Running for the ‘Swept Away’
The latest numbers released by the U.S. Government in regard to the current suicide epidemic among our veterans in America show that there are, on average, twenty two veterans a day committing suicide. This is up from the previously released statistic of eighteen.
If you do the math, you come up with a huge annual number that few media outlets want to put in print. That number is 8,030, and it means that we’re losing almost twice as many veterans to suicide each year than we’ve lost in our ten year involvement in the war in Iraq. The total number of soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan since the war on terror began nearly a dozen years ago is not much higher than this.
This is the first time in world history that more soldiers have died from suicide after coming home from war than have died on the battlefields of the war itself.
Through my personal experiences as a veteran who struggles with P.T.S.D., and the extensive research I’ve done in regard to the issue of veteran suicide for the articles that I write as well as a book that I’ve written on the topic, I’ve identified three categories of concern and the underlying factors within each category that are proving to be the leading causes of these unnecessary deaths.
First, there is ‘the system.’ Within the system, which involves the U.S. military and U.S. Government provided healthcare agencies such as the V.A. we see the main factors contributing to the epidemic appearing in the forms of abusive leadership within the ranks and mismanagement and over prescription of medications.
The second area of concern I’ve identified is the soldier’s family. Within this unit, we often see soldiers personal lives fall apart during and after deployments through divorce, alienation from children and other family members, financial ruin, etc.
Thirdly, we have ‘the darkness.’ I cannot explain the darkness; I only know that it exists. It surrounds me at times, as it does all of us who have had traumatic experiences, and who suffer from P.T.S.D., and I fear that there is something lurking within the darkness that knows whose number is up, whose number will be called later, and for some reason, whose number will not be called at all (though the ‘thing’ enjoys lurking around in these people’s darkness regardless). This is the only way I know of describing this ‘unknown’ portion of the puzzle, and I believe that anyone who has ever been visited by the darkness and the ‘thing’ that inhabits it will understand.
In regard to the system, the answer is quite simple- give abusive leaders within the ranks their walking papers, and get the meds issue which seems to be so out of control under control- but the solution seems to be slow in coming, because it requires action, and we all know that government agencies are not the swiftest in turning with the tides.
In regard to the family, more resiliency training is needed BEFORE soldiers deploy to war. The pain and struggles will still be there, but being forewarned is being forearmed, and convincing everyone to bring their spouses and family members to the last National Guard or Reserve drill before deploying to sit through a two hour long ‘death by power point’ presentation does not constitute resiliency training.
What can we do about the darkness?
We need light. And the good news is that you don’t have to be a soldier, or a veteran, or a spouse, or a family member, or any part of any institution to light a candle.
You simply need to care about those who are in the dark.
Keri Jacobs is an Air Force mom who cares and has been acting on her concerns in many ways over the past few years. She has sent care packages filled with goodies like cookies and other favorite foods and snacks as well as letters to deployed troops. Each year she also attends a week long respite for wounded warriors.
It was while attending a week long respite a couple of years ago that Keri heard a VA psychiatrist make a statement that has stayed with her and has led her to do even more. The counselor simply yet profoundly said, “We can’t let those (veterans and soldiers) with P.T.S.D. fall through the cracks.”
Keri started reaching out to other parents whose children were suffering from P.T.S.D., and she befriended another military mom, Susan, on a military mom support site. Susan was worried about her son Andy who ‘was not the same person since coming back from the war.’ Shortly after Keri and Susan became friends, Susan’s son Andy was swallowed by the darkness. It is still uncertain whether the medication overdose that caused his death was intentional or accidental.
Around the same time that Susan lost her son Andy, Keri had made the acquaintance of a man named Sid Busch, a Navy veteran who had started a group called “Running in Memory of Our Fallen Heroes”. Sid is in his sixties and has run over 200 marathons. The last 40 of them have been in memory of fallen warriors.
Keri knew that she wanted to run for Andy, and she asked and received permission from Susan to run the Baltimore marathon, held in October, in his memory. Keri pinned Andy’s picture to the front and back of her shirt, and for her, it was an incredible experience running in his honor.
“I used the time to pray for the family, to think of Andy, to answer questions and receive condolences from other runners,” she says of the experience. “At the end of the race, I collected my finisher’s medal to send to Susan.”
