Dane Freedman grew up in small town USA. In school the students began each day by holding their hand over their heart as they recited the pledge of allegiance. Nobody objected or brought up the fact that “under god” could come off as offensive to certain demographics. He had four sisters and a brother with whom he was very close. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps infantry and headed off to boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina shortly after graduating high school. His first deployment was to Iraq. His second deployment, which would weigh heavily on his soul, was to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. On that deployment his unit would have five Marines killed in Action along with one British Reporter. What Dane didn’t know, nor did any of the other Marines from his unit, is that five additional Marines would perish in the years to come. Dane was one of them. He shot himself in the chest siting in the backseat of an SUV next to his girlfriend. They were in the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania while his sister was inside checking on dinner reservations. Dane was 25-years-old.
In 2014 the leading cause of death for service members became suicide, overtaking being killed in action overseas. In 2012 there were 350 active duty service members that took their own lives. Just shy of one every day. There is an estimated 22 veteran suicides every 24 hours. This figure was taken from only a handful of states and then applied to the nation, which leads many to believe that the number is higher than 22 per day. This figure also doesn’t account for veterans that may be homeless or have had their records lost. The 22-per-day figure is a low ball figure. One veteran suicide per day is too many.
The United States has been in armed conflict in Afghanistan since 2001 after the Twin Towers were attacked and 2,977 lives were taken. I voluntarily do not account for the 19 hijackers that committed the attacks. They do not rate to be remembered and they were not victims. There is an exclusive part of Hell reserved for evil men such as these 19. Baghdad fell in April 2003 and the United States conducted complex counter-insurgency operations for almost a decade. Between these two conflicts there have been approximately 6,850 US military Casualties. We are still operating in Afghanistan and there is much talk in Congress about returning to Iraq to combat the uprising of the Islamic State terrorist group ISIS. Since 2001 there have been over 2.5 million Americans deployed overseas. It has been found that at least 20% of veterans suffer from PTSD. These numbers are also inaccurate. Many service members see the diagnoses of PTSD as a sign of weakness and do not report it even if they suffer from the symptoms. Depression can accompany PTSD, both of which many veterans self-subscribe dangerous levels of alcohol and drug abuse as they self medicate. As a veteran you can often times find your world collapsing around you. You struggle to find a remedy, to find peace. This becomes more difficult with everyday interaction with a population that doesn’t understand and with whom you cannot connect.
Another story. A University of Colorado student veteran sits in an art history class with 20 other students. He is the only one in the room who has been to war. A student stands at the front of the classroom giving a power point presentation of a photojournalist who documented women and self-mutilation due to betrothals and forced marriages. One of the last photos is of a woman who has cut off her nose to avoid marrying an uncle against her will. The teacher, who refuses to be called anything other than “Doctor so-and-so” or “professor so-and-so” because of his larger than life ego, stands in front of the class after the presentation. A moment of silence sweeps across the classroom. “You know whose fault this is?” he asks the class. “Ours,” he directs towards the class. “When we need information on people like the Taliban, we need to give people what they want to extract that information,” he continues. The veteran sits up. His curiosity of this man being a subject matter expert has caught his interest. He has heard outlandish comments before and is mildly prepared for an asinine statement from the professor. “We don’t give these people food and water, electricity or medicine for information. We give them VIAGRA!” he yells to the students as he points at the photograph of the woman missing her nose. “We give them Viagra so they can rape women, because that’s what they want, and we don’t care! We just want the information that they have!” The veteran is flabbergasted. Only one classmate knows that there is a veteran in the class. He looks towards the veteran to see what will happen next. The veteran has heard some accusations before, but this is over the top. He is torn. He debates standing up and correcting the professor, but he is certain that he will lose his temper if he attempts to argue with the simple-minded fool. He decides to remove himself from the situation and leaves the class. He stands up without saying a word and slowly walks towards the door. As he exits the room he slams the door shut as hard as his body will allow him. He walks straight to the bar and orders a whiskey shot accompanied by a beer. He drinks until it doesn’t hurt anymore, as temporary as it may be.
In the first few days of Marine Corps boot camp a recruit can be administratively discharged for multiple reasons. For many recruits the military way of life is overwhelming and they mentally cannot accept the change. It is called “failure to adapt”. Those that serve four or more years in the military and are discharged often find themselves in a similar situation. They leave the world they know for the unknown. They have undergone so much in their military careers and are thrust back into the civilian world. They leave a support system of fellow service members that can number from dozens to hundreds. When they enter the civilian world this number dwindles to a small handful, typically consisting of immediate family and a few childhood friends. Sometimes they find themselves by themselves in a place they are unfamiliar with. The change can take place in as little as 24 hours and veterans often struggle to wrap their head around their new lifestyle. What once was the norm is foreign to those they are surrounded by.
I moved to Boulder less than two months after leaving my beloved Corps. I didn’t know a soul when I got to town and my closest family consisted of two cousins living in Vail. I, like many veterans in similar circumstances, found myself uncomfortable with my surroundings, but I was determined to adjust and get my degree. I convinced a good friend and fellow Marine to move out to the “Boulder bubble” after my first semester. We would spend the next three and half years watching out for each other and comforting each other as needed. We were lucky.
