My own failure and our military’s mental health crisis

Our military culture and expectations require seemingly unreliable standards and there is little room for human vulnerability, especially in SOF and leadership roles. Without changes in our culture and a new approach to mental health, help will remain out of reach for many people. I know, because I suffered in the dark and I could no longer keep up with the expectations of warrior, leader and family. I hope my story can enhance our understanding and help service-members facing similar issues to make better choices and lead better lives.

Colonel Owen Ray (retired), former special forces officer

Col Owen Ray is a recently retired Army Special Forces officer who led the Hawaiian and Special Operations Forces for nearly 25 years, including Operation Inherent Resolution, Freedom Sentinel, Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan and the Philippines, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Joint Task Force Several deployments were made in support of Indopacom. Col Re’s last assignment was as Chief of Staff of the I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

expert perspective – As I watched our abrupt departure from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I felt anger and sadness. For many veterans of the past 20 years, it is hard to reconcile the sacrifices without the benefit of victory or progress. For those who have spent their entire careers and most of their adult lives in war, the personal costs in terms of mental, physical and family health are neither well understood nor adequately addressed.

The recent recognition of the military and veteran suicide crisis by the White House and the Department of Defense is a welcome start, but we need to change the way we tackle this problem. Recent CDC suicide data showed a 3% drop in the overall US suicide rate in 2020, although military rates continue to rise. The 2021 Defense Department report on suicide shows a 41% increase in the active-duty suicide rate between 2015 and 2020, killing 580 service members in 2020 alone. Most shocking is the recent assessment by the Thomas Howard suit with Brown University’s “Cost of War” project, which notes that since 9/11, we have lost 7,057 to combat, But there is an estimated 30,177 chances for suicide. The crisis is likely to get worse as wars cease and soldiers struggle to transition to unknown and sometimes foreign civilian life. Many people suffer in silence, compromise decades in conflict, fail on domestic fronts, the despair, guilt and shame that can accompany a warrior life.

fall

On December 26, 2020, I stood on my balcony with a pistol to my head, intent on ending my life as the police surrounded my house. I had a mental and emotional breakdown that would traumatize my entire family, leave my friends, teammates, and command and bring humiliation to me.

I was married with three wonderful children, a respected member of our small suburban community, and a hugely successful Special Forces officer of nearly 25 years. My career was marked with stupendous achievement and success – early promotion, being selected to command every tactical level in the Special Forces, earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and being selected to serve as President Obama’s military aide. – Carrying nuclear football for more than two years.

Behind the public facade I was the fire of mental, emotional and physical degradation and the dustbin of a struggling family. I suffered utter mental exhaustion from the cumulative effects of untreated mental and physical health issues, operational and career stress during a career at SOF, including eight deployments. I was consumed by the inner war and completely unaware of my own deterioration.

After that terrible night, I was devastated, confused and struggling to understand what, why, and how it happened. I was criminally charged (and still facing trial), maligned by the media and lost my freedom, my career, and worst of all, my family. Months later, and after extensive inpatient treatment, I was diagnosed with severe and chronic post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, insomnia, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

I struggled for years, many of us compensating, by divulging feelings and numbing with alcohol. Task, mission and deployment provided focus, familiarity, comfort and ultimately success. However, the house was unfamiliar. I no longer fit in and neither did I have a role, and seemingly always felt like a failure. My downward spiral intensified in 2018 after returning from an extremely difficult deployment that directed the fight against ISIS. I came home isolated and life changed.

This was the second long deployment in two years after a difficult year in Afghanistan and irreparable damage to my marriage. Over the next two years, I would deploy twice more and lost four more soldiers as well as many friends and companions. I became increasingly depressed, negative, guilt-ridden, angry, and suicidal. My family suffered equally as they endured this difficult life, my deteriorating health, and my inability to connect emotionally. This is a sad situation but unfortunately not uncommon.

Human cost of war forever

I joined Army Special Forces as a team leader right after 9/11 and, like many of us, began to lose friends and teammates in combat. Then there was the loss of my own in regular unit memorial and command. Not only from war but also from cancer, suicide and training accidents. Trips to Dover Air Force Base to receive remains, console and care for spouses and children, and attend funerals, took a toll.

The damage extended beyond close friends and included moral injury from our Allied Nation forces, civilian casualties and disastrous operations. As a Green Beret, we train, live and fight alongside our foreign partners, who we watched from afar because they weren’t lucky enough to get out of Afghanistan in the final days, then abandoned, hunting. done and killed. These high costs without obvious benefits will undoubtedly affect this generation of veterans and fan the flames of the current mental health crisis.

Relationship issues with PTSD, depression, TBI, chronic pain and physical injury, long absences and substance abuse are typical consequences of enduring wars. Due to a culture of unreliable standards and perfection, as well as a lack of awareness of mental, emotional and spiritual health, we humans face constant risks of degradation and failure.

A sad example is the loss of an extraordinary Army officer and friend, Colonel Scott Green, who took his own life last June. A beloved and accomplished leader within the Ranger and Airborne forces, as well as a husband and father, it was a devastating loss that shook many and asked “why”. Achievements and career success do not prevent mental compromise. Unless you’ve walked in Scott’s shoes it’s hard to understand what he was carrying but I know it turned out to be too much and he felt he had nowhere to turn. There are other guys out there like Scott right now. As an army and society, we are more indebted to them.

Doing the same but expecting different results – time to change

As a society, we react to mental health, shifting our limited resources from one crisis to another. We devote vast resources to physical health, yet resilience classes or Mental Health Awareness Month are shallow offerings geared toward active mental health. With all my education and training, I couldn’t understand or recognize my own fallibility – I didn’t have the tools, nor would I have accepted that I had a problem. Now I visit the behavioral health clinic regularly, which I have never set foot in during my 25 years of service, until I hit a wall. The stigma is still there. I am ashamed of the room. No eye contact when needed, no talking, no lead. This is in stark contrast to a physical therapy clinic where the focus on injury rehabilitation is a part of recovery and improving performance.

The purpose of the military is to fight and win our nation’s wars, but investing in mental health will not lower combat effectiveness or standards. Personal responsibility and making better choices are the keys to change in this crisis, but we also need to improve mental health awareness and foster an environment and culture where our servicemen feel they can ask for help.

It is important to let go of shame and despair in this effort to save lives, and we cannot continue to provide the wrong choice between health and mission or career. It starts with the leader’s vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion. We are all susceptible to relationship issues, substance abuse problems, mental health needs. It’s time to leave judgment and show up for someone. A friend showed up for me in my darkest hour and saved my life. Mental health is health and should be given priority in the military, and if necessary, directed by Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act.

We have lost so many of the best of this country in this struggle and we are losing more everyday here at home. As the war draws to a close and service members turn into civilian lives, we are losing more.

I am now reconciling my life and my accountability, but I also have a responsibility to recover and live better for my family and friends. For a while, I thought I was on a collision course but was unable to stop it. With help and a lot of work, I’m learning to walk a better path, but it was too expensive.

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