In the past year and a half, two dozen veterans have died by suicide on the premises of a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility — three within one five-day period last month — causing the veteran suicide epidemic to once again garner national attention.
As a veteran who has lost 14 friends to suicide and as someone who sat at the kitchen table with a glock in my mouth trying to end my own life, I know first-hand why addressing this issue is so important. We all need to remember one thing: This is about a choice to get on dying or get on living, and our job is to convince these veterans that living is the best choice.
We do that through inspiring veterans with facts and stories, and by helping them see that it is possible to lead a purpose-driven sustainable life even with all the challenges that war has brought them.
I spent almost seven years on the sidelines of life. I had been diagnosed with PTSD and medically retired from the Army. I began believing the stereotypes that come with the diagnosis. I believed that I was broken. Year after year, that negative perception of myself wore me down until I hit rock bottom and attempted to end my life.
It was the combination of my first platoon sergeant’s suicide, which I learned about a few days after my own attempt, and watching “Rocky VI” that same night that caused me to have an epiphany. Rocky said, “…it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Life had knocked me down so many times that I had just stopped getting back up.
With my eyes open and a determination to change my life, I realized that in order for me to overcome the stigmas that held me back, I would need to educate myself about PTSD. I previously believed that I was somehow weaker than my friends, which in reality was not the case. I had also not taken my mild traumatic brain injury seriously, not realizing the role it played in my development of PTSD. Learning these things empowered me to start making the tough behavioral changes associated with confronting PTSD.
For five months I noticed positive progress, but I still found it difficult to trust and let go of control. I was stalling in my recovery. During a conversation with a friend, he said: “You just have to have faith in humanity. Faith in the goodness of the human spirit.” That moment I realized my faith in humanity had become a casualty of war.
Shortly after, I learned the term “moral injury.” Moral injury is the damage to one’s conscience when that person perpetrates, witnesses or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values or ethical code of conduct. My trust and control issues were deeply rooted in my own moral injury, but armed with information, I felt empowered once again to keep moving forward.
Over three years later, I have climbed out of a massive hole and rejoined society, leading a purpose-driven, sustainable life. I created a business and have found a calling in public speaking. I advocate for veterans issues on Capitol Hill as a member of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), while also helping develop a new and innovative program for veterans struggling to find their path, called ROC Warriors. Not every day is perfect, and there are always the bad ones. While I can’t change the past, I have changed how I react to it.
Over the coming weeks Congress will hold more hearings to gather more evidence on what we should be doing as a country to overcome this crisis, but hearings are not action and we need urgent action. One thing the VA and Congress could do immediately is to use the $4.7 million that went unused in last year’s VA Suicide Awareness program to develop a campaign highlighting the stories of veterans who have found redemption.
It is more important than ever to highlight veterans’ stories who have found their way from the darkness, helping educate everyone about the realities of PTSD and giving veterans hope and a path forward. Eventually, enough light will surround this issue that veterans will feel just as proud of overcoming this battle as they were of the ones they fought and won while at war.
Eric Donoho (Twitter: @ericbdonoho) is a freelance photographer, public speaker, and advocate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.