Very few, if any, veterans leave the service believing anything is wrong with them. To claim something is “wrong” with you is to admit defeat or some kind of weakness, weaker than you had been, past your prime. Vulnerable. It is only after several months, sometimes years, go by that a veteran may come to terms that they are struggling. Their grades may be high and they could have a decent position working a part-time job at a grocery store. They may put on a smile everyday and state everything is “just fine” to those that inquire. Behind close doors, those that have PTSD, whether they admit to it or not, typically suffer greatly. They are struggling, or in some cases, failing to adapt.
While some take this change with stride, others cannot comprehend the change. As veterans we often ask ourselves why our fellow students fail to turn in miniscule amounts of work or fail exams that students have had weeks to months to prepare for. We wonder why in such a great place, where safety is arguably guaranteed on a day-to-day basis, someone could be so unhappy with what they have. You hear stories of civilians complaining about the smallest inconvenience “ruining” their life. The line at Starbucks was too long or mom and dad wont pay for a spring break trip to Mexico. I have personally heard students talk about what they spend on drugs and alcohol per month and in some instances it is more than my monthly income. The fact that people can’t appreciate the fact that they have their health, let alone the opportunity for a higher education, becomes too much.
It would be a safe assumption that a typical American college student believes that their peak, or the best years of their life, come shortly after college with a well paying job. For many veterans, including myself, fear that our best years are behind us. We often worry that whatever it is that we do with the rest of our lives will never compare to our years of service. We struggle to convince ourselves that we have a higher purpose after our time at war. To leave the service, where one’s responsibilities more often than not have life or death consequences, to begin at the bottom again can be hard to handle. In the eyes of a veteran it can seem like life style demotion, which in turn can lead to depression. How can we have come from such a regal position to our current state? With these poisonous thoughts cruising through the mind of a once healthy veteran, he or she looks around for someone who they can talk to. Figuratively there is no one in sight. They left their support system when they left the military.
In the most recent years veterans have begun getting service animals- typically a dog to help provide emotional support. For some veterans struggling with PTSD and the winds of change this animal can make the difference between the push onward in life or surrendering to corrosive thoughts that can lead to one escape. Suicide.
Dane had survived two wars and handfuls of firefights and IEDs. He left the service in June 2011 like many of us did and he came home to a family that loved and cared for him. He attempted to pursue a higher education at Penn State with several friends from his unit in the Marine Corps. He only lived a few hours from his home in Camp Hill, PA. Within his first year of college drugs and alcohol swallowed him whole. His brothers from the Marine Corps did their best to keep him in classes and even wrote several of his papers and assignments. He dropped out and admitted himself into a psychiatric institution to help cope with his ongoing battle with himself. He later was discharged and went back to living with his family in Camp Hill. Recognizing that alcohol had become a problem over the years he voluntarily gave up alcohol and would occasionally smoke weed to help keep him at ease. He found himself a lovely girlfriend, Kristina, who cared for him deeply. He found himself a service dog he named Lager. The three of them would go camping and hiking together. He loved Kristina and had bought a ring with the intention of marrying her in the not-to-distant future. What nobody knew was that Dane had never planned on making it back from Afghanistan. He believed he would die an honorable death overseas and had not accounted for a life after service. The years after leaving the Marines Dane struggled to make sense of things and figure out what would be next. Nobody knew that Lager, his k-9 companion and best friend, was the one thing holding him together.
Dane was camping with Kristina when Lager died of a heart attack. Dane was lost. In the weeks that followed Dane began to lose the spark of life that he was so well known for. In his last few days he had a few beers claiming that everything was “fine” and that it wasn’t a bad thing. I imagine myself in his shoes; he wanted one last taste. December 12, 2013 Dane went out and bought a new Springfield 1911 9mm handgun. He didn’t have a criminal record and nothing prevented him from purchasing it. He had previously told his older brother that he had a personal relationship with his other handgun and couldn’t imagine killing himself with it- one of many signs that should have raised concern. On the morning of December 13th he went out and got a fresh haircut. He would want to be presentable in his casket. It wasn’t by chance that these events unfolded the way they did. He had planned for an open casket funeral for his family. Unknowingly to his family he had also written in his journal. His family would later go through his journal, seeing his last entry on that morning. It read, “I am finally at peace.”
Over a thousand people attended his wake including over 50 Marines from across the country. His family was devastated. On April 4th another Marine from the same unit, who served at the same time as Dane and myself, would overdose in Toledo, Ohio. Trey Jablonowski, another Marine from the same unit and same deployment, was found hanging from his neck in his Hawaii barracks room May 11th just a month after Andrew. He hung himself on Mother’s Day.
In 149 days three Marines from the same unit, who served at the same time, took their own lives or overdosed. In that same 149 days it is estimated that an additional 3,275 veterans, or more, took their own lives.
One of the biggest things a modern veteran fears is not if he or she will lose their job or get a bad grade on an exam. They don’t worry about if their line for morning coffee is too long. For many veterans, myself included, the fear is “who is next?”
Or worse, “am I next?”