by Kim Ruocco
On Veterans Day we remember all those brave men and woman who proudly served their country. It’s a day of pageantry, parades, American flags, and celebrations of battles won and bravery exhibited.
For families of the fallen—especially those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide—it can be a day filled with complex emotions. We are proud that our family member was one of the less than 1% who volunteered to put their life on the line for our country. We hold close that picture of them standing tall in their uniform, and will forever remember the day they joined. We look back on their service and wish they could have received the care they needed when the many stressors of military life became too much. On Veterans Day, military survivors of suicide loss often worry about our veterans. We wonder if they are suffering like our loved one did, and we wish that we could make changes.
My husband joined the Marine Corp because he loved his country and wanted to do something important. He was patriotic, loyal, and passionate. He prided himself on being able to push through adversity and lived by military mottos such as: “Pain is weakness leaving your body” -- “Death before dishonor” and “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” In boot camp he sprained his ankle very badly but didn’t want to be seen as weak so he duct-taped it up and pushed through. He graduated at the top of his class and was offered a flight school spot. He excelled in flight school and we were stationed in North Carolina where he would fly Cobra, attack helicopters.
He loved his job but it was highly competitive and very stressful. During our time there John deployed twice, we had two children, a new mortgage, and were hit by a hurricane twice. More difficult than any of these things was the fact that the squadron suffered multiple aviation accidents. John lost many of his peers and began to fear that he would make a mistake that would cost someone their life. He started having anxiety about flying his aircraft and unresolved trauma and loss from an accident in high school started to haunt him.
As a military spouse, I was very worried about him but knew that if I told anyone it might end his career as a pilot. I feared that asking for help would make things worse. My husband would see it as a betrayal. Finally, we talked to a senior officer who advised us to take time off and push through the depression and anxiety. He warned us not to seek professional care or take meds because it would look bad in his record. John was able to push through his pain and return to duty, but the lessons we learned would prove to be deadly. John thought depression was a weakness in him. Something to be ashamed of and hide. I learned that John could pull himself out of a depression and became even more resistant to seeking outside help.
My husband served ten more years, was a respected leader in his field, promoted several times. He worked successfully, with some emotional and physical pain, up until he experienced combat. In 2004, John deployed to Iraq and flew over 75 combat missions. He was, by all accounts, a fearless leader and skilled pilot, but when he returned home, the demons returned as well. John had trouble sleeping and he didn’t enjoy the things he used to love. He was impatient with our children and withdrew from his family and friends. We talked about getting help but once again John worried that it would change the way people viewed him and negatively affect his career.