Note: The heartbreaking truth is that I can’t save you. And you cannot save your brother or sister. We can speak up; we can walk with the voiceless. We can have the courage to be real, be seen, and be heard. We can hear others without judgment. We can get help and trained professionals can change the situation. We are not alone.
After countless hours of freezing rain, bitter cold, and the cut of the ruck on my shoulders it finally happened: I let go of my illusions that the situation would ever improve.
I embraced my indoctrination as an Airborne Ranger and entered into a brotherhood of shared sacrifice and violence on the fringe of American society. Many years later I peered at the formation of young Ranger hopefuls in the same field, under the same vicious sting of a Cole Range winter, and smiled as the herd thinned itself naturally. “See the woodline? Touch it!”
We talk of Brotherhood all the time. Brotherhood is belonging. Brotherhood is family. Brotherhood is anytime, anywhere. So what can we learn when one of our family, one of our brothers takes his own life?
Surely, we must take stock and learn something. We talk about the depth of our bond forged of long nights and moments best forgotten, but are we hiding a shallow truth in plain sight from one another? Are we really being honest with each other? Are we truly sharing how we feel inside?
Sometimes I think not.
What are we so afraid of?
I think shame is what we are all hiding in plain sight. Shame that we are not good enough, strong enough, “Ranger” enough. Shame to admit that we are not “ok.” That we are struggling with emotions that won’t stop swelling inside us and shame from our inability to silence our thoughts from the still of our comfortable homes (though we were capable of quelling them during the battle overseas).
We were taught to silence our emotions in order to execute in combat and to operate in a zero-defect environment. We were taught to be indomitable, bulletproof, invincible: invulnerable. And here today, with all that training and experience, it’s just not working anymore. Today we have become unable to silence the storms inside, unable to stop the memories and we are ashamed of our inability to “suck it up and drive on.”
I know the struggle well, our indoctrination was precise and the approach was intentional.
As a former RIP Instructor (Ranger Indoctrination Program, now known as the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program/ RASP) and Pre-Ranger Instructor, my role was specific and our approach was exact: create killers. Un-feeling, un-yielding destroyers capable of operating and leading under the most intensely emotional and physical stress imaginable.
The physical part was easy. The emotional and mental parts, that was the trick. The culmination of our approach was numbness or compartmentalization: indifference.
Indifference was achieved when no matter how bad, no matter how much it hurt (how terrified or miserable) you executed with exact aggression on target. Precise violence of action.
Indifference was critical to your ability to perform on target. To be physically, emotionally, and mentally willing to enter a building and clear a room knowing full well that on the other side awaits an enemy ready to kill you is not normal. Face this fact right now. To combat the terror of a life of stepping into the breach, you have been conditioned to ignore your emotions. Taught to excuse the fear, the pit in your stomach, taught to harness the adrenaline coursing through your veins and focus all your being into acts of unprecedented and calculated violence.
Here’s what we didn’t teach you: how to stop being indifferent. How to feel again.
How after embracing a culture of violence, there is on the other side a lifetime of peace, should you choose to accept it. A life of home. I fear this is killing us. Literally. Killing our families, our friendships, our coveted brotherhood, and our communities as we kill ourselves. We bought into a necessary reality for the days when we stood in the breach, but today at home in America, we hang on to a lie: you must be indomitable, still.
Vulnerability is not weakness. While antithetical to your training as a warfighter, in life, vulnerability equates to strength.
Anger, fear, shame, uncertainty, pride, regret, joy, and sadness. These are emotions. You are feeling again. This is normal. Welcome home. Now let’s get to work.
Let’s cut the crap. Start being honest with ourselves and with each other. Call that buddy of yours, but do it with a spirit of vulnerability. Author Brene Brown talks a great deal about vulnerability, citing shame as the major barrier for living “wholeheartedly,” or with a spirit of vulnerability and openness.
I think we may be ashamed of our humanity and the emotions we wrestle with today: days, months, and years after living a life of abandon. We stay in our “box” after service; wear our unit swag, grow our beards long, tattoo our units on our bodies (I certainly did), and generally live with an attitude appropriate to when our job required us to be strong in austere environments on the periphery of society.
Why do we still do this after serving? Because we don’t know how to come home.
“We all pay for it. At some point, we will all pay the price.” I shared these words with my squad at “pool PT” (breakfast at Hawks Prairie restaurant) after we returned from Afghanistan our second time in 2003. Many of us were feeling uneasy around our community, out of place. Different.
Emotion is a human function. You can learn how to compartmentalize it, to ignore it, but it will not go away. From the most senior men in the formation to the lowest private, we are all people. All of us wrestle with emotions thought to be long forgotten. We have an insidious lie tearing into the fabric of our community. The façade, the lie, is that you have to be a stone-hard, emotionless killer to be “in.” I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted with it. If buying this lie every day is required to be “in,” then I’m out.
I think we hold onto “Ranger” more than we hold on to “brother” and I believe we are lying to ourselves if we think we aren’t afraid to be real and start talking about what’s really going on. I think we are scared to admit that we are hurting, that we don’t know how to fight what’s going on inside our hearts and our heads.
That we can’t figure out how to engage with our loved ones, that we can’t say “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know.” That if we admit it, we are weak and worthless. No longer worthy of our place within this brotherhood. I think we’ve become afraid to say, “help, please.”
“I don’t need help. I’m fine. Everyone else is wrong, nobody gets me and I will figure it out myself.” These and other lies we tell ourselves are the ones that are killing us.
Tell the truth, brothers.
I am angry much of the time. I burn my kids to the ground with my words. I hold myself and others to unattainable standards. I bury myself in work because I can control it. I avoid my life because it’s unpredictable, messy. I can’t recall the last night I slept through, the last day I didn’t feel the world on my chest or the pain from all the people I’ve hurt and how much I enjoyed it. I hate that I miss the rush.
I miss feeling the flow of being on the OBJ. I miss the unspoken link with the men to my left and right on target. I miss the power to end another’s life.
I am terrified that I will lose my wife and my children because I can’t get my act together and I have contemplated suicide when I have fallen into the darkness of a life owning the night.
There are good days and bad days, that’s life. But I have experienced many more good than bad since I walked into the V.A. and spoke those words of truth for the first time out loud.
You are not alone.
Suffering and suicide are not uniquely veteran phenomena, much like compartmentalization and conditioning are not uniquely “Ranger.” Mental health and suicide is a wholly human epidemic in America today (rising 35% from 2000 to 2020).
I write this message with a spirit of hope. If one sentence resonates with you, I hope you take action. Have a real conversation today, be honest and be prepared to be “seen”. Also, know the five signs of someone in emotional pain, seek out and attend a safeTALK training in your area to learn how to be more suicide alert and how to take action. Get out of your house and engage with your brothers, with others in your community. If needed, here are a list of resources that can help:
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 18, 2019, and has been updated.
Brandon Young is an eleven-year Army veteran and the Director of Development for Team Red, White, and Blue (Team RWB). Learn more at www.teamrwb.org