It started with an errant shot … and now another one. This time it was a mule deer just south of Casper, Wyo. The bullet took off the deer’s lower jaw and sent the pain-crazed animal flailing in circles, stumbling to the ground, then back up. But it didn’t run away, or couldn’t. By the time Ron got down the hill to see what he’d done, his head was already swimming.
He remembers the deer’s thrashing head, blood flying in all directions, covering his clothes, face, hair. He recalls screaming, as he ran at the deer, knocking it to the ground. Then nothing.
His next memory from that day is of being on the dirt, his back pushed against a small pine tree. He says it was like watching himself from a few feet away. He could see his shaking hand as it held the pistol pointing directly at his forehead, thumb on the trigger. He recalls just waiting for the sound, hoping, but it never came.
On that day when he went hunting, it had been more than six years since Ron had been in combat and even longer since he had pulled the trigger on his first misaimed shot, which haunted him in the form of a young woman’s lifeless face. No one can say what invisible force connected those two shots that day. It is enough to know it was caused by war.
Years later, I asked him why he didn’t pull the trigger. He said he didn’t know, but he was glad he hadn’t. Ron is now a mostly happily married father of two girls. He still has struggles, but life has improved since he quit drinking. I asked him if he still thinks about killing himself. He said no, after that day he never came close to committing suicide again, and he even gave up hunting and sold his guns.
For Ron, a veteran, the same gory experience with that deer that nearly caused him to take his own life ultimately saved him. It was a sort of purification by fire. But unfortunately, Ron’s self-healing seems to be the exception.
Suicide has always been an issue for our veterans returning from the battlefields, no matter which war we were fighting at the time. But for many veterans of today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where four, five or six deployments are the norm, suicide has reached epidemic proportions. On average, 18 veterans now kill themselves every day of the year. That’s 6,408 suicides every year, compared to 6,440 U.S. soldiers killed during the 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems inconceivable that far more soldiers are killing themselves than are killed in combat, but it’s true. Suicide has become the cure of choice for the pain that so many of today’s veterans are experiencing, pain that most of us just can’t understand because we haven’t been there.
I drove out to Sterling a few years back to talk to a 21-year-old Marine corporal who was about to be deployed for his third tour of duty in Iraq. I was originally drawn to his story when I attended a swearing-in ceremony for new U.S. citizens and saw him in full uniform taking his oath of citizenship. I must confess that I was, at the time, unaware that many young men and women of different nationalities join the U.S. military as a pathway to being granted U.S. citizenship — provided they live through their service.
But once I spent time with the young Marine, whose identity I am withholding because he is still active in the military, my interest in his story changed. You see, he was only 21 and already hollow inside. I wanted to understand how that happens By my reckoning, the corporal had the misfortune of being a very good shot.
As a result, the Marines turned him into a sniper, a job that had its own unique set of requirements in Iraq.
He told me how he would take three days’ worth of provisions, his sniper rifle and ammunition, and then at night, alone, slip out past the perimeter of his U.S. base of operations in Anbar Province. Under the cover of nightfall he would make his way to hidden positions on roofs, behind bushes or in the abandoned buildings of nearby towns. His orders were simple enough: Kill anyone you identify as the enemy. The horrifying part is that to hear him talk about the Iraqis, he clearly saw all of them as his enemy.
With no hint of emotion, he told me how, at night, he would watch for certain behavior, such as men gathering in a home. When he saw it, he’d take aim, pull the trigger and watch through his scope as their heads exploded in a red mist. He’d try to hit two “targets” before anyone could react, then he’d move and lay low, waiting for the next opportunity to do his job.
He was a 21-year-old kid, alone, scared and deciding who lived and died on a daily basis by arbitrary criteria at best. To say that he coped with this unimaginable situation by dehumanizing the enemy is not strong enough. He coped by dehumanizing all of us, including himself.
When I asked him how he could be sure that the people he killed were the enemy and not innocent civilians, he stared right through me and didn’t say a word. He correctly sized me up as one of the idiots back home who couldn’t possibly understand the things he had seen and done. But I kept trying. It took several more hours and most of a pack of cigarettes to get him talking again.
He told me he hated coming back to Sterling because nothing there made sense. He said the only place he could go and feel comfortable was the local VFW hall where he did most of his drinking. I asked him if it was because there were people there he could talk to who understood him. He raised his head, smirked and once more called me a fool without ever saying a word. He eventually confided that he felt comfortable there because nobody at the VFW needed to ask him anything, they already knew and they left him alone.
As steel cold as his demeanor had been when describing his assassinations, the opposite was true when I asked if he ever spent time with his old high school friends when he came home. Surprisingly, it was this seemingly innocuous question that gave me my best glimpse into the young man’s pain.
He suddenly stumbled over his words as he tried to describe the anger and frustration he felt when he was around anyone his own age who wasn’t a fellow soldier. His words were infused with raw emotion, as if someone had plugged him into a socket.
He twitched, chain-smoked and spoke to a spot on the ground as he described how he would go to a bar or restaurant or even a movie where people his age gathered, and how he’d try to just keep to himself, but couldn’t. It always turned out the same, he told me. He’d start listening to their conversations, which he described as “whining and bitching about stupid shit” like college or boyfriends or cars, and then it would come over him before he even knew what was happening.
The “it” that came over him was a rage he could not explain and that clearly frightened him. “I just start beating the shit out of anybody near me for no reason, no matter how many of them are there. I don’t want to. I just look at them and I lose it. They just won’t shut up.” He concluded with a long, deep pull on his cigarette after telling me that he just wanted to get back to Iraq. “I’m better when I’m there,” he said.
The corporal left for his third tour of duty the next morning. I can’t say that I got to know him. I’m not even sure if he was still in there to know. Will he one day find himself looking down the barrel of his own gun? No one can say. But he was right about me. I don’t understand what he has been through and what it has done to him. Try as I might, I can’t pretend to grasp what it’s like to exist in a world where it feels more normal and comfortable to be hiding alone in a bush waiting to kill someone than to be going to a movie with friends in my old hometown. Thank God I don’t know that feeling.
What I do know is that we can’t expect people to exist in the world of war we have thrown them into one day, and then ask them to come home and live a “normal” life the next. For many, if not most, of our veterans, their “normal” has changed and, quite likely, changed forever.
The government now acknowledges the veteran suicide crisis. In response, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has added nearly 2,000 mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrist and social workers, to the existing 20,590 mental health care workers currently employed to counsel veterans. But despite this effort, the number of veteran suicides is still increasing at an alarming rate, and no one seems to know why, or when, or even if, it will stop.
What we do know is that we have never been faced with a situation like this before. Our modern-day soldiers have now been fighting continuously for a longer period of time than was needed to wage and conclude World Wars I and II plus most of the Korean War, all added together. The bottom line is, we don’t know what happens to the minds of men and women who are repeatedly sent into two different wars in different countries for a decade. We have never asked such a thing of our military before. But if the current epidemic of suicides is any indication, what we have done to our veterans this time around may be more damaging than we could have imagined.
We may have improved our triage techniques to the point where battlefield casualties have been greatly reduced, but it appears from the numbers that our understanding of what war does to the body is far greater than our understanding of what war does to the mind.
It seems that the errant shots can be just as deadly over time as enemy fire, maybe even more so.