“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
These are poignant words that speak to our connectedness, or lack thereof, as human beings facing hardship. During the current coronavirus pandemic, or any national emergency for that matter, this sentiment perhaps carries less relevance in times when the “battle” — a mix of fear, anxiety, isolation, and restricted movement — is shared by all. But for many military veterans, the impact of the coronavirus is just another phase of an ongoing battle. One that had persisted before the pandemic and has only intensified in the wake of it.
For these veterans, the battle involves finding meaning for their lives despite continued hardship and disappointment as they try to fully transition back into civilian life. Those who lose the battle make the fateful choice to leave the fight permanently — about 20 a day on average, a number that will likely rise as veterans at risk now face the shared battle in addition to the personal ones they fight behind closed doors.
Iraq War Army veteran Justin McCaul is one of those cases. He deployed to Iraq in late 2005 for a year. Among his most haunting memories is a time when his convoy suddenly stopped in the middle of a supply route as the sun came up, exposing their position to the view of locals who, by all assessments, were likely to alert enemy forces in the area. McCaul was sitting atop an M1089 tactical vehicle watching this when improvised explosive devices began to blow up around his unit. Fiery mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud encompassed the convoy, leaving them vulnerable until they were finally able to pull out and proceed back to base.
While his unit took no casualties that day, the scars from that experience and others like it were fresh as McCaul again sat, this time surrounded by a different threat, COVID-19, while hunkered down with his wife in a small room at his in-law’s home along with his wife’s two older brothers. The sense of helplessness he felt in Iraq during the attack that day would be triggered by the loss of control he now felt in a living space that seemed to get smaller and smaller as the coronavirus siege continued.
What made his quarantine experience unique wasn’t necessarily the isolation or feeling of confinement — or even the health threat presented by an aggressive virus with no known cure. What made it unique to him, and veterans like him, was the lens through which he’s forced to view what was happening in his life. It posed another hardship on top of other difficulties that conspired against every effort to find peace and to stop his pain from getting perceptively worse.
McCaul’s latest hurdle occurred right before the pandemic hit and had essentially shut down the town in which he lived. McCaul and his wife of 15 years had purchased about 100 acres of mountainous land in Oklahoma that offered them a serene escape from the stresses of urban and suburban living. The relative isolation, he believed, would be good for his post-traumatic stress and other service-related afflictions to which his wife tended as his caregiver. He could finally put his internal battles in the rearview mirror — or so he thought.
A pipe fence marking his property would become his new enemy and land him in the middle of a dispute with a neighbor over who owned it. Finding a lawyer to represent him in the tight-knit Oklahoma town was a challenge. This wasn’t the first time McCaul had felt outgunned and exposed, but it was the first time he didn’t have training, tactics, or comrades to lean on that could support him or give him hope.
When the pandemic hit, it added to the seemingly insurmountable problems that McCaul and other veterans already faced. Support services, mental health treatment, and benefits assistance became impacted by personnel shortages, office shutdowns, and overwhelming demand. More alarmingly, this perfect storm of issues is occurring in the springtime, the time of the year with the highest statistical rates of suicide even during “normal” times. Veterans like McCaul, who had to carry service-related trauma and barriers to transition into the stresses felt by the global pandemic, now risk becoming abstractions. If we fail to heed the risk, this could be another data point added to suicide statistics.
There are no easy answers here. People are dying from COVID-19. Demand for health care outpaces capacity. Failing businesses add to deepening unemployment. And the future remains uncertain for the majority of the country. However, one thing is certain: veteran suicide bears consequences that go beyond each individual, family, and community involved. It makes military service appear less appealing. It demoralizes those who fight to give veterans hope. And it further exposes at-risk veterans to yet another case where lost hope was met with self-harm.
Whether it means placing a call, connecting through social media, or providing moral and financial support to a veteran who is struggling, it is our collective responsibility to figure out how to mitigate the risk, even as we face the shared battle against a pandemic. Many of these veterans would not face those personal battles, about which many of us know nothing, but for their willingness to fight the battles we did not fight ourselves.
As the battle for at-risk veterans continues, so must our focus and efforts to help as many as possible — no matter what’s going on in our country right now.
Sherman Gillums Jr., AMVETS Chief Advocacy Officer and U.S.Marine veteran, directs the AMVETS HEAL Program
Veterans, service members and family members who need immediate assistance with hardship, benefits, or healthcare issues can contact the AMVETS HEAL helpline by phone toll-free at 1-833-VET-HEAL (1-833-838-4325) from 9AM to 4PM ET Monday-Friday or any time by email at [email protected]. Learn more at https://www.AMVETS.org/vet-heal
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