This is the second in a three part series on Memorial Day. You can find part one here.
Every year I share a list of my Memorial Day rules. This list helps everyone - especially those who have never served - better understand Memorial Day, what it means and, most importantly, why it can be an especially hard day for those of is who served.
The list, however, needs greater context. Fewer and fewer Americans have served in the military, and currently fewer than 1% of citizens are in the military. In a group of 20 random people (at least when groups of 20 random people were a thing), statistically only one or maybe two would have served in the military. It is simply a distant experience for most Americans.
At the same time, the country has been at war for 20 years. We have people in harm's way right now - today - as you read this. War affects its participants in unimaginable ways. And we all lose something... friends, health, relationships. And some pay the ultimate price. That's what Memorial Day is about, and I hope to capture a small part of that with this series.
I do not share this as some kind of tragedy porn. Nothing is one thing. My military experience and the people I connected with during that 12 years is as much a part of who I am as my charming personality and winning smile. I am not sharing this to add to the sorrow in the world. God knows there's plenty.
I share this week’s story - about my friend Kevin - because I think that it is important to remember that not all casualties happen on the battlefield. We lose an average of 20 veterans a day to suicide, a horrific number that just doesn’t seem to get better. It is important to see these veterans, and hear their stories. We collectively sent these people to war.
They are our collective responsibility.
I first met Kevin at Fort Hood. It was my first duty station, and he was my first platoon leader. Because I had enlisted after college, he and I were about the same age.
Kevin had been an enlisted soldier for a couple of years and then gone to Texas Tech on an ROTC scholarship. While there, he was a walk on for the Red Raider football team.
Kevin was funny, caring and whip smart. Everyone said that if he decided to make the military his career, he would be a general one day. He was a natural leader.
I moved on in my career and came to Fort Bragg, where I would spend most of my 12 year career. Kevin and I kept up with one another for a while, but deployments and distance made our friendship fade.
I saw him again in 2010. At the substance abuse clinic of the Durham VA. We were both patients, struggling with self-medicating as a way to deal with combat trauma. We talked in a waiting room and caught up. Talked about old times. Made plans to get together.
I don’t think either of us were in a place to do that. And we never got together. That was the last time I saw him.
A few years later, I got a message from another old friend at Fort Hood. It was about Kevin. Despite his best efforts, Kevin had lost his battle with PTSD. He committed suicide, becoming one of the 20 veterans a day that take their own life.
What makes Kevin’s story truly tragic is how commonplace it is. In 2016, I nearly lost my battle with PTSD. I woke up in the ICU after a suicide attempt and would spend time in the inpatient psychiatric facility at the Durham VA.
I am lucky to be supported by an amazing family and caring friends. I have health care. I have the time and space to get healthy. I have every advantage and it gives me a fighting chance to survive.
With the help of a transformative combat recovery program called Save A Warrior, I was able to learn skills and perspective that help jumpstart my journey to health. I am grateful for that.
I am saddened because I know that most veterans don’t get the same chance.
As Memorial Day approaches, we should remember the brave men and women who have given the last full measure of devotion to this country on the field of battle. They deserve our respect and honor.
I also want us to remember that not every casualty of war occurs on the battlefield. Some pay the ultimate price years later, in quiet places where they feel alone and hopeless.
I want us to remember Kevin.
And I want us to remember all the vets like him, and know that supporting vets is about more than parades and flags and speeches. It is about making sure all veterans have the care they need. The care their service has earned.