Each time I hear of another military suicide, perhaps a young soldier just back from a deployment or an older veteran of Vietnam, my mind takes me back to a November day in 1955. I remember coming down to the living room and seeing my brother (who should have been in school that day), my mother and grandmother and two uniformed Air Force officers. One of them I recognized as the commander of McChord Air Force Base and the other, it turned out, was the Protestant chaplain for the base. My mother was in tears, sobbing and unable to control herself, running around the room. They told me that my father had died overseas at Yokota Air Base, just outside of Tokyo.
I didn’t find out the reason for many years. Being only three years old, I understood that being dead meant that he would never be coming home again. Never. My mom felt that I was too young to attend the funeral (I later figured out that it was just too difficult for her to cope with a toddler that day). We did not speak much of my father after that, and I knew it was a topic that would generate much emotion and anger, and so I learned not to bring it up. Years later, I found a copy of the Air Force Casualty Report that said, “Gunshot wound: self-inflicted.” I was shocked and asked my mother about this, and she told me a story that had been concocted by her to try and quiet my curiosity.
As I got older, my mother sank into a deeper depression and isolated herself from her friends. She quit work at the age of 43 because she could not handle the “stress” of working, and she began to drink more and more frequently. My brother, older than me by four years, began to sneak out of the house at night and also get involved with alcohol and drugs. She did not know how to set boundaries and limits for herself, let alone a tall, athletic adolescent, and he also ended up with a drinking and drug problem, which probably was a factor in developing schizophrenia.
As I hear the stories of other military suicides, I recognize what may happen to these families who are left behind. The repercussions of suicide are like a forest, where there is no straight path through it. Left unchecked by counseling and other therapies, the constant questioning of “Why?” and “Why my father or husband?” never gets answered. In the 1950s, when my dad died, it was shameful to have a suicide in the family, to not have a “man about the house” to protect the family and provide for food and clothing. There were never any movies or television shows about single moms who had lost their husbands, and were trying to raise children on their own.
The guilt and blame comes from so many areas: “Why didn’t I see it coming?”, “What if I had done something differently?” Was it PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)? That can’t explain all of the deaths. Many among those who commit suicide are men who were not directly in combat. And if PTSD was a contributing factor, why is it more common now than after WWII or Korea? Some researchers suggest that WWII vets came of age during the Great Depression and were better equipped to handle adversity. Can we blame the victim of the suicide? That would do little to really understand their reasoning and actions.
My brother committed suicide in 2009, and I was called down to Tacoma to take care of the arrangements and settle his affairs. Because of his schizophrenia, he never had a career and could not hold a job. A few months before he died, he told me that my mother had attempted suicide twice. That means that out of a family of four, I am the only person in my immediate family who has never attempted suicide.
What can be done for the men and women who have served us so faithfully? And what can be done for their families? There has always been a stigma surrounding suicide. Three physicians, as reported in the Huffington Post, set out to find kinds of reactions families encountered. Almost 80 percent responded to the questionnaires and the researchers categorized the responses.
Avoidance: “People avoided me,” “friends and family didn’t call us afterwards.”
Unhelpful advice: “It’s time to move on,” and “Haven’t you grieved enough already?”
Absence of a caring interest: “If I talked about my lost spouse, they quickly changed the subject.”
Spiritual: “God called him” or “He’s in a better place now” and “It was meant to be.”
Blaming the victim: “That was a cowardly thing that he did.” “He was selfish.”
There are organizations that can help: One is called T.A.P.S., which stands for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It is for the families of those who died on active duty, and can be found on Facebook.
Perhaps we will never know all the reasons for the increase in suicides. Why did men who fought bloody battles in Korea, the Pacific Islands and Europe not have this epidemic? One thing is certain, and that is that we owe it to our vets and active duty soldiers and sailors to find out these answers.
John Anderson is the son of Air Force Major Heber G. Anderson and grew up in Tacoma, Washington. He attended the Charles Wright Academy and graduated from Stadium High School in 1970. He is a graduate of Seattle University and was awarded a Fellowship to Princeton University. He works as a teacher in Mukilteo.