After Keri’s first marathon run in memory of Andy, some of her friends expressed interest in running to honor the memory of those who’d been swallowed by the darkness. They wanted to run in the upcoming Rehoboth Beach Marathon in Delaware, which was held this past December.
Keri had become friends with two other ladies who had started groups to honor their son’s memories and to raise awareness of P.T.S.D. and veteran suicide by this time. She and four of her friends ran in memory of her two new friend’s sons, Randy and Trever, as well as Andy’s memory once again.
Randy’s mother has been raising awareness of P.T.S.D. and suicide among our veterans in her own way through her Facebook group Operation I.V., which you can join and support at: www.facebook.com/OPERATIONIV, and Trever Gould’s mother has been doing the same with her group, which you can also join and support at www.facebook.com/TrevorGouldMemorial.
This second Marathon in which Keri ran for this cause inspired her to go even farther and find more runners to run in honor of even more fallen heroes. Of her following actions, she says this:
“It seemed natural to plan again for a spring marathon. With a large field of 30,000 runners, the Rock N Roll DC Marathon was an excellent venue for raising awareness of combat P.T.S.D. Several of my friends and I signed up. I wanted to run in memory of more of our troops. While I knew there was no shortage, I wanted permission from the families; there needed to be a personal connection. I started researching and reading news articles. I would sit by the fire every night, sip wine, surf the web and read the most tragic stories about combat suicide. This was emotionally overwhelming. There needed to be a whole new vocabulary to describe what I felt that was beyond using the words ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘maddening’. Using sources like the “Wounded Times Blog” and “Military Suicide Report” I found names.
“If something struck me about a particular story, I would write down the name, look up the obituary and then locate the survivors and their addresses via the online white pages. After many hours, I had 15 names, 15 sets of parents, and 15 addresses. I wrote a personal letter to each family member, explaining how we would like to honor their sons’ memory by running in their honor in a March 2013 marathon. Emails and letters started trickling in, granting permission. Not everyone replied, and a few were returned.
“I had more veterans. I needed more runners. By word of mouth and emails to our training group, several volunteered. The requirements were that they needed to read the stories, run with their vet’s picture on their front and back, and send the finisher’s medal to the families. I matched each runner with a soldier or Marine. We all wanted to run strong in their memory and wanted to show the families we cared.”
Ironically, by race day Keri had a total of eleven runners running in memory of eleven veterans, two numbers which eerily add up twenty two, the number of veterans we lose each day to suicide, hence the term ‘Twenty two too many.”
“Among our veterans were two from the Vietnam War,” Keri says. We pinned our pictures on our front and back and ran our best. There is nothing like the feeling of having another Marine run by you, salute the picture of “your” Marine and shout “Semper Fi!”
Keri shared with me that she’d run across a quote from Boyd Wicks, Sr., the father of a veteran who had lost his battle with the darkness while she was doing her research on veteran suicide that really changed her and gave her a sense of purpose for doing all of this. Wicks had pleaded, “Please remember those who came back after combat and committed suicide. My son died that way. No one seems to care about him or the others who have died from P.T.S.D. after combat. Because they didn’t die in a war zone or in uniform, they are forgotten – swept aside. They don’t fit in anywhere. No one recalls these dead heroes, who also gave all.”
Keri Jacobs and her friends have not forgotten. They are honoring Wicks’ plea. “We run for this purpose,” she says. “To remember and honor these heroes who also gave all.”
If you have a family member or a friend who served our country proudly in the military and has sense been swallowed by the darkness, and you would like their memory honored by having Keri and her friends run in their memory, please feel free to contact Keri Jacobs on Facebook at www.facebook.com/keri.jacobs.9.
*In memory of: SFC Randy Abrams, CPL Jonathan Bartlett, SPC William Busbee, SP5 James Clarke, SPC Christopher Dana, SGT Dylan Fisher, SPC Trever Gould, CPL Clay Hunt, ‘Vietnam Andy’, SGT Boyd Wicks, Jr., SGT Andrew Wilson
Kevin E Lake is an author and in Iraq War Veteran. His latest novel “Off Switch” was written to raise public awareness of the veteran and soldier suicide epidemic in the U.S. and is available at: www.amazon.com/Off-Switch-ebook/dp/B009Q3MSK2