific scene in the film and he wanted it to be named Suicide is Painless, he also wanted it to be the stupidest song ever written. He couldn’t wrap himself around that and his son wrote it in about 15 minutes. It’s a strange song for me. I grew up with the movie and the TV show and I started my career as a commissioned office as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army. The song was the official song of the Army Medical Department and the instrumental version was played at every graduation or function that we had. Two decades later in the trauma hall of a Navy Trauma platoon in Iraq I felt like Father Mulcahy

I have a deep sense of empathy for those who suffer from deep depression and feel that sense of hopelessness, abandonment, and god-forsakenness that often lead to suicide. When I see people who complete a suicide condemned as weak, selfish, or even worse as deserving of God’s wrath and judgment I do get angry, especially when the accusers are Christians. I believe than nobody is outside the mercy and love of God, even those who commit suicide. At the same time it is hard for me to know what to say anymore without sounding trite because I know how deeply someone has to be hurting to consider suicide, and words cannot go there, there is a profound hollowness to them. The last verse of Suicide is Painless note something that I feel when dealing with a suicide situation because I just don’t have the answers:

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied oh why ask me…

That being said I do believe that help can be found and that even in the midst of struggle people can get help and find meaning in life, and I want them to find whatever they need to help them live, thrive, and survive. I don’t believe that life is without struggle, many of my personal heroes dealt with terrible depression at various times of their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Gouverneur Warren, and T.E. Lawrence among them.

As opposed to the thought that suicide is painless, I think that the great American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker said it well, suicide is not painless, she wrote:

“Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.”

So please, if you or someone that you know are struggling with issues in life that are so bad that suicide has become an option, please reach out and get help. Getting help is worth it, I know, I wouldn’t still be here without it. As Seneca said: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under faith, film, life, mental health, Military, ministry, News and current events, PTSD, suicide

Truth Deniers: The Fundamentalist Idolatry of Preachers

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I mentioned yesterday things have been quite busy and unsettled around here so I won’t be writing a lot today. That being said, I want to mention a comment that a fundamentalist Christian come to my Facebook page and send me a direct message excoriating me for a very considered article that I wrote about the death of the Reverend David Wilkerson a number of years ago after he drove his car into an oncoming truck.

It was a difficult article to write. As someone who admired David Wilkerson yet did not idolize him I took the time to read his blog posts, and then obtain the State Police accident reports, accident photos, and autopsy results. My conclusion based on the evidence, and my experience doing accident investigation when I was in the Army was that Wilkerson had to have intentionally driven into the oncoming truck. The police reports, the photos, and his own words all pointed to it. Honesty, I would have preferred to have discovered that the car had a mechanical issue, or that he had a medical event that caused him to veer into the oncoming truck, but the evidence did not show that. Instead, it showed that on a clear day, on a strait road, that he drove directly into an oncoming tractor-trailer rig, ending his life and fatally injuring his terminally ill wife.

Over the years I have had quite a few Evangelical Christians come to this site as well as my Facebook page to attack me, condemn me to Hell, and do everything but to dispassionately examine the evidence and come to a conclusion. The problem is that I took down the idol that they made of a good man, a man who did many good things, but who also had feet of clay, who like his wife was suffering from serious medical issues, and who had recently suffered the betrayal of the people that he had helped to promote to senior leadership at Times Square Church, people who would have not reached their positions without his help and assistance.

The problem is that David was a fundamentalist, and he had written a small polemic book about suicide being an unforgivable sin. I have the book, I read it before I wrote the article. Personally I don’t think that God will condemn to Hell a suffering person who makes a tragic choice such as suicide. There were many things that I admired David for and others that I disagreed with him, suicide was one of them.

Yesterday I got a personal message from another of his idolators who blasted me every which way but loose. Instead of responding like I have done in the past I realized that no words of mine would change this person’s opinion, so I simply deleted it without comment. To me it is no longer worth debating people who refuse to even entertain  possibilities that are at odds with their beliefs about the men they turn into idols.

That is a problem for many Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. I have seen too many deny and defends the real crimes of preachers who they have turned into idols. I saw it when I worked for a very well known Fundamentalist televangelist when I was in seminary in the late 1980s and early 1990s and throughout my ministry since then. It doesn’t matter what they do: defraud their followers, be caught in horrendous marital infidelity, abuse of children, and even murder, their followers will defend them to their dying day and then condemn anyone who dares point out inconvenient truths. Pardon me, but that is not Christian, it is idolatry.

