The following heartbreaking statistic is buried deep in Joe Klein’s new book, “Charlie Mike”: Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day.
Not all of those who have taken their own lives are from the 9/11 generation of soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — the focus of Klein’s journalism here — but the causes are much the same for anyone who has fought our many wars. Often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these men and women often feel the disconnect between what they have experienced on the battlefront and a stateside response that, following hometown parades and gift baskets, is often more patronizing than helpful.
At the heart of “Charlie Mike” are two remarkable men, charismatic veterans who launched organizations to help their brethren adjust to civilian life.
Jake Wood, the co-founder of Team Rubicon, was watching the horrific televised images of the 2010 Haiti earthquake when he felt compelled to help. The Red Cross turned him down and said it was too dangerous. Wood said, “I’m a … Marine. I do danger.” Co-founder William McNulty put it more bluntly: “We’re … Marines. We do chaos.”
Twenty-four hours later Wood and his buddies were on their way to Haiti, supplies and doctors in tow. Team Rubicon would go on to assist in disasters at home and abroad, providing veterans a mission — an opportunity to use their valuable skills in relief efforts.
The other veteran Klein profiles is Eric Greitens, a Navy SEAL and a Rhodes Scholar, an earnest teetotaler who likes to quote Thucydides. During a visit he made with amputees at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the wounded warriors told Greitens that despite their injuries they wanted to continue to serve their country. Greitens assured them, “Great. We still need you.”
Using his own combat pay, Greitens launched the nonprofit the Mission Continues, which provides fellowships for vets in exchange for their service in community activities.
Participating in both organizations was the remarkable Marine sniper Clay Hunt. When Hunt returned home wounded, guilt-ridden and depressed after witnessing the deaths of his comrades, he spiraled into PTSD. Despite the help of his friends and family, he committed suicide in 2011.
The telling of Hunt’s story showcases Klein’s skills; because of his sensitive but honest portrayal, the loss of Hunt is not limited to those who loved him. It becomes our loss, too, and the implications of that loss are not hard to ascertain. We must do better by our veterans. More than ever, when the war is over, we still need them.
Note: This past Feb. 15, President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books, most recently, “Going Driftless: Life Lessons From the Heartland for Unraveling Times.”