May 29, 2007

When Acknowledging the Pain Is a Weakness to be Condemned

After you read the excerpts from the story below, you might want to remind yourself of the insane and unimaginably nightmarish world represented by combat, as described in the Paul Fussell passages in "Let Us All Become Cowards."

From an article in the Marine Corps Times:
In the three months after Marine Maj. John Ruocco returned from Iraq feeling numb and depressed, he couldn’t sleep. He had lost weight. He had nightmares. He was distracted and withdrawn from his two young sons.

One night, he promised his wife, Kim, that he would get help. The next morning, he was dead. The 40-year-old Cobra helicopter pilot, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., had hanged himself.

There are others. Army reservist Joshua Omvig. Army Capt. Michael Pelkey. Marines Jonathan Schulze and Jeffrey Lucey. Each came home from tours in Iraq and committed suicide.

Veterans’ groups and families who have lost loved ones say the number of troops struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues is on the increase and not enough help is being provided by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department.

For some, there are long waits for appointments at the VA or at military posts. For others, the stigma of a mental health disorder keeps them from seeking help.

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says that although suicides among troops returning from the war is a significant problem, the scope is unknown.

"The problem that we face right now is that there’s no method to track veterans coming home," said Rieckhoff, who served in Iraq as a platoon leader in the first year of the war. "There’s no system. There’s no national registry."

More than four years into the war, the government has little information on suicides among Iraq war veterans.

"We don’t keep that data," said Karen Fedele, a VA spokeswoman in Washington. "I’m told that somebody here is going to do an analysis, but there just is nothing right now."

The Defense Department does track suicides, but only among troops in combat operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan and in surrounding areas. Since the war started four years ago, 107 suicides during Iraq operations have been recorded by the Defense Manpower Data Center, which collects data for the Pentagon. That number, however, usually does not include troops who return home from the war zone and then take their lives.


Floyd "Shad" Meshad, president and founder of the California-based National Veterans Foundation, has no doubt that military suicides are a growing problem. He said he receives 2 to 3 calls each week from Iraq veterans contemplating suicide — or from their families.

A Vietnam veteran who has counseled other vets for more than 30 years, Meshad runs a toll-free support line based in Los Angeles. He was asked recently to help train counselors at the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, where a spike in calls from veterans has been reported.

One of the biggest challenges for troubled vets is the stigma of a mental health disorder, said Meshad. "It’s very, very hard for you to reach out and say 'I’m hurting.' It’s hard for men to do it, but particularly (for) a soldier who’s endured life and death situations."

Kim Ruocco of Newbury, Mass., said her husband, John, was a role model for the young Marines he led in war. He worried about the ramifications of seeking help, personally and professionally.

"He felt like that was the end of everything for him," Kim Ruocco recalls. "He felt like his Marines would, you know, be let down."

Ruocco ended his life in February 2005, a few weeks before he was to redeploy to Iraq.

Joshua Omvig, 22, a member of the Army Reserve from Grundy Center, Iowa, also took his own life. In December 2005, he shot himself in front of his mother after an 11-month tour in Iraq.

His parents, Ellen and Randy Omvig, say Joshua wouldn’t talk much about Iraq. They tried to get him help, but he worried that it would hurt his career if the Army found out, said his father.
From an earlier essay, "'Suck It Up': The Denial Continues, and Kills Once More":
Most of the friends and relatives of those who commit suicide never think they will take their own lives -- until they do. And their major advice is always the same: don't feel the pain. Deny it. "Suck it up."

But some people can't and won't deny the pain. As the horrors accumulate, and when far too few people will listen when those who feel the pain all the way down want to talk about it, we should not wonder when the pain finally becomes too great.

And yet, some will still say that a man like Sergeant Accardo was "weak," and that he "couldn't handle it anymore." If he had been "stronger," he would have been able to "shake it."

For some people, when "handling it" means that they must kill their souls in slow motion, the price is too high. And almost no one will acknowledge just how horrifying the truth is.

So sometimes they kill themselves. Don't wonder why. Most people who wonder know why -- they just won't admit it. Even now.

Even now.
And perhaps this makes clearer some of the reasons underlying my comments in, "Of Thicker Skins, and Sucking It Up":
Ask yourself this: if I developed a "thicker skin," would I be able to write an essay like "We Are Not Freaks," or my many essays about the suffering of innocent Iraqis, or my Alice Miller articles...or indeed most of my essays? I would not. Perhaps some people could, but not me. But I strongly doubt that even some people could: when your skin becomes thick enough, such subjects no longer concern you -- they are too threatening, and they bring up precisely those memories and emotions that we seek to avoid by such means.

In "We Are Not Freaks" (and in many other pieces), I spoke of the emotional repression that is a hallmark of our culture. Telling people to "develop a thicker skin," to "suck it up," and all the rest, is one of the primary ways that such emotional repression is created and maintained. It is one of the major messages most parents deliver to their children: you have to be "tough" to survive in this world. You might also consider the numerous ways in which those attitudes are related to traditional, conventional views of "masculinity."

Among the final results of such messages are war, and endless death and suffering. I understand those are not the results that *you* intend...but there it is, nonetheless. (And no: such attitudes cannot be "compartmentalized," and one cannot simply use a "thicker skin" to get through the day. Like any psychological mechanism, once in use, it either grows or diminishes: it does not stay the same, and it does not remain localized.)

I read only the first line of your message, about my needing "a thicker skin." I stop reading such messages after a phrase of that kind. It comes from a world that is not mine, and that I fight against every day, as I have all my life. In the end, my battle is not about politics at all: it is about culture, and psychology, and the endless barrage of destructive messages that inundate us all every single day. Implemented to any significant degree at all, such messages ultimately cripple people's souls, just as they destroy many people's lives.
Related Essays: Against Annihilation of the Spirit: Let Us All Become Cowards

We Are Not Freaks

"Suck It Up": The Denial Continues, and Kills Once More

When the Pain Can Be Borne No Longer

The Indifference and Denial That Kill

When the Demons Come

When the Deaths of the Innocent Do Not Matter

The Suicide Taboo

The Dynamics of Suicide, Revisited

The Ignored Casualties of War

The Alice Miller Essays