by Shiloh Kinney (@operationstrongdad on Instagram)
In my own words, I am just a mechanic. I am an only child who grew up in San Diego to a single mother. I spent a lot of time with bikers. Mom worked quite a bit, so I spent quite a few weekends with other family members. I call it shared custody for single parents. It felt like at the time I was pawned off on any aunt, uncle, or grandparent that would have me.
I joined the Navy after dropping out of high school and served for 11 years. I served in a security role as a master-at-arms as well as in a communication role as a radioman on submarines. At best, I was mediocre I never quite fit the mold. I developed an eating disorder as well as several other mental health issues that I somewhat managed well.
If I only accomplish one thing, I want people to know life will suck sometimes. It is supposed to. It is how we learn and grow stronger. On your worst day, find one reason to keep filling your lungs with breath. If you find one reason to wake up in the morning and do that every single day, shit gets hard, but you will make it. The people who push through that kind of pain are built to help others.
Stop looking for joy, happiness, and relief. Find your purpose!
I call myself a mental health advocate, but what does that even mean?
I’m unsure I have an apparent reason for doing what I do. I served in the Navy for 11 years, and more often than not, I was on the verge of being separated for being out of height and weight standards. I developed an eating disorder. It always seemed to be a dark cloud looming over my head about the certainty of my future and my family’s financial well-being. That isn’t the driving force behind my mental health advocacy goals.
In 2008 only my second year in the Navy, and my first full year of active duty, I had a friend shot in the face by another friend at work. A Marine also took his life with his rifle under the pull-up bars outside their makeshift barracks inside “the wire.” I’m sure the first thing you are interested in knowing is how my friend shot another friend in the face. It’s important to note that the Marines at my command were infantry marines. They were proud to let anyone who asked know they were on a special detail assigned by the sitting POTUS. In reality, they were grunts sent to security duty before they got boots on the ground overseas somewhere.
One night, while making rounds after midnight, I was in the SRT [Special Reaction Team] vehicle with a friend. It was usually boring and repetitive. From time to time, we traded who stayed up while the other slept. Well, on this night, we hear shots fired in ____. That was the first radio call that rang out, and we had to keep the lines clear for future transmissions. The next announced shots fired with Petty Officer ____ down and EMS en route.
We thought we were under attack. We couldn’t fathom that it was a simple mistake on watch with a duty pistol during a “Do you trust me?” game. The follow-on investigation tore our command apart. It pitted friends against one another; the group of “snitches” that told the inspector general how poorly we respected the weapons safety rules were shunned immediately. We went into a watch rotation in the coming months that no one had ever seen before, and quickly, the people remaining at work who hadn’t snitched carried the bulk of the weight that came from the negligent discharge when a good friend was shot point blank in the face. The bullet was lodged in the roof of his mouth, and he died several times officially, but I’m happy to say he is still alive today.
That same year, we had a Marine take his life under the pull-up bars outside the WSF (Waterfront Security Forces) barracks. For marines on their watch rotation, they did almost everything with their weapon, especially if they were part of the quick reaction force (QRF). On this night, this Marine had a disagreement with his girlfriend on the phone. He calmly slung in his rifle and did a couple of laps around the WSF, followed by a couple of sets of pull-ups, then finished with a three-round burst point blank to his head.
Within a few days, I remember his team driving through the ECP (Entry Control Point) I was working at that day. I told them I was sorry for their loss. The response I got made me furious, and it still bothers me today. They said, “Don’t apologize for him,”… “He’s a coward; he took the easy way out,” then called him a bitch and other names.
I wasn’t offended by the language they used; I was angry because I knew this team and these men. Had this young Marine gone to them and said, “Hey guys, my girlfriend and I had this fight, and I’m thinking I don’t want to be here,” that would not have ended well. I know from experience with other friends and other coworkers that they more than likely would have called him a bitch, or a pussy, or simply told him to suck it up. So, since he made a choice they didn’t like instead, he was a coward and a quitter.
Sometime later, I cross-rated to submarines and became an ETR (Electronics Technician Radioman), aka submarine communications. Subschool was great; I had never experienced the Northeast and enjoyed the guys in my class. It also happens to be where my daughter was born; there are some good memories in Rotten Groton, CT, for me.
