Tuesday, March 8, 2016

22kms/22lbs for the 22 Veterans Who Commit Suicide Daily

Eric and I haven't spent as much time running together lately. It used to be that one of us would see a race we wanted to run, we would convince the other to run it, we would sign up then we would train together and run the race.

This whole process became, to both of us I think, less about running and more about being friends and sharing time together.  I enjoy the friendship, the laughs and just having someone to talk to about things that both people have in common. I mean, we both run, we both are expats in Thailand, we both are veterans of the U.S. armed services, we both teach in the Thai education system, certain aspects of our childhood experience, etc. There is a lot that we have in common. Plus it's always good for the brain (mentally) to have a running buddy for some of the longer training runs ;)

There are also parts of our lives, personalities, past experiences, etc.,  that differ and I think these things also can bring people together.

Well, Eric contacted me a few weeks back and told me about an activity being held in Tampa, Florida by a group of veterans who were raising awareness for a certain cause. This event was a 22km hike carrying a 22kg pack. They call it a "Silkies Hike" 22 with 22 for the 22.

What's with all of the 22's? Why 22kg? Why 22km?

There are twenty-two U.S. veterans who commit suicide every day. That is twenty-two too many. Many of these are combat veterans who have been called on during battle to do things or who have seen things that they have a hard time dealing with after they get back into the civilian world.

Who understands? Who do you talk to about these things?

A psychiatrist who has never seen his best buddy's intestines leaking out of a 12 centimeter exit wound?

A girl who you are dating who has never sat silently and helplessly in a chopper, trying not to flinch at every "ping" of small arms fire pelting the helicopter, hoping and praying that the next sound isn't that of an RPG exploding?

Your parents who have likely never had to suffer the smell of the decaying bodies of the enemy, killed by airstrikes only days earlier? Some people are very unlucky to have seen (or contributed to) such horrid scenes of death.

Even a drone pilot who successfully kills his target from the comfort of a swivel chair but has to live with the knowledge that 27 other innocent lives were ended by the same 500 pound JDAM at the same wedding party, collateral damage, must suffer eventually. How does he deal with this conflict within his soul? What does he say when someone finds out that he was in Afghanistan and asks (I hate this question) "Did you ever kill anybody?"

Who do you talk to and how do you word it when you want to get the pictures out of your mind, when you want to erase the memory or at least make yourself feel better about shooting that sweet looking, innocent little girl in the light blue dress who was approaching your checkpoint wearing (unknowingly) a suicide vest?

Who do you talk to if you're being tormented day and night by these memories; pictures, sounds, smells that are burned into your brain, forever to haunt you? How do you get rid of the guilt? How do you justify your actions after the brainwashing of "kill or be killed" fades from who you are?

PTSD is real. PTSD can be debilitating. PTSD can be too much for some to handle.

We celebrate our veterans, as we should, but when you hear someone say "Freedom isn't free", although it sounds so catchy, there is the darker side that we don't visualize when we hear the catchphrase. We understand that "freedom isn't free" might mean that someone gave their life fighting for that freedom. We understand it to even mean that families (husbands, wives and their children) make huge sacrifices being separated from each for months at a time. This is also the price of freedom.

The price of the freedom that we enjoy and take for granted, the price of the freedom that we hope to help bring to others, is not only paid as a one time payment, a lump sum. It's often paid in installments like a mortgage, which to many may seem like they'll be paying for a lifetime. Payments in the form of a veteran not being able to find his/her place in society. Mental and emotional payments...as well as physical currency.

Some veterans are living with the physical wounds of war; burns, amputations, scarred and mangled body parts that either cause them never-ending, chronic physical pain or emotional pain when they look at themselves in the mirror or when a child or adult stares in disgust or simple curiosity at the checkout counter of the grocery store or when they can't do the things that a "normal" person their age should be able to do. These are young men and women, who's lives have been changed forever because of an IED exploding under their vehicle, a sniper's bullet that left them paralyzed, friendly fire, you get the point...

Some of these men and women are survivors of combat who lost friends in battle and have survivor guilt. Some of these perhaps had a rough transition back to the civilian world, in a tough economy, etc. I could never imagine why someone would choose suicide as a way to end whatever type of suffering they are experiencing. I could never understand as I have never experienced such suffering. 22 veterans per day is proof of this suffering.

What I do know is that there must be even more who consider suicide or even fail in their suicide attempt which makes it even worse than 22 families who are affected by this darkness, this sadness.

The more awareness there is, perhaps the more that will be done in the way of support for veterans who are vulnerable. As well as awareness, the hike also served as a way for vets to get together, like Eric and I often do when we train, to laugh or just share with people with similar life experiences, people who they know probably understand and can relate to their past and present much more than a coworker, a husband or wife or their local librarian might.

This past Saturday, Eric and I did our hike of 22 kilometers carrying 22 pounds (not kg) of weight in our backpacks. Our hike happened a little before the Tampa group did theirs, but Saturday morning was the best time for us.

Eric is recovering from a severe knee injury and me from laziness, but hiking for four hours together, taking it easy when we needed, stopping for water when we needed and just chatting away about this and that, we kept a decent pace. We slowed when we needed. We stretched when we needed. We thought about and talked about our country's veterans. We tried to ignore blisters building on the bottoms of our feet. We had a nice time together and I personally felt happy to be a part of an activity (even though it was technically just Eric and me in Bangkok) that had such great meaning to both of us.

We are both vets and both appreciate other vets, not only for their service, but because they understand us and we (for the most part) understand them. We have enough in common that we can be there for each other, not just when another vet is considering suicide, but way before that even.

So many people consider or commit suicide, not just our veterans, but the 22 veterans a day angle hits close to home for me as our warriors do and see a lot of things that nobody should have to see or do and it must hurt inside to keep it all bottled up.

Hopefully all of this pent up darkness can be released through sharing laughter, a fishing trip with buddies, a crazy hike in skimpy green exercise shorts, a phone call to a "brother" or a long run...rather than than a fatal gunshot wound to the head.

22 a day.

These 22 and many more need support.


mardenheyjude said...

Guy: What a beautiful story and a beautiful thing that you and Eric did to show your awareness for these wounded warriors. 22 suicides a day is both troubling and sad to me. Heaven knows what these kids have gone through and I pray for peace in world every day. On a lighter note, did you wear your Marine Silkies when you ran? :)
Love always, Auntie

Pae and Guy said...

Unfortunately, Auntie, I neither kept the actual silkies nor have I maintained the body needed to make them look good ;) We actually just wore our normal running gear. I'll post a quick photo that I got from Eric last night. We didn't take any pix really, just one or two during and after.

Funny thing is that, now that I think of it, it has been exactly 22 years since I last wore a pair of silkies!! I got out in 1994. 2016 minus 1994 equals 22. Weird!

I'll have to buy a lottery ticket now ;)

Anonymous said...

I hope you can make it to the Gainesville hike. April 9th

Pae and Guy said...

I'd (we'd) love that (Gainesville Silkie Hike), unfortunately we're half the world away ;)
I'm sure y'all will have a helluva time though!
Semper Fi

Anne Lynn said...

Thank you brother Guy, this means a lot to me. I just put my claim in with the VA to add PTSD to my disability pension. I learned that a lot of Veterans are afraid to come forward. It was very hard for me to take that first step and talk about it, but I did and it helped. We don't have to suffer alone. There are people that will listen and even trying to understand goes a long way. Creating awareness about PTSD helps.
Thank you,

Pae and Guy said...

Anne, you know I'm always here if you ever wanna talk or if you just wanna chill with your big brother ;) Love ya, sis.

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