We often hear of suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, and other issues becoming more prevalent among United States military personnel. If you aren’t in the armed forces or don’t know many people who are, though, often these can be sad things that you care about but don’t impact you, so you don’t think too much of it. As someone who never really thought about it too much other than knowing that our service members deserve better, I can truly say that my perspective has changed.
Sometimes you just happen to be in a certain place at a certain time and something happens to change your life. Whether it is the fortuitous timing of a letter, the shock of being in New York City near Ground Zero on September 11, or being on hand for a tribute to returning soldiers, it is the seemingly random occurrences that influence life and lead individuals to go on to bigger and better things.
It wasn’t until I was a witness to a fatal car accident on March 20, 2011, that the issue of service member suicides really hit home. It wasn’t just any fatal car accident. I had been headed home after a day out and about. A vehicle was speeding and lost control, just missing what would have been a severe head-on collision before over-correcting and tipping. The vehicle flipped over, and the driver, who was the only occupant, was alive and had no life-threatening injuries. When another driver approached to see if the man was OK, the man indicated that he was and then suddenly shot himself in the head. He was not instantly killed, but he did die later at the scene of the accident.
The man, James Wilson, turned out to have recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had begun his military career in the Marine Corps from 1986-1991. In 2003, he started serving with the state National Guard, and during his time with the Guard, he served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When he returned, he had joined the local police department. I had actually met him before through his job as a part-time officer. He had been drinking alcohol prior to the accident and was found to be over the legal limit to drive. No one will ever know just what triggered the suicide, and no one will ever know if there was anything that could have been done to prevent it.
For a long time, not a day went by when I didn’t wonder if there was something I could have done differently that would have changed the outcome. Perhaps if I had taken a little longer at the store or gone to that other place like I had planned, then the car I was in wouldn’t have been there. Though I was not the cause of the accident, for some reason, I thought he might not have crashed. Thinking like that can drive you crazy, and I had to just let it go. I can’t change what someone else chose to do. There are many times when others can influence a person one way or the other, but this wasn’t one of those times. That isn’t an easy thing to say, and it’s something that took me a long time to accept. Over time, I realized that I was being selfish and the incident wasn’t about me; rather, it was about someone else and the life he left behind.
I can’t say what he was thinking right before he pulled the trigger, which does to an extent haunt me. To his friends and family, I’m sure a DUI wouldn’t have been the end of the world by any means. He might have gotten the help he obviously needed. However, with how things turned out, now there is a son who lost his father, a granddaughter who will never know her grandfather, parents who have to bury their son, and many other family members and friends who are at a loss and searching for a missed sign or some little clue.
This tragedy made me realize just how important it is for veterans to get help. Even if someone seems fine, sometimes an individual may be in crisis. There are many resources available and many people who are willing to listen and help someone through the worst. This was preventable, and I only hope that more help is provided to our veterans so that families and friends of service members don’t have to see their loved ones return home safe just to lose them in such a preventable way.
If you or someone you know, veteran or civilian, is in a crisis moment, here are some resources to contact:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
National Hopeline: 1-800-SUICIDE
Virtual Crisis Center: https://www.imalive.org