Shortly after reporting to our boats, I received message traffic that a Radioman on watch had taken his life while roving on the peer where his boat was in dry dock. Somehow I found out this person wasn’t qualified in submarines yet. After a few hours, I found out it was Carlos. Carlos took his life with a rifle to the face at work in uniform. It’s funny how the military teaches us to cope with loss and mental health issues.
We are all inadvertently taught how to mainline dark humor to get through difficult times. To this day, when I remember Carlos, I remember a question he asked one day on break in class. He had a huge smile, looked at me, and said, “Hey, MA2, don’t you hate it when you sit down to take a shit, and your dick hits the water?”
I remember smiling and replying, “Nope, must be nice”. I wish I could say this was the last person I knew who left this world in such a violent, abrupt way, but it is not. There was the master-at-arms who checked out the boat from harbor security in San Diego. He went out on the water and took his life in uniform with his duty weapon.
I was Submarine disqualified, which led me back to my old rate of master-at-arms, better known as Navy security guards. That brought me to Bahrain in 2017 when, a few months after arriving, I lost another friend, another Carlos, at work on watch with his duty weapon. This Carlos was young and had been in the Navy less than a year, while I had been in for more than ten years at that point.
The news hit me differently. It wasn’t something I could shrug off and push through at work. So when our Chief came in and asked who needed to be downloaded to go talk to someone about what had happened, I raised my hand with tears streaming down my cheeks. Everyone in the room looked at the FTO (Field Training Officer), both confused and concerned. When Chief offered this to the entire section, I realized it was only for some. He pulled me aside and said, “MA2, I can see that you’re struggling, but I need you here today. Take a walk and clear your head, then come back and let’s get back to work”.
I’m not angry with the choice Chief made; it just took me a while to figure out. Some people suffer ultimately, heal silently, and have a resolve based on faith or character that cannot be broken. Others need to be held or reassured. Then, some are willing to heal publicly, not out to seek attention but as an example that complex things can and will be overcome.
There were close to a dozen suicides from people I had worked with or been stationed with throughout my 11 years. This one was entirely different. This time, I had a 3-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. This time, I was old enough that I didn’t think of this as a coworker or a veteran losing a buddy. I couldn’t stop thinking about his parents. He joined the Navy to see the world and get college paid for. Less than a year in, he took his life and felt more alone and more pain than anyone should ever have to. That, combined with lifting his casket into the back of the bread truck to take his body to the airport and fly it home, became a defining moment.
My military experiences, as well as my experience growing up in some “interesting” home settings, shaped my perspective. That perspective is that no one is immune to sadness, and no one is immune to anxiety. Some people experience this situationally, which adds to their quality of life. For instance, a little bit of productive anxiety will help you get ready for a presentation, and sadness lets you know it’s time to grieve and then move on. Some of us don’t have those short-lived experiences with anxiety and depression. Some of us are overcome and often run by those emotions, robbed of our present by worrying about what has been or what will be.
So, what is my place in a world full of people scrambling for attention? It’s sitting in my car on my lunch break, talking about hardships and overcoming them so that a single mother could help connect better with her son. So that my new friend can text me around the holidays because over the last few years, between October and January. He lost his mother, then his father, and because he couldn’t heal in the way he was expected to, he eventually lost his wife and kids as well.
I do this so that young men with eating disorders can know it doesn’t have to ruin their lives. You’re not alone, and it’s okay. I do this so that, hopefully, men will realize there is so much more strength in vulnerability than weakness.
Is there a time and a place to spill your guts? Sure, but I’d much rather have all of my friends still here than have them concerned about who to talk to, when to talk to them, and how to talk to them.
Shiloh describes himself as “just a mechanic.” He is growing as a mental health advocate on social media while avoiding the traditional repetitive content many similar creators find themselves. He is a father of two, an 11-year Navy veteran as well as recent Apprentice/Journeyman graduate. His goal is to open a nonprofit community center for veterans, first responders, and troubled youth with the goal of creating community through shared hardship and common interest.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.