Tuesday, February 15, 2022

How to Ask About Suicide

What do we do when we see a family member or friend struggling? Or when we reconnect with a Battle Buddy and we get the sense something is off?

This is an awkward and uncomfortable topic because, at its core, it is terrifying. Most of us have lost more friends to suicide than to combat and it feels frightening to know our loved ones are struggling and not know what to do. So, here’s our script:

“I can tell you are having a hard time. Are you considering suicide?”

It is a simple question, but not an easy one.

The next step is hard: wait for an answer. Don’t jump in, don’t try to answer for them. Just wait.

This is hard because you care and because every part of you wants to help. But it is powerful to create space for them and to choose to be there with your buddy, no matter how uncomfortable it feels. What a profoundly loving thing to ask. 

If your loved one is suicidal, stay with them and call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. You can also go to the emergency room or call 911 if you fear for their safety. 

Your turn: Has someone asked you about suicide before? What was your experience?

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Vietnam Veteran Connections

I’ve been reading Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay, MD. Or, I should say, I’ve been listening - I have it in audiobook format. His work compares the Soldiers of Homer’s Iliad with Vietnam Veterans suffering from PTSD. While that might sound a little heady, it’s an important work and a must-read for clinicians.

What has struck me the most about Shay’s account are the direct quotes he includes from the Vietnam Veterans in his group. At times they are the exact same words that have come out of my own mouth to describe my experience in Iraq - or the exact same words that my clients have used to describe Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and any number of deployed AOs. While driving and listening to the book last week, I pulled over and replayed a section in disbelief – I was genuinely shook by the connection; word-for-word. 

My dad was a Vietnam Veteran; he died in 2019 and we never discussed our combat experiences while he was alive. I inherited a slide projector and a crate of slides marked Binh Thuy Air Base and Vietnam that I can’t bring myself to look at just yet, although I am not exactly sure why. But I think about them a lot.

Since publishing The Soldier’s Guide to PTSD this year, I have had the privilege of connecting with many Vietnam Veterans and learning about their experiences. What has struck me the most is how Vietnam Veterans worked to ensure that today’s Veterans were honored when we came home. How often I heard accounts of Vietnam Vets being spit on at the airport or being called “baby killers” at their family gatherings.

After my first deployment, Vietnam Veterans were front and center and welcomed us home at the airport. Back in 2004 I didn’t know why, and now I do: they wanted to make sure that I did not experience what they did. What an incredible gift. 

The decision that Vietnam Veterans made to pay it forward despite their own experience is an inspiring sacrifice. I feel humbled, grateful – thankful. As I listen to their words through Achilles in Vietnam and relate them to my own experience I find myself reflecting on how I want to help others in our community. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts.