- The Enterprise
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Look out for one another. Follow orders. Cherish God and country. That’s what people, often young and impressionable, are taught when they join the military, said Al Brewster, a veteran and member of Battle Buddies, a Southern Maryland-based support program.
Then some of them are deployed to a war zone. And, in the throes of combat, Brewster said, it’s hard to remember if home is even real.
Stresses stateside and abroad are contributing to an increasing suicide rate among active-duty service members. In 2012, the Navy reported 60 suicides, compared to 52 in 2011 and 39 in 2010.
Otherwise, since the Navy began more intensely tracking suicides in 2001, the highest number of suicides was 46 in 2009 and the lowest 37 in 2005, according to data from the Navy Personnel Command.
“Afghanistan, Iraq, those are other worlds,” Brewster said. “Underline and capitalize ‘worlds.’” American service members look different, talk different and citizens of those countries can spot them from miles away. “You’re surrounded by people who let you know they don’t want you there.”
Once they come home, veterans often don’t talk about the horrors of war. They believe the sights, sounds and experiences they’ve had are “incomprehensible to others,” Brewster said.
Isolation, adjusting back to civilian life, the time, and the distance, frequency and trauma of deployments can put strains on relationships. If those most crucial relationships are falling apart, if they disappear for any reason, Brewster said, “that’s a terrible blow.”
Spencer Wait, a chief naval air crewman and a suicide prevention coordinator at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, knew a colleague who took his own life years ago. “I felt the awareness could have been better. Other processes could have been handled better,” Wait said. That experience encouraged him to study, even champion, awareness and prevention.
“Learning how to cope with little things before they turn into big problems and big stressors for you is what we want to work on,” he said. “As soon as you let them know that you care and you’re willing to listen, it seems to lift the weight off their shoulders a little bit. Then they see a little more clearly that they can reach out for help.”
Wait said he’s most often come into contact with people who are sorting out the stresses of life in general, rather than stressful deployments.
In fact, most suicides, perhaps as many as 85 percent, are associated with failed relationships, said Linda Schmid from the Fleet and Family Service Center at Pax River. And, people often don’t display obvious symptoms like anger and severe mood swings, substance abuse or feelings of being hopeless or trapped. The best thing people can do is pay attention. If something doesn’t look right, or feel right, or if a person hasn’t been acting like they usually do, check in with them to make sure things are OK.
“People who are sending out these subtle invitations, they want you to get involved,” Schmid said. Ask them who they’d feel comfortable talking to, maybe a chaplain, a family member or a counselor.
The Fleet and Family Support Center at Pax River has hosted several events, last year alone reaching audiences as large as 800, to promote awareness. One, called Light of Day, began at sunrise, with talks about what makes life worth living and ended with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” Schmid said.
Brewster, of Battle Buddies, said the military offers a great deal of support to service members and their families, and that certainly helps. However, the nation has been at war more than a decade. Families “can only take so much,” he said, the words pouring out slow, quiet and strained.
War stings. “Let everybody feel it,” Brewster said. Bring back the draft, he said. Maybe, then, people would press their congressmen about why we’re sending “our precious babies” off to fight. When more people are vulnerable, “then we’d be asking the right questions.”
In the meantime, the most important thing is acceptance, Brewster said. Veterans need friends they can call at 3 o’clock in the morning and tell their deepest, darkest secrets.
“Reach out and befriend people,” Brewster said. Call, text, leave voice mails, a note in the car or at the door. “When you see a veteran isolating, that’s a time to gently push for connection.”