May 26, 2017 – It is no secret that each day 117 people die by suicide. It is reported that on average, 22 of those deaths are veterans. These numbers are baffling! Why are we losing so many? What aren’t we doing? Most importantly, what can we do now?
Army Private First Class Joseph Dwyer was made “famous” by an Army Times photo that captured him, an Army Medic, carrying a young Iraqi child, naked and afraid, away from harm’s way. The photo was instantly spread far and wide, seen everywhere including the cover of USA Today. If there are better images of strength and selflessness of the American soldier, I can’t think of any.
Dwyer volunteered for his tour in Iraq, doing so to spare his friend, a single parent, from having to go. He had no children at the time, and besides, he had enlisted right after 9/11 just for this opportunity. He came home after his deployment a changed man. He received some mental health services but not nearly enough. He skipped his appointments at the VA, starting doing drugs, drinking, and his marriage failed. He was diagnosed with PTSD. His friends described him as paranoid and scared. He had multiple run-ins with the law, including shooting up his apartment because, as he told the SWAT team, “the Iraqis were coming.”
Eventually Dwyer was discharged from the military. His mother was quoted as saying “He just couldn’t get over the war. Joseph never came home.” Physically, Private Dwyer, who had survived rocket-propelled grenade and shocking violence, made his way back to his family and friends. But part of him was stuck forever on a road in Iraq, helpless and terrified with nobody to carry him to safety. Private Dwyer died by suicide on June 28, 2008.
Prior to his death, Dwyer told his sister that the only thing that seemed to work to ease his emotional pain was talking to other veterans. The PFC Joseph Dwyer Project, which consisted of funding throughout New York State to create peer-to-peer support programs, was an enormously positive thing that came from this tragedy. The program would be open to every veteran that requested it.
I was honored to work for one of those programs. As a veteran, suicide prevention trainer, suicide intervention caregiver, and someone who has struggled with her own personal battles, I have spoken to countless veterans over the years, from every age group and every conflict. I’ve spoken to them about their struggles and more importantly, their resilience. Being able to tell one’s story is healing and humbling. Similarly, being able to listen to their stories and offer them some comfort has been both healing and humbling to me.
On the occasion of Memorial Day, I’d like to ask you to take the opportunity to become more suicide aware. Help break the shame that so often surrounds suicide and mental health. Support those in our community who are struggling. Learn the risk factors and warning signs associated with suicide. One key thing to look out for if you’re concerned someone may be suicidal is a change in behavior, or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of gravest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change.
Don’t be afraid to ask someone directly if they are thinking of suicide. By asking, you are letting them know you are concerned, that you see their pain, and that you want to help. Don’t try and solve their problems. Would you stop someone mid-heart attack to talk to them about their diet and exercise? No. You would get them as quickly as possible to the next level of care. 1-800-273-TALK is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. You can also text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. These services can help.
While you honor those who have given their lives for our freedom on this Memorial Day, please don’t forget men like Private First Class Dwyer, or the countless other men and women like him. They did not die in vain.
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