All gave some. Some gave all.
But some gave more than all. They gave everything including their soul.
By their own hand.
This Memorial Day, as I have for so many in the past, I'll raise a toast to four cherished buddies I served with. Same unit, nine of us. We were all tight. There are only five of us left. Cancer got one. All that stuff they sprayed around in Vietnam. He was the oldest of us, our senior NCO and an E-9 whose 0-6 cherished him for almost twenty years, beginning at some Thai base a mouthful of klicks west of the Ho Chi Minh trail when both were scared FNGs. The Chief trained and taught us. He nurtured us with his experience. He picked us up when we fell, and kicked our asses when we loafed. Most of all, he taught us to never quit and to always do right by your buddies, no matter what.
His death was inevitable and gruesome to witness. He never married. The military was his wife, all of us snot-nosed slick-sleeves he taught were his offspring. This will sound odd to those who never served, but we loved the Chief and he loved us back. He fought Death to the bitter end.
Never quit. Always do right by your buddies.
Fuckin' A, Chief.
That left eight of us, all long since civilians but now, today, minus three.
The other three took their own lives. Vic was the first. Upon his return to civilian life, the ex-husband of a woman he married accused Vic of being the most vile of creatures. . . . It was not true. When we got word of Vic's death, we were stunned. When we got confirmation of where the rumor had started, we were outraged.
Fortunately for the ex-husband, karma was kinder to him than we would've been. A doped up punk who'd stole a car hit the ex-husband when he was drunk and walking home from a local beer joint. The punk went into the slammer and the ex-husband went into the ground.
The son of a bitch got off easy. We had every intention of killing that ex-husband slowly and painfully. We were still young and not very many years removed from our service.
What shocked us, though, was that Vic was fighting a war of his own that none of us had any idea of. The vile, false accusation opened a door in Vic's mind that we doubt even he knew existed. And from it spewed demons that fed on doubt and mistrust and the destruction of self-esteem. Vic had served honorably and was undoubtedly the most popular among us. Quick with a joke or a light of your smoke, as the song goes, he was masterful at tactics and strategies.
But then some son of a bitch, tossed aside like the worthless garbage his ex-wife found out he truly was, could not handle the rejection, carefully starts, feeds and nurtures a rumor to destroy Vic's reputation in their small Tennessee town. In doing so, he inadvertently unleashed an enemy inside Vic's mind that would ultimately destroy him because nobody but nobody fights that kind of an enemy alone and prevails.
He left a note. He also left a wife and little girl.
David had acquired a bad drinking problem. Real bad. It ran in his family for generations. It cost him several jobs. They had been evicted for failing to pay the rent and his wife was fed up. She took their daughter and headed for her parents home in western North Carolina.
David's suicide note was full of grief, guilt and mountains of remorse. But the demons he was fighting, like Vic, didn't allow for him to reach out to us. We were his buddies. We would've and COULD'VE straightened him out. We had all fought alcoholism and we had all beat it, so much as anyone ever beats it. But we were all sober and had been for a fair amount of time.
But the bottle is a sonofabitch and the sonofabitch beat David.
He'd been arrested a couple of times for public intoxication--never for driving while intoxicated. His suicide note proudly noted that no matter how messed up he got, he never drove after going on one of his benders. He even said he didn't want to be "that guy" in our group who screwed up by getting drunk and running over someone.
Always do your buddies right, he noted. It was his last line in the letter--the letter that stays in a shoebox in his buddy's basement near Stone Mountain.
We went a little more than ten years without losing anyone else. But we were to become one less, yet again.
I'd just buried my last grandparent not a week before when I came home to a blinking message light. To the veterans reading this--you know all about that sixth sense we sometimes have?
It was there as I watched the light blink.
The message could've been from anyone. My banker, my parents, my brother, former co-workers asking me how my first month of retirement was going. But it wasn't. It was from an older gentleman from a VFW post in Illinois, acting upon a specific written request from another buddy of ours who lost his fight with the demons.
Chris came from a farming family. He inherited a small family farm. He'd married, raised a son and daughter and sent them to college. Then came 11 September 2001, and the ensuing economic collapse.
The bankers came to get the farm. Chris had taken a lien against the farm to help put his kids through college. The kids had no idea their dad was in the financial trouble he was. Or the trouble they thought he was in.
You see, Chris only owed less than $40K against the loans he'd taken out against the farm. It's land and net value far exceeded that. But the bankers played their tricks and our buddy was convinced he was going to lose the farm. Rather than call us, or even ask his wife to, he became depressed and depression kills.
The hardest part of this was standing at his graveside, the frigid February winter air stinging our faces and making our eyes water. Belay that. Our eyes were already watering up. The kids, who all referred to us as their "uncles" since Chris was adopted as an infant and raised an only child, could not get over their daddy's suicide.
They each had the money to pay off the paltry $40,000 in debt owed to the fucking bank.
But it was the debt, his wife told all of us at the family dinner table that night after the mourners had left, that triggered the depression. She'd seen the depression in him before and on many occasions. It didn't take much to set it off--bad weather, crop failures, crops hailed out, death of a friend. . .
Why didn't he call us? Any of us? I had my pilot's license by then and could've been up there in six hours and land on the strip he plowed and cut out just for me when I told him I'd finally gotten my private pilot's license. Chris' buddy was running the family dairy farm the next state north up in Wisconsin. He took Chris' death the hardest of all of us.
We worried he'd be next, but he assured us he wouldn't.
We made a pact on Memorial Day 2002 that no more of us would die by our own hand.
I'll be the first to admit it's been tough at times, for all of us, but we're buddies. We re-affirmed our pact to always do right by your buddies.
I'm well aware of the social and religious morés against suicide. I'm well aware of people's scorn and often times contempt for those who take their own life.
But let me tell you something. A veteran never absolves his or her oath to their country. All enemies, foreign and domestic.
But there's nothing in that oath about the enemies, the spiritual enemies--the demons, if you will--that you can't fight by yourself.
My message to everyone this Memorial Day is as follows:
Veterans--If you need help, ASK FOR IT! There is no shame. You are or were a United States soldier, sailor or airman. You represent the finest we have ever produced in this country and this country, damn it, owes you.
So ask someone, anyone. Any VFW or American Legion post and there will be a host of soldiers and sailors and airmen who will help you out. Call your local police and tell them you need help and why. An awful lot of cops are vets also. And cops know all about demons, trust me--I was in that line of work a long time ago.
Civilians--If you see or know of a veteran that needs help, please help him or her. Without being patronizing, but if you haven't served, then you have no earthly idea what these people sacrificed when they put on a uniform.
We gave up EVERYTHING. . . our rights, because the military is NOT a democracy--our job was to DEFEND a democracy. We gave up individualism to become a unit and a team. We gave up the comfort of our hometown to get stationed God only knows where around the world. We gave up comfort and peace by volunteering to be stationed to areas where there is no comfort and we fought wars in order to provide peace.
These veterans who gave all, but at their own hand deserve to be remembered, respected and honored on Memorial Day. They took the step forward when their nation called for volunteers, and they pulled on a pair of combat boots and said, "I'm ready. Let's go."
And most of all, they did their buddies right while we all shared the same uniform.
For some vets, the war begins when they get home and out of uniform--no matter what their job was on active duty.
If you're still reading, please share this link:
Veterans Crisis Line & Hotline.