Each day in the United States, an average of 22 veterans die by suicide. 22 per day, and there are 365 days in a year. Just stop and think about that staggering statistic for a moment. These are men and women who fight for our freedoms we enjoy every day. That is 22 too many, in my opinion. Veterans face some unique challenges when returning from deployments and many times that can increase the chances of a crisis or suicidal thoughts.
Nightmares/flashbacks. This is the biggest thing that I’ve heard happening to veterans after returning from deployments. Many times they see faces in their nightmares too. Other times the mind will take over and alter the dreams. This can include changing faces to be people they know, or the timeline of events changes slightly.
These issues can affect many aspects of life. That includes sleep amounts, mood and productivity, and so much more. These nightmares feel real. Like they are experiencing it all over again, repeatedly.
Integrating back to civilian life. The military is an incredibly structured environment. I’ve heard it compared to prison in terms of structure and routine. When a veteran comes back and is trying to integrate back into civilian life, there is no structure. The number of choices is incredibly overwhelming. These are simple things most people take for granted. The choice of when to wake up, what to do after waking up, and more throughout each day.
The best advice I’ve heard here is set a schedule. Structure each day the same way it would be in the military. Just adapted to civilian life. Slowly weaning themselves away from that as it becomes easier. Start small.
Another issue is finding a job. This can be so difficult because a veteran has basically been absent for X number of years and no work experience. A potential employer can’t exactly call the Army or Marines or whatever branch and ask for references. It’s treated as if they didn’t exist for the years they served in terms of work experience.
There is also a stigma around being a veteran and mental health issues. The possibility of being unreliable because of the potential “emotional baggage” a veteran is carrying around. Or they’ll be triggered somehow and turn into a danger instead of an asset to a company.
I’m seeing a big shift in veteran owned companies advertising as such. Or there are companies/social media accounts specifically dedicated to helping veterans find jobs as well as bringing attention to veteran owned companies.
My personal favorite veteran owned companies are Grunt Style Clothing and Black Rifle Coffee Company. Another great company that is not veteran owned, but definitely supports veterans is Military Luggage Company. Why are veteran owned companies so important? Because they can save lives, quite honestly. So can supporting them. Not only do all three of these companies have great products (no I was not paid to say this, nor was this endorsed by them. It is simply my opinion), but they increase a veteran’s chance of being successful outside the military. Going to work and being around other veterans who understand what they’ve all seen and experienced is incredible for morale and mental health.
Strain on relationships. Veterans are deployed for long periods of time. It’s not a simple or quick trip. If a veteran is married and has kids, the spouse is basically a single parent for the duration of the deployment. The veteran is accustomed to life in the military and their spouse is accustomed to life with their veteran away. They really were living two separate lives. How do they come back together as a couple navigating life together when the veteran returns?
It takes a very strong support system to make it through these kinds of obstacles. I had two nights a few weeks ago where my husband was home with me when he should have been at work. I’ve adapted my schedule to work when he does. Nathan leaves, I turn on my computer and go to work. When he didn’t leave, I had trouble being productive. It was out of my normal, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle it. My first thought was, go away and let me work. You’re in the way.
Telling a veteran spouse this, the response was, now imagine if that oddity was constant and you had to try adjusting to that being the new normal. How would you do it? Could you handle it? I honestly thought, no. I couldn’t handle that because I have no clue how to integrate Nathan into my routine without feeling like he’s just in the way. It is so much easier just to do something myself when that is how I normally do it. Sadly, that adds to the feeling of isolation that veterans feel when coming back and trying to find their new normal.
Having many challenges to overcome. The things I’ve listed here are not the only issues that veterans face when returning home from deployment. They are simply the most common that I’ve heard or been told are the biggest obstacles.
The biggest issue is all of these things combined give a feeling of hopelessness. That the obstacles are too big to overcome. Or that the nightmares and triggers will never end. This is where the suicidal thoughts start. Because of that feeling of hopelessness.
Here are some ways to help overcome these obstacles:
As I said earlier, set a schedule for each day and develop a routine. That is such a great way to start. Continue the same sort of structure they’re accustomed to.
Go to the VA. If the one they’re going to now doesn’t meet their standards or the level of care they’re expecting isn’t happening, go to a different VA clinic. It is just like getting a diagnosis from a doctor and going to another for a second opinion. There is nothing wrong with that.
In every aspect of life there are good and bad. Doctors, mechanics, police, and on down the line. Don’t give up just because you encountered a bad one. Find a different one. One bad one doesn’t mean they are all bad. You are in control of your health care, so keep searching for the right VA clinic for you.
Talk to someone. Other veterans who share the bond of being a soldier, especially. I know a few who are more than happy to talk and lend an ear. Please email me for that information. I will gladly pass it along. But the big thing is reach out. Never stop reaching out until you find the person who will listen.
Find a hobby. I know that sounds cliche. But finding something to keep your interest is huge. One veteran suggested riding a motorcycle. Many say that is dangerous. Well, so is suicide. Let’s be honest here. Go to the gym. Sweat out some anger or depression. Our bodies and minds need to release negative energy. Even those who don’t suffer from depression need that release. It is just a way to keep ourselves healthy.
When I say find a hobby, I don’t mean that flippantly or casually. It isn’t the magical answer to ending suicidal thoughts because it isn’t that simple. These are healthy coping mechanisms that will aid in dealing with the stress and pressures that veterans face when returning from deployment.
What can civilians do to help?
Help end the stigma around suicide. I absolutely despise the term “commit suicide” because it sounds like a crime. They committed a burglary or robbery. It sounds like that to me. Suicide is not a crime. I use the term die by suicide instead.
Understand that suicide is not a choice. Our bodies are hard wired to sustain life. Hence the reason breathing is not a voluntary bodily function. We can’t just wake up one day and decide to stop breathing. It is impossible. Deciding to die by suicide is the same. We don’t just decide that, like we decide what to eat for breakfast. If our brains have gone into a dark enough place to override that, there is a problem. That should tell us how powerful the human mind really is.
Listen. When someone reaches out to you that is having a crisis like that, don’t slam the door in their face. Be a resource. At the very least, point them in the direction of a good resource. I’ll be listing some in a moment. But the important thing is taking them seriously. Let them know they matter and their issues are valid.
If you are willing to listen and help, make them feel safe. Let them know they matter and just allow them a place to talk. Make them laugh. Maybe they need a distraction. Be a friend, basically.
Suicide impacts everyone around the person who used that method to die. The person who dies leaves everyone around them with a lot of questions and guilt over it. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve asked myself if I could have done something different to save a life. If I had left my house just ten minutes earlier. Or what I would have done when I arrived and saw them with a gun in their hand.
I ask myself why. Why I didn’t do something different. What did I do to deserve the pain inflicted on me by that person’s choice. There is a lot of anger around that as well. Grief is rough to start with, but when these added issues are there, it is even worse. The worst part is there are so few people who are willing to listen without judgement.
The VA crisis line is 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Gould Soldiers Help Project (507)329-0386
Eagle’s Healing Nest (320) 351-6200
Live To Tell Foundation (954) 445-1590
Operation Engage America (515) 984-0661
I also know several veterans who are more than willing to talk. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to get you in touch with them.
Special thanks to Bobby Irish and Sheri Johnson for the information, feedback, and help in writing this post. I could not have written it without either of you. I feel honored you shared your stories with me in the hopes of helping others.