I have the unfortunate luck of being in San Diego as a city mourns the death of one of its greatest heroes. Last week, San Diego Chargers LB Junior Seau tragically took his life after his retirement from the NFL. Watching his family in local newscasts is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve witnessed in quite some time. Most have postulated that this was done due to the concussions he sustained during his illustrious career in football. I am neither a psychologist, nor an “expert” on the subject, but due to my own experiences, I’d like to add some insight as to why things like this occur.
About a month ago, a study came out that surmised that 70% of the suicides in the United States are done by veterans. I know that this makes sense, because there was a day I almost became one of those statistics. Were it not for the luck of having a dear friend who serves as my guardian angel, my much less noteworthy eulogy would have been in a newspaper about 12 years ago. Knowing how blessed my life is, I look back and understand how these things come about for so many, as well as the thousands upon thousands of us that deal with this on a regular basis.
As noted on my blog description, I spent five years in the Marine Corps with four of those years spent in combat expeditions. The moment you feel your mortality and duress of being in a jarring situation, you learn quite quickly that the fear of being seriously injured or killed serves you no purpose in battle, and those feelings are locked away to prevent you from feeling vulnerable. Much like sports, the chances of your success depend not only on your ability to act in the face of death, but also by the work with those that go into battle with you. For all of the experts in the subject, very few know first hand what it’s like the first time a bullet comes in your direction and you have milliseconds to make a decision that will determine your life or death. Those of us who are lucky to come back alive live with that demon long after the battlefield is left. It is a choice most of us volunteered to make, but stories are just stories until it looks you dead in the eye. This, however, is the indelible mark of one who chooses to be a warrior.
Warriors of all kinds are made up of a specific kind of person. Once you have been trained to focus on the battle and less on your safety, this becomes ingrained in your soul the moment you experience what you learned. And this little package never leaves.
From the days I spent in my beloved Corps, I know 11 of my brothers, first hand, who died doing what they knew how to do best. I finally got to visit the grave of my best friend at Fort Rosecrans a month ago, and I can tell you that the loss never goes away. You might learn to accept the costs of being a warrior, but it sits somewhere in your mind each and every day.
When I got out of the military, my free time was dedicated to martial arts. Though the possibility of violence is apparent, I relished it because that is what my soul knew best. In two years I was competing in open martial arts tournaments. Two years after that, I started fighting in MMA matches. A year later, I was also competing in full contact stick fighting matches. It’s what gave me purpose, and I breathed for each moment I could next push my limitations and become the best warrior I knew how to be.
Though it was in an amateur status, between 1999 and 2001, I won three world martial arts championships in both stick fighting and staff fighting. I still look at my medals and feel the solace that I had the day I won them. One of those medals are missing, because I gave it to one of my Marine Corps brothers in a hospital in Baltimore as he was in a coma from pancreatitis. It’s missing, because two years ago he stopped staying in contact with all of us who remained close, and died of a heart attack at the age of 42. He was no more well adjusted than the rest of us, but as he fought for his life and dealt with his wife leaving him while he was in the hospital, a piece of him had already died. He had moved in with a girl who found him convenient, and now all of his belongings are gone from us and his family.
Cpl. Thomas Neal Kemp was a hero. He was great man. He was kind and decent, and always gave of himself to others anything he could, because that what his purpose. But his will to live went away after he tried to open that little box of feelings and emotions he kept locked away the moment someone he loved started to see the flaws from that box instead of what made him who he was. I almost beat him to the front of the line.
I’ve been married more than once, and I have not been the best at letting down my guard. My first wife had brought me to that same place my brother was with not wanting to live anymore. The fights and arguments had gone on for so long that we decided to get divorced. During that time, I got the nasty phone calls and letters from attorneys alleging what a horrible person I was, even when they didn’t contain the truth. But living with that for so long, the truth doesn’t stay with you as much as living with the idea that you are not the hero you used to be. For all the greatness you accomplished in life, you start to see yourself as a shell in the Hall of What Was.
During a year and half of what seemed like an endless string of court appearances and fighting to keep my sanity, I had come to the end of my line. I had finally figured that I was going to cut the brake line on my car and drive off a bridge. The plan made sense to me at the time. If my body was discovered and an investigation done into the cause, the authorities would determine that my brakes had been cut and I lost control of the vehicle that traveled with me to my end. I had the knife in my car that day as I went to work, believing it would be my last.
Luckily for me, a woman I worked with said “good morning” to me, and was able to read the pain in my eyes as I tried to hide what lived with me. She gave me a hug, and let me know that everything was going to be alright, and she would be there if I needed anything. The divine hand of Providence set upon me that day. I put the knife from my car into the dumpster, and I never looked back. I still talk to her in some fashion every day 12 years later, always thanking her for saving my life. Were it not for her, this story would have been told by a different person, and that story would be a little news blurb that people would say, “What a shame” and forget about soon thereafter.
Though it’s been twelve years, I still deal with that demon in some way every day. Times get tough, and I think about it as though I was thinking of what groceries I needed to pick up at the store. For people like us, this is common.
You need to understand that as you spend your life learning how to put the fear away to do what needs to be done, it doesn’t take much from someone you love or trust to pull that out of you when you let your guard down. Psychiatrists can tell you until they are blue in the face that it’s ok to share your feelings and not be guarded. They can tell you that having flaws makes you no less of a person than anyone else, but for those who live with the soul of a fighter, that will end horribly unless the only people they love and trust don’t exploit that in a moment of anger. I have yet to meet one of those people, and odds are, neither has anyone else.
So here is some simple advice for those that try to understand why veterans, football players, boxers, and fighters take their life, even if it is looks from the outside that they had everything to live for:
1. Know who they used to be, because what made them the person that stands before you still live with those qualities that run their life.
2. No matter how much you’d like to knock them down a rung to make yourself feel better in a moment of hurt or anger, they never fall just one rung, and odds are they’ll be dead long before they’re supposed to be.
3. Before you decide that one of these heroes is no better than you are, think of what you could have done walking in their shoes. If you know you couldn’t, please think about what made them able to do it and acknowledge it to them.
4. Most importantly, know that these kind of people have a switch in them that isn’t like yours. Despair does horrible things to a warrior, and if you’re going to be involved in their lives somehow, never forget that telling them they’re not a hero anymore and shoving their flaws in their face could cost a wife her husband, a mother her son, a father his daughter, and children their parents.
The world we live in requires all kinds of people, and those that protect your freedom, fight on your behalf, sacrifice their health for your enjoyment, do the amazing things you wish you could do, are a different breed of person. The line between life and death is not something you will know like they do. Respect that if you want them to grow old.