If a man says he is going to kill himself, we have a straightforward piece of information to work with. If a man is at risk for a fatal disease, like a heart attack or lung cancer, and refuses to change his behavior, how should we consider that?
I have a theory. I believe many vets want to be dead but don't want to pull the trigger. So they kill themselves over a lifetime.
A couple of years ago, I went to a conference: "Veterans, Trauma & Treatment". The keynote speaker, a Veterans Administration doctor, a MD, had been put in charge of VA healthcare reform. She spoke about how they were going to reform veterans health care by putting veterans more in charge of their own care. An example was given of an obese, diabetic smoker who was wheelchair bound. He was going to be put in charge of his health. It makes sense from a medical point of view but suppose he has a different agenda?
I sent an email to her. I said maybe she was misreading his chart. I said maybe he wants to be dead but doesn't want to pull the trigger. I said maybe all veteran alcoholics and vet smokers and vet diabetics want to be dead but don't want to pull the triggers so they do a slow dance with death: with obesity, drug abuse, lack of exercise and all the very simple and easy things we can do to be healthy.
Nov. 25, 1966, I raised my right hand and took an oath to give my life away - to family, friends, neighbors - to my country and the U.S. Army. We cannot do anything more contradictory. My life is no longer my own. The president of the United States does not take such an oath. No one in Congress or the courts takes such an oath. Neither do police or firefighters, although the risk is high in their work.
I believe, whether we are aware of it consciously or not, we are forever changed by the words we swear by. Existentially changed. We have voluntarily given up what is absolutely most valuable. In that giving, taking that oath, there is a wounding of the self, for others. This means service, service to others. That wound is a sacred wound. A love wound. It is held in the heart. It defends and supports life. But, if and when that wound does not defend and support life, but is used for corrupt military or political or greedy reasons, the wound becomes infected and attacks the heart.
Soon after taking the oath, we are put into uniforms, our heads are shaved, and we become non-persons. Then we are taught to kill other human beings and to die for those closest to us. I believe for many, perhaps most, the shock is too much. We can talk about genetic predisposition and unhealthy behavior and Agent Orange and other toxins soldiers are exposed to but I suspect the seeds of ill health, of dis-ease, are found in military culture. They are greatly intensified in war but also in our national culture of violence. We are a violent people, a violent, warmongering nation. The United States was founded on violence, hatred, PTSD and alcohol. It is sickening. Slowly dying vets are the proof. Perhaps we are the miner’s canaries.
We have a long history of military actions and wars based on lies before and since Viet Nam. I ask myself if I would take the oath again. I ask myself if the Minutemen of 1774 would take the oath. Are we the people and land we want to give our lives for? What are we fighting for? We have a democracy that is weak and suffering. Our freedom is being eroded and is suffering. Our real battles are much less about "others over there" than us, here at home. War is easier than peace. We, as a nation, don't want to stop. War is easier than peace.
The VA says 20 vets a day kill themselves. Maybe. Maybe it is 30 a day or 40 a day or more. We, as a nation, kill at least 20 vets a day through suicide but how many more want to be dead but don't pull the trigger?
The call to service and sacrifice is very powerful. I am glad I can continue to practice them both. I believe that is what will keep vets healthy. Once we were called to military service and war. Now we are called to make peace with ourselves, and to make peace with and among all those we first went to defend: family, friends, neighbors, our nation. Make peace with women. Make peace with our enemies. Stop the violence. Make peace. Be peace.
Everett Cox served in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969 including a deployment in Viet Nam in 1969. He was an aerial camera specialist. He worked most of his life as a self-employed laborer. Somehow, he has a great son.