JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas —
Many have heard of the ancestry and DNA service, 23 and Me. This organization takes your DNA sample and it breaks down the 23 chromosomes that make up who you are. It then provides your family history and identifies threats to your health as displayed in your genetic makeup.
In the military and veteran community, we have a similar DNA sequence available for us to evaluate when it comes to the issue of suicide in our military family.
In our family, there are 22 veterans who commit suicide every day. The case studies of these 22 are the very DNA of this suicide epidemic.
The revelation of our suicide DNA came to us in 2012 through a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs and since that time very little has changed in this statistic. Why is that? The answer is us.
We have created awareness programs, annual training, posters, websites and more. We have experts come and brief us on the medical and psychological causes, and still the statistic stays solid.
What we have not done is broken down the DNA itself, on the ground floor. We offer a cookie-cutter approach to a personal issue without looking at the very DNA- the people themselves.
There is a difference between suicides driven by internal, as opposed to external forces. For many people, the negative effects caused by events that happen to them become altogether overwhelming. They cause them to focus more and more on the depression related to the question “Why me?”
Their inability, in that time of depression, to find solutions to their problems, or envision a day when those problems are in the past, leads them to consider an ultimate and final solution that will end their pain.
For others in our warfighter community it is the external, rather than the internal, that leads our brothers and sisters to seek this permeant solution. The question that is most often asked here is not “Why me?” but “Why was it them and not me?”
As members of the military profession of arms, we are taught from the earliest days of basic training to never leave an Airman behind. We are taught never to falter or fail. We are rewired from the individuals we were on the outside, to becoming a singular family on the inside.
These concepts are drilled into us at our military birth and reinforced every day as we work our shifts and train as one.
Added to that, we are as sheepdogs who are guardians by nature. We know that the sheep we protect, at home and abroad, are helpless without us, to the wolves that seek their flesh.
Although we sacrifice all we are, that they might be safe and free, the sheep may not always appreciate our service. Worse yet is when the sheepdog loses one of their sheep.
This all can lead to a great depression in the heart and mind of the warrior when one for whom they feel personally responsible falls. The impact of this tragedy is compounded if the one who falls is a brother or sister, or if the burden of their injuries is so much that they end their own life.
To address this issue, the military mandates annual training. The problem with the effectiveness of this is that we do not take advantage of the opportunity, solely because we are mandated to do it.
We look at suicide awareness as a class instead of a way of life and something we should want to do, not just be told to do. The fact is that we are the focus of this training, not because we could commit suicide ourselves, but because someone close to us might.
We often complain that the training is ineffective, but do nothing to make it effective. We complain that they are preaching to us, but we do not communicate with each other. We say that we do not need this training, but fail to realize that the training is not for us alone.
Finally, we have a mentality of not wanting to pry into the lives of others. But, if we are family, should we not care enough and be courageous enough to pry? Should the one who is the focus of our attention not appreciate the fact that we are willing to be so bold as to pry on their behalf because we care about them enough to?
We may never eliminate suicide altogether however, that is not an excuse for us not to work toward that goal. The key to addressing and reducing this cancer that has infected our family is to educate ourselves honestly, care purposefully and communicate effectively.
We need to be involved and we need to be situationally aware. I know that much of the training that has been created by the Air Force can look and sound corny. It is often the fodder of jokes whose laughter fades in the reality of suicide.
The scenarios depicted are acted out by Airmen employed to create the latest computer based training. They may not be Academy Award-winning actors, playing out a script written by Steven Spielberg however, life is not a Hollywood movie.
The difference is in the details, and those details are often subtle.
There is no checklist for suicide. Some people display a list of signs, while others may only display one or two signs, or very little, if anything at all.
However, much like a crime scene, if you are willing to open your eyes, your mind, and even your heart to see what is before you, you can be that single detail that makes the difference.
You can be that 23rd chromosome that makes the incompleteness of the 22 a healthy 23.