It’s been over a year now since I wrote the first draft of this article. Reading over it is pretty excruciating, it reads like a poor attempt at controlling an angry rant. Probably because that’s what it was. The initial article was written shortly after a good friend of mine, Keith, committed suicide on Veterans Day last year. I know the mantra. You can’t blame yourself, you can’t blame other people. Ultimately, if a person is going to take his or her own life it’s going to be their choice. But fuck that. You may not be able to change the final outcome, but at least you can try. It’s obviously not that the veteran community isn’t trying. We all know we are. My issue is who we consider to be part of the veteran community.
Keith’s story isn’t that unique. He spent years serving his country, deployed more times than I kept track of (six since we met), and ultimately came home to a world that had moved on without him full of people who didn’t understand him. That’s something that most, if not all, of us can relate to. What set Keith apart is that he had never been in the military. I never did quite understand how he ended up where he did (a long running joke between us, but completely true). He was employed by a defense contractor shortly after 9/11 and by the time I met him, sometime in ‘06 or ‘07, he had served multiple tours in combat zones and racked up an impressive history. Still, he wasn’t technically a vet.
All of this meant that the resources that are made available to vets weren’t available to Keith. I’m not talking about the VA or crisis hotlines, but the actual people who had gone through similar experiences. When it seems like the world has gone to shit, and you don’t want to try to spell out what’s going on in your head to some well-meaning but clueless friend or shrink, the people you turn to are the guys who have been there and get it. Your fellow vets. But as a contractor you’re not one of them, and no one wants to be the outsider asking to be let in.
Keith and I had a lot of conversations over the years about the loneliness and isolation of not fitting in to the veteran or civilian communities. When you’re a vet you get the benefit of being able to claim that title in an attempt to surround yourself with like-minded people. To some extent, more support is available to the guy who spent 4 years as a cook in the army than to a guy who spent 10 years risking his life for his country but never took the same oath. There is a lot to be said on the difference between having gone through the process involved in joining, training for, and being active in the military versus those who have not; but, for the sake of the point here perhaps we can avoid the inevitable debates on that topic for the time being. Personally, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that support is available to me because a few times a year I ran around in a uniform and not because of the far more active (and more risky) duties I performed in a civilian role in service of the same government.
We need to do a better job of defining our community and being there for the people who really need it. Support networks, whether organized or just a bunch of people who have come together, are critical for many of us to get through tough times. Knowing that there are people out there who understand the things you’ve seen and experienced, who get where you’re coming from, who can empathize without needing to talk everything through, can literally be the difference between life and death on some days. It’s bullshit not to extend that support to the men and women who have spent the same time away from family in the same shitholes around the world facing many of the same dangers because they can’t show you their DD-214.
Being a member of any branch of the military is a culture in of itself. I’m not for a second suggesting that being a contractor or DoD civilian deployed to a combat zone makes all things equal. I’m definitely not suggesting that the rules need to be bent so civilians can be a member of some exclusive club and avoid having their feelings hurt. I don’t think civilians should start getting the GI bill or receiving financial benefits. All I’m saying is that if you served an active role in defending this country you are my brother or sister. We need to recognize that sentiment more widely when it comes to offering each other support.
We’re conditioned to think in terms of us vs. them, military vs. civilian; and with good reason. We think, speak, and act differently. A lot of the time we have trouble relating to each other. Then there are these people who fall in the middle, in some weird gray area. They’re not ‘us’ by our traditional definition, so by default they must be ‘them.’ But let’s be real. Our experiences line up pretty neatly. They’re close enough to being one of us that having their backs should absolutely be our concern. Maybe that would have made a difference for Keith, maybe not. More importantly, maybe it’ll make a difference to someone else in a similar situation who might, with the right support, still have a fighting chance.