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Growing Veterans: A burden we share

Nov 6th, 2014 | Category: Community

by Chris Brown

A couple of years ago I was talking with a crusty old Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam. We were talking about transitioning home after being in war and with a combined look of coldness, sadness, and humility, he said “a lot of those guys ended up killing themselves, most of my friends did. I just started drinking.” It scared the shit out of me and led me to seek out and engage other vets, hoping that I might be able to stop our generation of vets from doing the same. A noble goal, right?

Upside down helmet: represents the end of military service and acknowledges that we can never forget our roots. Veggies growing out of helmet: represents the abundance of life that we grow and sustain, physically and metaphorically. Seal: represents military emblems, giving us a new emblem to take pride in.

Upside down helmet: represents the end of military service and acknowledges that we can never forget our roots. Veggies growing out of helmet: represents the abundance of life that we grow and sustain, physically and metaphorically. Seal: represents military emblems, giving us a new emblem to take pride in.

Just before I moved to this area, a local Post 9/11 vet who was active in the vet community had committed suicide. I’ve never met him, but have heard from everyone he knew how amazing of a person he was. Since then, a handful of other vets in my community have killed themselves. As the incidents happened, I kept thinking, “I’m so glad no one from my unit has gone this route.” Having had 41 Marines killed in action from my unit on the three deployments I went on (Iraq and Afghanistan), to me that was enough death. Well, over the past year, to my knowledge, at least three men from my old unit have killed themselves. One of which was just last night.

With every one of the deaths called over the radio in Iraq and Afghanistan and with every one of the deaths announced on Facebook back home, I always have the fleeting thought, “it could have been me”. I think it is for that reason alone I work to the point of burn out to try and set up support systems for my fellow veterans. I don’t want those deaths to be in vain, and I don’t want my life to be lived for nothing. I have put in a lot of hard work to come to terms with my post-traumatic stress and learned to manage the symptoms that come up. I have an amazing wife, family, and friends to act as a healthy support system, so I’m quite confident that it never will be me, but that doesn’t erase the issue as a whole.

Just being a veteran doubles one’s risk of suicide. There are more suicides now than deaths in combat. It is said we have 20 some suicides per day. These are people who served our country, from all sides of the political/social/economic spectrum, and risked their lives so the rest didn’t have to. Yet a majority of Americans seem oblivious to the fact that less than one percent of the population carries with them the burden of over 10 years of wars. This small minority and their families sacrificed everything and endured unimaginable conditions. Many witnessed some of their closest friends maimed or killed and continue to see news of death and destruction coming from the region of the world they fought to help stabilize. Now the ones who survived are all coming home, broken and too often, alone.

I can’t stop more veterans from killing themselves, no one individual can. It requires everyone to work together. It requires community leaders to support systems and programs that help veterans feel welcome and valued in their community. It requires teachers to educate themselves and then educate our youth on the issues that returning veterans face and how they can be more conscious, respectful, and supportive. It requires families and friends to be brave, and speak up out of love when they notice their veterans’ physical and/or mental health conditions deteriorating. It requires vets who have done the work to manage their residual effects of war to communicate with and support those who haven’t. It requires compassion, trust, and perseverance. It requires all of us to acknowledge that we as a whole, have a problem… because any doctor will tell you that you can’t treat an issue without first identifying what it is. For those that think you can’t do anything to help, every little thing counts.

To all of my brothers in arms: I miss you guys and I love you. Keep on keeping on.

 

This piece was originally written on Dec. 11, 2012. Chris Brown is the founder and director of Growing Veterans, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower military veterans to grow food, communities, and each other. For more information about the Lynden-based group, see growingveterans.org or follow their Facebook page. The Growing Veterans column will appear quarterly in Grow Northwest.

Published in the November 2014 issue of Grow Northwest

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