Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression, with the number of those diagnosed increasing 20% per year. Why?
I’ve personally felt depression’s cold, numbing touch. I've stood at too many funerals resulting from dear friends' suicide. I've seen heroic men win the war abroad but lose the battle at home. Men who were seemingly invincible, who exuded happiness during the absolute chaos of combat, yet felt they could no longer continue once back in the safety of the country they swore to protect. Why?
In the summer of 2004, I graduated from the United States Naval Academy and shortly thereafter, I became part of a group of Marines and future Navy SEALs assigned to a month long mountaineering expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Alaska. NOLS was a proof of concept for Navy; a test to determine if experiential education in extreme conditions was a worthwhile endeavor to help develop the character of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy.
Upon arrival in Anchorage, I deplaned and headed toward the rally point to meet my team. Walking through the terminal, I passed a newsstand full of tabloids and stopped. There was a story on the front page about Britney Spears (I fail to remember what it was about now, but at the time, it had my full attention). I paused and stood motionless for several minutes taking in all of the headlines. Once satisfied, I moved on.
Our expedition took us to Alaska's harshest terrain. Most of our days were spent tied to a rope, ice axes in hand, traversing glaciers, dodging avalanches, with nothing more than each other to rely on as we made multiple summit attempts on the highest mountains in the area. At night the team would set up camp and discuss the adventures of the day or share what we learned.
During that time, one book became quite popular within the group, "Wild At Heart" by John Eldredge. The message of the book resonated with us all; men are born wild at heart. Eldridge summed up man's basic needs with the idea that to be happy all men need:
With my expedition complete, I walked back through the airport and past the same newsstand. It was restocked with fresh headlines. I paused, looked, and felt disgusted. I was disgusted that these meaningless headlines once captured my attention, disgusted that I actually used to think they mattered.
In austere environments your priorities realign. You begin to realize what really matters in your life. As things simplify, we become happier.
Returning home, I fell back into my routine. Gone was my daily fight for survival. Gone was the sense of purpose knowing my brothers’ lives depended on me. Gone was the excitement of not knowing what adrenalin-spiking event would happen that day. As time went on, my disgust for the newsstand waned. Growing comfortable, the tabloids slowly sucked me back in.
While in the military, most truly believe their lives have purpose. Defend the Constitution, keep our homeland safe, protect their brothers-in-arms--there is no question as to what must be done. We are there for a reason, and we proudly work towards that purpose.
Going to war was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And I’m not talking of simply deploying to a war zone; I’m talking about the real, ugly face of war. Engaging the enemy directly. He is trying to kill you, and you are trying to kill him. The minute that first bullet cracked over my head and that rocket exploded, things became very simple: protect my brothers and accomplish our mission- nothing else matters. Your purpose is clear.
When I decided it was time to resign my commission and leave the Marine Corps, I was excited. Being a former SOF guy who dreaded shaving every day and hated close haircuts almost as much as I hated the Taliban, I thought the transition into civilian life would be a breeze but I quickly found that it wasn’t. When you leave the military your purpose is not as clear as it once was.
Military or civilian, this is where we start to lose our happiness and slide into depression; we need a purpose. A battle to fight, a beauty to rescue, an adventure to live, all of those activities convey a purpose to fulfill a passion-driven life.
I did not realize that fact until I deployed with Team Rubicon (TR) to Moore, OK to assist with tornado relief operations. TR “unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.” The vast majority of members on my deployment were combat veterans. We had all seen the very worst that humanity has to offer while simultaneously been saved by some of humanity's best. We had all lost close friends to suicide, and knew countless others suffering quietly on the inside.
One night after a long day of clearing debris, a small group of us began talking about our military experience, and the staggering veteran suicide rate. We debated what possibly lead to depression and potential solutions. We shared how volunteering with TR was actually quite therapeutic, and how some of us even felt guilty…that perhaps we gained more from the experience than those we came to help. Then, one man said a few words I will never forget:
Years of training, suffering, love, loss, and war helped me realize the gravity of that simple sentence. Everything boils down to finding your true purpose. Without purpose in your life, you will be adrift. Once you realize your purpose, things begin to change. It's no longer difficult to get off the couch, or to crawl out of bed. Things become easier. Things become clearer.
It's important to note that your purpose can, and most likely will, change. When it does adjust your life accordingly. We get comfortable with what we know and it's normal to fear change. However, that fear of change is what keeps most people from taking the steps they need to take to find their purpose.
Many people ask me why I choose to leave the Marine Corps. After all, they all knew I loved being in the special operations community. My standard response is that officers can only spend 4-5 years within the Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) before being required to return to the “big” Marine Corps. I tell people I didn’t want to do that, so I left to start a business. While that is all true, the real driver for my departure was simply that I lost a bit of the passion I once had. Knowing I was going to be spending more time behind a desk and not on the field of battle did not sit well with me. My heart will always belong to MARSOC and the Marine Corps, but I knew I couldn't dedicate 100% of it to PowerPoint and white papers. Instead I found a new purpose, a new driving force.
We must never stop fighting the battle to live a purpose-filled life. And who knows, along the way you may just find a beauty to rescue, and your next adventure to live. Fight on brothers, and remember we are all fighting battles, and you never have to fight alone.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental wounds of war, do not suffer in silence. Speak up, we want to listen:
stubble & 'stache was founded by a former Marine Corps Special Operations Combat Veteran in memory of his fallen comrade. We donate a percentage of profits to organizations supporting those men and women suffering from the mental wounds sustained in combat.
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