In July 2005, there was a soldier in the United States Army who truly needed help. In the Middle of Iraq, he was barely hanging on to life. His biggest enemy, however, was not what you might think. It was not Al Qaida. It was not the blistering heat, the scorpions, or even the sleep deprivation that faces our troops these days. This soldier’s enemy was one of the most complex, and until recently, overlooked enemies facing the modern military – Depression. After facing this enemy on his own for over a month, my brother, Private First Class Jason Drew S., took his life with his own weapon in his closet with a final plea nailed to his door.
It is tradition for the men, and even some of the women, in my family to join the military. I had joined two years earlier, and was serving with the Special Operations Support Command at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. My father and uncle, who had served with the Special Forces and elite “Delta” force, continued to teach future soldiers at this same installation. Jason, a fresh recruit, had just graduated from Basic Training. His aspirations to follow in our father’s footsteps would be shattered before he even began to pursue them. He was kicked out of Airborne School the first week for failure to do the required amount of pull-ups.
Because of this, he was transferred to a unit about to deploy to Iraq. While oversees, Jason served as a mortar man with the Third Infantry Division. A series of hazing and punishments for things like being out of uniform deeply affected my hyper-emotional brother. He had expressed his feelings of hopelessness to our mother via e-mail in the form of a good-bye letter. My mom contacted the unit immediately. Jason met with the Chaplain, who referred him to a mental health adviser in Baghdad. After a series of written tests were administered, this “professional” came to the conclusion that my brother, Jason, was capable of feigning mental illness to get out of work, and he was sent back to his unit to await punishment. He was able to come to this conclusion without even meeting with Jason for more than three minutes. Because of this, Jason was barred from accessing the Internet or calling home for what would be the rest of his life.
Jason was once again caught out of uniform, this time receiving a more severe punishment. His commander, upset by the report of Jason’s malingering from Baghdad, decided to throw the proverbial book at him. In a stern voice, the commander told him that his actions, if he continued to act out, would land him in jail with little more to look forward to than being a “butt-buddy”. Jason, distraught and embarrassed, went up to his room to write out his final words.
“This I leave as my last message to those who I leave behind. I know you think Im a coward for this but in the face of existing as I am now I have no other choice. As the 1st Sgt said all I have to look forward to is a butt-buddy in jail, not much of a future.
I dont want to know what you people think I have going for me to think I should want to live, trust me, I have nothing. I have done nothing but bring dishonor to this unit, myself, but most importantly my family. I wanted one last chance to say goodbye to them but that was taken away like everything else.
Id like also to say goodbye to [redacted] and [redacted] the two people that have held me together until now. Split my things up among the platoon, after all that why people tolerated me, it’s funny how getting your things taken away brings out the truth in people.
Maybe finally I can get rid of these demons, maybe finally I can get some peace.
The same time that my brother wrote these words I was managing Chapel services at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Chapel at Ft. Bragg. A feeling of despair came over me like I had never felt before, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I needed to write to my brother to tell him to hang in there. I didn’t find out until that night that I was too late.
Suicide in the military is rising at an alarming rate. I believe that as communities we can help our heroes survive a struggle that many of us don’t understand. By community, I am referring to two separate groups; First, the military as a whole, and second, our soldiers’ hometowns.
I believe that the power to prevent suicide and to combat depression lies in our peers. If we as soldiers begin to accept new soldiers more readily into our units and barracks, we can eliminate that “newcomer” feeling that we have all at some point or another felt.
Second, and possibly most importantly, soldiers rely on their homes for support. I never felt more loved and respected than when I stepped off a plane in Lynchburg after five months in Afghanistan, only to be greeted by a standing ovation of everyone at the airport. The knowledge that although you may not know exactly what we do, you still appreciate us for doing it means more to a soldier than anyone could know. Most of us don’t even realize how many people in our community are serving us in the military in some part of the world.
I believe that over time, communities will realize their important role in the lives of service members. I also believe that we as soldiers will eventually realize the importance of treating each other as equals. After all, we are all on the same team.