Watching the news over the past few days has been a little difficult, namely because a fellow veteran, Track Palin, has found himself in a pretty bad spot with the law, and his "wazzock" of a mother is trying to turn his problems into political advantage like he is some kind of disposable tool.
Frankly, no matter what the background, I'm glad he didn't shoot himself. He's going to pay for his drunken folly, but he is alive to do so. That's a good start. Last week's news drew some pretty solid parallels with something in my own life, but, much to my dismay, that case didn't end quite as well.
In September 2014, my platoon medic, Doc -- my best friend through the 775 days in combat we endured together, came home drunk out of his mind from his usual weeknight at a San Antonio bar, and in a near-mirror to the story reported recently, got into a fight with his wife that resulted in a suicide threat that turned real.
My best friend, the guy I did literally everything with, who fought beside me every day for over two years -- the guy who leaned on me in his darkest moments, as I did on him, killed himself after a stupid drunken fight with his wife.
I've been to that house before. The walls weren't thick, and I know his two girls heard everything. Every last, awful detail. His youngest was 7 at the time.
Just thinking about it pisses me off.
That was the third week in a row my old unit lost a soldier to suicide. By the same time in 2015, the number had risen to four, with two other attempts that were stopped when friends and family intervened. One spent six months in a VA facility, the other just has a bullet hole in his kitchen floor.
I talked another one down over the phone from a few thousand miles away; he, out in the middle of the California desert, and me sitting on the porch of my Cooper Landing research station.
"Man," he sighed, the noise of his rifle going back in its case in the background, "I think it's so damn easy for us to just pull the trigger because we know how easy it is to go from being alive to dead. We're familiar with it. We're not afraid."
Before the fall of 2014, I kept a 12-gauge next to my bed, loaded with seven rounds of bird shot. Every night before bed, I'd set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. and load that sucker up until the tube was full with the chamber empty. I had some drug dealing neighbors, and their rivals had busted out a window earlier in the year two feet from where I slept, so I had every reason to believe that I would one day have to wake up and defend myself. Every morning, the routine reversed. Hit the alarm, and unload the gun before putting it back in the safe and going to school.
After Doc died, it hit me: What would people think if I screwed up unloading the gun in the early morning and accidentally offed myself? Doc and I had fought through the same firefights, were covered in the same blood, heard the same soul-rattling death-cries, and sorted the same pile of chunked-up, intermingled Afghan corpses into what we believed were distinct bodies. Except for the extra hand -- I still don't know where it came from.
Would everybody just think of me as yet another member of a dark and growing statistic? Of the list of guys I thought would kill themselves, none of the ones who did were on it. I always figured it would be the cowards, the pansies, the guys who pissed themselves when we got into our first fight. After that, I stopped my shotgun routine, and realized that maybe I needed to go talk to somebody, so that I wouldn't wind up at the bottom of a bottle with a loaded gun in my hand.
"Man, if John did it, then nobody's safe," my friend told me after he calmed down and decided to sit on the tailgate of his truck and smoke some pot in the middle of the desert instead of killing himself.
He's right. Nobody who went to war is safe, but if that person is of sufficient fortitude to realize it and ask for help, he or she has a good chance of making a go of life after deployment.
That being said, PTS, anxiety, MTBI, whatever acronym you want to sling out, not a single one is an excuse for violence, especially toward a spouse, who in all likelihood is the closest person who truly cares.
In Alaska, the Anchorage Veterans Court was set up to help decent people who slip and have a run-in with the law. To use the services, a defendant has to either be an Anchorage resident, or have their case transferred here and relocate. There are other courts like it around the country. These courts oversee the rehabilitation and mental health services to restore errant veterans back to law-abiding citizens with minimal incarceration. A huge portion of the work done by these special courts involves mental health. Most of the issues relate to self-medication and drug or alcohol dependency. Some are more severe. But by no means is a veterans court a get-out-of-jail-free card for someone seeking to shirk their personal responsibilities.
Combat injuries, both seen and unseen, are not crutches for the morally weak. They are also not political tools by which one may gain the upper hand against an opponent. Yes, the VA is not perfect, but through my time in service and out I have watched it improve significantly. Those who deserve credit for making the changes are also, coincidentally, the same people who don't want their names plastered everywhere for their good deeds.
Those who claim some absurd moral high ground in the "debate" over caring for veterans miss the point. You don't need to be in a position of power to make positive change. For example, the Muldoon VA Clinic is always asking for volunteers to work the front desk and tell people like me where we can refill our prescriptions or get other help we need.
The phone number is 907-257-4839.
If you want to talk tough, then pony up.
Bryan Box is a veteran of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and is currently using his Post-9/11 GI Bill at UAA to earn a B.S. in biology which he considers a gift from the American people for which he is truly grateful.
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