To his credit, David Wilkerson did not defraud his flock, he did not cheat on his wife, he did not abuse children, or murder anyone. He appears to have been caught in the terrible throws of depression, hopelessness, and succumbed to the impulse to end his life. There are many people who have also contacted me over the years to share the good things about David and ministry, as well as how he touched their lives who also empathized with the suffering that led him to take his life. I think that demonstrates an appropriate response to the tragic death of someone who did many good things.

Anyway. That’s more than I intended to write and I had no idea how much something that happened almost seven years ago still inspires people to hate and condemn those who however reluctantly destroy their idolatrous image of good but flawed and suffering people. However, I continue to learn that as Lord Dumbledore said: “The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

It is, and some people cannot handle it.

Have a great Saturday.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, leadership, ministry, Pastoral Care, suicide

The Uncounted Cost of War: Veteran Suicides

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler probably discussed the true cost of war better than anyone. Butler, a two time Medal of Honor winner wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

Mangled bodies, shattered minds. The bodies get counted, the minds do not, and when a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, Airman or former serviceman or women ends their life due to suicide their name is not included on the casualty reports.

In January 2014 the Veterans Administration released a disturbing report that male veterans under 30 years old saw a 44% increase in the rate of suicide. The rate for women veterans increased by 11%. About 22 veterans a day committed suicide in 2013. That did not count those still on active duty numbers which are still high but have dropped somewhat since 2012 and previous years.

The VA National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention, Jan Kemp said “Their rates are astronomically high and climbing…” Kemp postulated that reasons for the spike might include “the pressures of leaving military careers, readjusting to civilian life and combat injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder…”

I believe that the stigma that many felt about getting psychological help while they were in the military continues on when they enter civilian life. Unlike the military where there is still some sense of camaraderie and a chance that the chain of command might force a service member to get help, no corresponding structure or community exists in the civilian world. Young veterans are often isolated and face new stresses while they are already on edge. Many find that the military occupation specialties that they trained for have no direct civilian counterpart, leaving them struggling in the civilian job market. Combat injuries as well as injuries sustained in training often continue on, limiting what they can do and the unseen injuries of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and Moral Injury, often undiagnosed and untreated lurk in the background.

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This is a national tragedy and crisis. Many of these young men and women are among the best and brightest. They volunteered to serve in time of war and now as the military, especially the Army and Marine Corps begin to shed large numbers of troops, many more will be thrust into a world that they may be ill equipped to survive.

They will attempt to go to work or attend school, quite often alone. There they will be surrounded by people who have no idea of the issues that they face or understanding of the military world that they left, or the places that they served. I think this social isolation will be a killer for many.

My recommendation is that people who work or go to school with these young veterans, or for that matter any veteran get to know them. Help them adjust to the world and keep an eye on them. Ask them how they are doing and just show that you care. You do not have to be a veteran to do that. Likewise get to know about the resources that are available for veterans and help direct them to them. Have the courage to care.

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Resources include the Veterans Crisis Hotline which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can be reached at (800)-273-8255, press 1, or here to chat online. They also allow veterans to send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day.

Another resource is the Real Warriors Live Chat. The a trained health resource consultant is ready to talk, listen and provide guidance and resources. They can be reached by calling 866-966-1020 or going to their live chat service here http://www.realwarriors.net/livechat.

Afterdeployment.org http://afterdeployment.t2.health.mil offers wellness resources for the Military Community. Service members in transition to civilian life can contact inTransition by calling 800-424-7877 or at their website http://www.health.mil/InTransition/default.aspx

To me this is personal. I still suffer from the effects of PTSD, TBI, Moral Injury and have been to the brink of suicide. I am doing a lot better, and I love life, and I can’t imagine living it without me.

However, I have known far too many veterans who have taken their own lives, or struggle with mental health issues, physical injuries and illness, or social isolation. Last January, about the time the VA report came out a brilliant and heroic senior officer I knew, Captain Tom Sitsch who helped me when I was collapsing due to the effects of PTSD took his own life. This is something that all of us have a stake in. Please help look out for our veterans.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under leadership, mental health, Military, PTSD, suicide