It was on May 25th of this year and in honor of Memorial Day, that Mr. Howard Berry of Cincinnati and his crew (SPC Shawn Edmison, Mayor of Centerville Brooks Compton, City Manager Greg Horn, and the author) placed 660 flags in front my Centerville, Ohio office to pay tribute to those Service Members and Veterans who have taken their lives by suicide.
Perfectly arranged in 30 rows of 22 flags in each, this representative figure (with only five states reporting suicide data) serves as a glaring reminder of the enormous toll of military service, and of the tremendous despair that consumes those who return home to a land that has become foreign and a populace that long ago forgot about those who pay a price too high for the cost and cause of freedom.
Sadly, this was also largely ignored by the community, and basically elicited radio silence from the local media in a military town that serves as home for one of the largest US Air Force bases in the country: Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Such soul-shredding treatment of Veterans has become widespread and commonplace. Shamefully, several of my patients drove directly into my parking lot for their sessions without ever noticing these flags, the size of this display alone making its presence unmistakably obvious to the naked eye, even for aircraft flying over.
A few old friends pulled into the driveway of my office to applaud our efforts; a few drivers blew their horns in support of the message. End of story. This, however, is a far more compelling statement regarding the discarding of those who sign that blank check to the United States of America–up to and including the price of their very lives–yet it’s superficial and often meaningless thanks for one’s military service. The cost of military service has a name, rank, a family, and a “last four”, yet ignorance of and intolerance for those who bear the burdens of wartime service reigns supreme across the land. We have become America’s throwaways.
This only adds to the list of ultimate betrayals and the dismissive stance that continues to propagate throughout this nation in epic proportions. Denigrated and destroyed souls continue to be tossed recklessly into the abyss.
“If one wants to know what the price of freedom looks like, go to a VAMC waiting room–wheelchairs, missing limbs, walking wounded, you get all of the above……thank you for being expendable” — Colby Buzzell
Call the Veterans Suicide Crisis Line and be placed on hold for a minimum of 45 minutes, which is more than enough time “to off yourself”. More often than not, calls go directly to voicemail or are terminated just as the recording begins. If one is calling in the first place, this is always out of pure desperation “and because you’re already in really bad shape,” says Buzzell.
Wait six months for an emergency appointment. Prolonged waiting times and over-prescription of hefty bags filled with mind numbing medications have become fodder for the press and risen to the level of a national scandal for several years, yet absolutely nothing has changed and the waiting game continues on and on, just as always. As a non-VA provider and national whistleblower, I have waited as long as 8 months to get paid for psychological services provided, refusing to turn away those souls suffering from festering wounds that do not bleed, thanks to the gross negligence of the VA and public scrutiny that has been tantamount to a flea bite in terms of impact. The new and contemptable game played by the VA is to outright refuse to authorize ongoing treatment. The Veterans Administration comprises the most colossal example of bottomless corruption and greed gone awry on the continent. Go to war and face an even bigger one when you come home. This virtually assures that we are rendered disposable. It also reeks of all things treasonous.
The tragic story of SSG Joshua Berry, son of Mr. Howard Berry, further exposes this disgraceful plight. SSG Berry was injured during the Fort Hood Massacre of November 5, 2009. Trying desperately to escape the shooter, he sustained serious injuries, only to be denied a Purple Heart Medal. Though his wounds were sustained in the line of duty, only gunshot wounds were counted, all other injuries being erased from existence and considered insignificant. His four-year battle to obtain necessary services for both physical and psychological injuries sustained during the Fort Hood Massacre through the VA, resulted in SSG Berry taking his own life on February 13th, 2013.
This degree of despair continues to befall thousands of military Veterans and their families, but so tragically, this epidemic fundamentally falls upon ears that do not hear and eyes that do not see. SSG Berry’s father has made it his life’s mission is to right the injustices borne by his son and the millions of Veterans who have suffered so needlessly at the hands of our government and a homeland mired in self-regard and self-absorption. Mr. Berry has made countless trips to Capitol Hill to present his case to every Senator and Congressperson available, only to be turned away by the vast majority of them, doors literally slamming in his face in the process. It is no wonder that too many of us choose to pull the trigger or find a rope.
Most of us who have worn the uniform or still serve as members of the Armed Forces are hard pressed not to well up with tears at the playing of the National Anthem and sob at the soulful echo of “Taps”. And yet, we are continuously treated to regular broadcasts of what runs contrary to our Warrior Ethos and the Soldiers’ Creed, with NFL players who are appallingly permitted to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem. In the final analysis, this only brings shame upon those sufficiently dimwitted to “take a knee”. Instead, it is us who are powerless to prevent awakening, thrashing in the darkness of interrupted sleep, desperately trying to lay hands on our M-16 A2 rifles or 9 MM pistols, knowing that it’s never going to be quite alright ever again and that we are consumed with an invisible threat level in a world that long ago stopped being a safe place.
We are constantly reminded to “get over it” when fireworks send us scrambling for cover, far more than just reminiscent of a mortar attack, as we are thrust back to the battlefield of faraway lands of the combat theater. We wince with guilt and shame for not being back in the warzone to get the job done right and vindicate the incalculable losses of life we witnessed up close and personal. We stumble over words with cracked voices whenever we speak of the unspeakable. We frantically seek to replace the extraordinary camaraderie of brother-sister Service Member, the spirit de corps, dedication to the mission, devotion to causes far more noble and virtuous than ourselves, and wish so desperately than anything in our privileged lives rose to such a level of value, meaning, and purpose, only to feel the hollow void of barren lands of unfulfillment. We bristle at the term “hero” when applied to us… because the only true heroes returned in flag draped coffins. The hopeless search for our old selves leads only to that choking desperation that we can no longer be found hanging in the closet.
Our military service has come to define who we are today and tomorrow and for all our tomorrows to come. Like moths driven to light and given the opportunity, we would gladly do it all over again.
Returning home to a place where nobody “gets us” and where we, the misunderstood, await the latest assault by the ignorant masses, places our whereabouts in no man’s landfill. We have been brutalized by the society that sent us to war and then turned their backs on us when we returned from war. We have been left to our own brokenness to navigate our way back with a chart that has no course. In order for the United States to maintain a strong national defense, it must come to the defense of those so willing to do the dirty work of defending their homeland. Too many of our institutions have thus, by far, failed miserably.