I had a beer with a Marine. We were on his porch. He was barbecuing ribs. I’ll call him Mike, although this is not his real name.
Mike uses a wheelchair. He is a nice-looking soldier. Strong upper body. Head of silver hair. He likes Miller High Life because “It’s what my dad always drank,” he says.
Mike is an inactive Marine. Not a retired marine. Not a former Marine. Not an ex-Marine.
“Once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine,” he explains. “That’s just how it works.”
When Mike was going through boot camp in Parris Island, he wanted to quit a few weeks into his training. He discussed his decision with one of his instructors. They talked him out of it.
“I’m so glad I stayed in, it was the best thing I ever did.”
He was deployed. He was wounded in an IED explosion. The incident left him with a spinal cord injury. Next thing he knew, he was lying in a hospital bed in Germany.
“Depression has been my major obstacle from Day One. You see guys walk out of the hospital on two legs, and you know that will never be you.”
When he got home, life got harder. His wife and 10-year-old son had been carrying on without him since he’d been away. They had their own routine, their own schedules. Their own lives. Mike’s son was a stranger.
And there was the PTSD. Each morning Mike would awake in a pulsating panic. His wife would lie in the bed beside him and speak softly. “You’re home,” she’d say, “You’re safe. You’re with your family.”
But his wife couldn’t understand him. Nobody did. “And that’s the whole thing,” he says. “Nobody understands what you’re going through.”
Mike took a sip of his Miller. You can see scars all over his body and face. But there are more inside.
Mike tried to take his own life. Twice. Once, he was almost successful. During what might have been his final moments, he prayed for a miracle to stop him.
“My wife walked in the garage at that exact moment. She is my miracle.”
Since then, he’s been finding lots of miracles. He’s had lots of help. Lots of support. He’s been doing a lot of work on himself. He says things are much better.
And then you have Chuck. Retired Army. A lifelong tough guy. I get the impression that Chuck has been shaving since age 3.
I meet Chuck at the boat launch one evening for our interview. Chuck is about to test out a two-stroke 2.5 horsepower outboard. He just repaired it. He’s been working on small engines his entire life. He and his son used to do this together.
Chuck’s son went into the Army to be like his old man. Chuck had never been so proud.
“The Army is one of the few institutions that actually teaches you how to be a man.”
Chuck’s son was in Iraq when he located an IED while on patrol. His job was to deal with it. The worst happened.
His son got home and life was not the same. He had a spinal cord injury and two prosthetic limbs. His son had a hard time finding a job, and an even harder time paying bills.
“My son had combat experience, he was a decorated soldier, but he could not find a minimum-wage job. Something’s wrong there.”
His son never opened up about what he was going through. They found Chuck’s son’s body in his truck on the side of an empty highway.
Chuck fires his outboard motor. The machine purrs nicely, but Chuck wears a melancholic look. He shouts over the motor, “My boy loved working on engines.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for veterans under 45. I hate to be a downer. But approximately one veteran dies by suicide every hour. In the time it took me to write this, more than two veterans have already completed the act.
The reason Mike and Chuck are talking so openly about the subject is simple:
“There’s hope, man,” says Mike. “You WILL get through this. A lot of people love you. You can get better. Put the gun down.”
So if you need a miracle to stop you, dear Soldier, consider this your miracle.
stephenpe - April 2, 2023 12:59 pm
Excellent. People are in pain and need support. Real support. Good job, Sean.
Richard Owen - April 2, 2023 1:06 pm
What can I say here. As an inactive submarine sonarman from the Cold War days, I cannot even imagine the trials this men are enduring – one on recovering from combat and one from the loss of a son who was doing his duty.
Dee Thompson - April 2, 2023 4:42 pm
Reading this breaks my heart as the sister of an Iraq war vet. Sean, please reach out to “Mike” and tell him about my friend Jon Jackson and Comfort Farms. Jon did 6 tours as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. He came home with severe PTSD, and almost committed suicide, but instead he founded Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia. It’s run by veterans, for veterans, and it helps them heal by farming. I’ve tried to help with marketing by writing about it and you can see more here: https://thecookscook.com/columns/good-turns/agro-cognitive-therapy-heals-veterans-at-comfort-farms/