Photograph: Sgt. Jason Fudge/U.S. Marine Corps
This week in Canada, we paid respect to our troops with Remembrance Day. (Or Veterans Day in the U.S.) Quite honestly, in my life November 11th usually passes by each year without much fanfare or attention. Sure, I go to the services and do the minute of silence and think about what those guys went through. But to be transparent about it all: it’s fleeting. You feel it in one moment, and it’s gone the next. You wake up the next day, and you go back to your version of reality.
But this year on November 11th, something was different. I felt more connected. More cognizant of the issues. More keenly aware that so much of what happens on the battlefield lives in your brain. These troops are maybe more affected by mental-health issues than anyone else in our society. They see things most of us never will. They do things most of us never could. They’re the ones who have to walk through life with those memories tattooed into their psyche.
So I thought about all of these things. And then I thought about my grandfather.
Today, more troops die because of suicide than on the battlefield. We need to be able to protect them when they come home.
My grandfather fought in World War II. Later in life, he would fight another battle—this time an invisible one—of trying to be mentally healthy. For a man who had seen so much and talked about so little, that became increasingly difficult for him. There were meds and visits to psychiatric wards, lots of dirty looks and whispers that he might be “crazy”. He would have episodes where he would break down and need to be hospitalized for weeks on end.
I was too young to know what any of that meant, or why it was tragic. I remember him yelling at me sometimes. It’s wasn’t because he was mad; rather, his mind was slowly betraying him, and his ability to communicate with others had been totally compromised. So he would raise his voice and yell. That would scare me, and sometimes I wasn’t able to be around him.
Unfortunately, I never knew my grandfather that well. He passed away when I was only three years old. But now, I feel like I really knew him. He was a hero. A leader of men. A brave and fearless individual who left home at 18 years old to sneak into the armed forces to serve and defend his country. He lived in a different time, a time of chaos and murder and racial and ethnic tensions. He lived in a time that desperately needed heroes. A time that required leadership and bravery. He had all of that.
So he served, and he fought. He saw friends die, and he did things with his hands that I could never imagine doing with mine.
But he did those things for us. For me. For you. For a family that he had yet to create but dreamed of often. And while bullets would fly past him and enemies would try to kill him and his friends, he kept believing in something bigger, I guess: The idea that the world didn’t need to be filled with anger and violence and prejudice and hatred.
That’s what I like about my grandfather. He didn’t just think. He believed things. Thoughts are free. Beliefs require an action. Beliefs require you pay a price.
My grandfather was one of the lucky ones. He survived the war. But when he came home, he had to face a whole new battle that so many troops face every day: Stepping back into ordinary life, becoming mentally healthy and emotionally stable.
Eventually, my grandfather had the family he dreamed of. Eventually, he got to live the life that he had risked his existence for. But in time, things started to get tougher. His mind started to go. Emotions and tragedies started to bubble back to the surface. And some of those things were too much to bear.
Over time, my grandfather would have manic episodes and breakdowns. Those started to erode his life entirely. His mental health was being taken from him the way it’s taken from so many soldiers who return home with PTSD, depression or thoughts of suicide. He needed help, and many times, he was judged for that. A man who gave everything for his country, family and society was suddenly a burden—just another guy battling issues that we don’t like to talk about, so we ignore them.
Although I never got to know the grandfather that my family speaks about—the man with military medals and smiles and happiness in his heart—I feel like I knew him. I feel like I still know him. I feel like a little part of him might still be inside me. Inside of all of us.
A little part that says when you truly believe something, you might have to fight for it. I wonder if maybe my fight—our fight—could be speaking up and shattering the silence for so many soliders who suffer in the shadows. Maybe our fight could be in making sure they get the love and help that they deserve. That they have earned.
Today, more than 7 million men and women who have served for their country have said they are dealing with PTSD. Today, more troops die because of suicide than on the battlefield.
Yet we still don’t talk about it. We still pretend that it doesn’t exist.
If we’re going to pressure our troops to protect us on the battlefield, we need to protect them when they come home. We need to help them step back into life. We need to lighten their load. We need to be there to help and to heal, not to hold judgment or try to hide the issues.
Whether you’re resolutely hawkish or antiwar, we can find common ground in the idea that people who put their lives on the line for us deserve a chance at living a good life afterward. There is a lot to change and a lot of conversations to be had. My challenge to us: Next time you remember our troops, remember that while most of them fight battles far away from home, a whole new battle begins once they come back.
And it’s on us to fight that battle for them.