Military Veterans Must Save Each Other From Suicide

Members of the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, deployed in 2008 to serve in an isolated outpost in Afghanistan. Their job was to try to control a Taliban stronghold.

One evening the squad was patrolling single-file across a field when the enemy ambushed it on two sides. As the squad sprinted for cover, Lance Cpl. Manuel Bojorquez watched a bullet hit a Marine in front of him, who crumpled to the dirt. Bojorquez and another Marine grabbed the bleeding man and dragged him to a ditch.

Pressed against the ground, readying his machine gun, Bojorquez looked over and saw his teammate Corporal Markel laying down fire. Together they showered the surrounding fields and houses with bullets, providing cover for a medic. But the enemy pressed harder, another Marine was hit and the outnumbered squad had to pick up and run.

 

Marine Suicide

“It’s funny. I was never scared. You just act. But it stuck with me,” Bojorquez said.

By the end of the deployment, 20 Marines in the battalion had been killed and 140 had been wounded. Many lost limbs. Some were badly burned; others were so battered by blasts that they can scarcely function day-to-day.

While some returned unscathed, they were unable to adjust to civilian life and say that what they brought home from combat is more complex than just PTSD. Many regret things they did — or failed to do. Some feel betrayed that the deep sacrifices made in combat seem to have achieved so little. Others cannot reconcile the stark intensity of war with being home, in a mild-mannered civilian capacity, leaving them alienated among family and friends. It is not just symptoms like sleeplessness or flashbacks, but an injury to their sense of self.

After Bojorquez returned home, he started having a recurring nightmare. He was patrolling with his squad when bomb blasts killed everyone but him. As the dust cleared, he looked up to see enemy fighters surging forward. He often sat up in bed, thinking he was choking on his own blood. After the sixth suicide in his old battalion, Bojorquez sank onto his bed. With a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam beside him and a pistol in his hand, he began to cry.

He had gone to Afghanistan at 19 as a machine-gunner in the Marine Corps. In the 18 months since leaving the military, he had grown long hair and a bushy mustache. It was 2012. He was working part time in a store selling baseball caps and going to community college while living with his parents in the suburbs of Phoenix. He rarely mentioned the war to friends and family, and he never mentioned his nightmares.

He thought he was getting used to suicides in his old infantry unit, but the latest one had hit him like a brick: Lance Corporal Joshua Markel, a mentor and good friend from his fire team. Markel had seemed unshakable in Afghanistan, volunteering for extra patrols, joking during firefights, and once home, got a solid job with a sheriff’s office, got married, and bought a new truck. But that week, while watching football on TV with friends, he had wordlessly gone into his room, picked up a pistol and killed himself. He was 25.

Still reeling from the news, Bojorquez surveyed the old baseball posters on the walls of his childhood bedroom and the sun-bleached body armor hanging on his bedpost. Then he took a long pull from the bottle.

“If Markel couldn’t make it,” he recalled thinking to himself, “what chance do I have?”

Bojorquez, 27, served in one of the hardest hit military units in Afghanistan, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. In 2008, the 2/7 deployed to a wild swath of Helmand Province. Well beyond reliable supply lines, the battalion regularly ran low on water and ammunition while coming under fire almost daily. During eight months of combat, the unit killed hundreds of enemy fighters and suffered more casualties than any other Marine battalion that year.

When its members returned, most left the military and melted back into the civilian landscape. But many struggled, unable to find solace. And for some, the agonies of war never end.

Now, suicide spreads through the old unit like a virus. At least 13 have killed themselves, two while on active duty, the rest after leaving the military. The group’s resulting suicide rate is nearly four times the rate for young male veterans as a whole and 14 times that for all Americans.

The deaths started a few months after the Marines returned from the war in Afghanistan. A corporal put on his dress uniform and shot himself in his driveway. A former sergeant shot himself in front of his girlfriend and mother. An ex-sniper who pushed others to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder shot himself while alone in his apartment.

The problem continues to grow over time. Veterans of the unit, tightly connected by social media, sometimes learn of the deaths nearly as soon as they happen. In November, a 2/7 veteran of three combat tours posted a photo of his pistol on Snapchat with a note saying, “I miss you all.” Minutes later, he killed himself.

For years, leaders at the top levels of the government have acknowledged the high suicide rate among veterans and spent heavily to try to reduce it. But the suicides have continued, and basic questions about who is most at risk and how best to help them are still largely unanswered. The authorities are not even aware of the spike in suicides in the 2/7; suicide experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs said they did not track suicide trends among veterans of specific military units. And the Marine Corps does not track suicides of former service members.

As Bojorquez stood alongside more than a dozen other Marine veterans at Markel’s funeral in Lincoln, Neb. The crack of rifles echoed off the headstones as an honor guard fired a salute.

Bojorquez offered his condolences to Markel’s mother after the funeral. He thought about how life seemed increasingly bitter. The thrill of combat was gone. Only regrets and flashbacks remained.

Bojorquez offered his condolences to Markel’s mother after the funeral. He thought about how life seemed increasingly bitter. The thrill of combat was gone. Only regrets and flashbacks remained.

Markel’s mother pressed something into Bojorquez’s palm at the funeral, a spent brass shell casing from the honor guard. Promise me, she said to him, that you will never put your mother through this. Bojorquez promised.

That began a three-year odyssey in which the deaths of his friends weighed on Bojorquez, who tried repeatedly to get help from Veterans Affairs but ultimately gave up.

“I was lost then. I still am kind of lost,” he said in a recent interview. “I was just trying to look for something that wasn’t there. I was trying to look for an answer that I don’t have — that no one does.”

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In the end, military members turn to a survival strategy they learned long ago in basic training: depending on one another. Doing what the government can not or will not. They build formal and informal organizations to recreate the accountability, brotherhood, and sisterhood they lost after their service ended.

Grey Team is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, run by veterans, whose sole mission is to support active-duty U.S. soldiers and military veterans by building and implementing solutions to reduce and eliminate PTSD related suicides.

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