August 20, 2022

The Faces of the Post-War Fallen

I have a confession. I find myself haunted by the faces of the fallen. But not those who have been killed action in our nation’s wars, but those who have been killed after returning from war - killed by their own hand.

The thought of war haunts us all,  but we expect and anticipate a certain amount of death and injury to come as a result of war. While we may have been ill prepared for many aspects of the wars we elected to wage over the past decade, we certainly knew that casualties would be a predictable result of those conflicts.

However, we as a nation were not prepared for the epidemic of casualties among those who returned safe and alive from the foreign war zones. Almost every hour, a veteran or service member takes his or her own life. On the active duty and reserve side alone, while war continues to rage abroad, more troops are being lost to suicide at home than to combat abroad.

We think our troops are safe when they make it back home from war alive. We think they have made it back unscathed if they return and appear to be in one piece. But what we cannot see often is that behind the facade of one whole body is a mind and psyche shattered into a thousand pieces.

American service men and women are tough, and they are trained to pull it together and put other things first before their own well being - country, duty, family. But what we may not realize is that the war they fought may be continuing to rage on in their minds and in their post-war lives just out of the view of outside observers, and sometimes even outside of the view of those who know these vets best or are trained to recognize and treat mental trauma.

The post-war, self-imposed demise of those who appear normal and live and operate among us haunts me most because what it really means is potentially that none of them is safe even after returning home physically intact. While they may be safe from the external threats of enemies and IEDs and sniper fire and rocket attacks, they may still not be safe from the internal demons and enemies that infect and besiege the many who have been hit by mental trauma-inducing experiences.

The suicide of Iraq War veteran Clay Hunt shook the foundation of the veterans advocacy community because Clay had been a part of that community for so long. He was an active member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a participant with Team Rubicon. He had access to the knowledge and resources that are supposed to serve as buffers against the demons and internal enemies, yet he succumbed to them anyway. The harrowing thought that reverberated through the veterans community in the wake of Clay’s death was that if it could happen to Clay, it could literally happen to anyone.

The things we cannot see often worry us least, but impact us most. Even the most educated and sympathetic among us too often dismiss or diminish possible “invisible” pathologies because it is still so easy to do. But think of how many countless men, women, and children died from infection and disease until the medical community embraced the possibility of minute invisible killers, and antibiotics and sterilization procedures became commonplace.

When the war in Afghanistan finally ends and the last American service member returns home, the trauma of that war will rage on. Who it will take out and when, it is hard to predict. Years later, those who served will still be in harm’s way back home, and the duty will fall upon the public to help watch their backs.

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