Our military culture and expectations rightly demand relentless standards and there is very little room for human vulnerability, especially in SOFs and those in leadership roles. Without changes in our culture and without a new approach to mental health, help will remain out of reach for many. I know this, because I suffered in the dark and I could no longer maintain the expectations of the warrior, the leader and the family. I hope that my story can contribute to our understanding and help soldiers facing the same problems make better choices and live better lives.
Colonel Owen Ray (retired), former special forces officer
COL Owen Ray is a recently retired Army Special Forces officer who has led airborne and special operations forces for nearly 25 years with multiple deployments in support of Operations Inherent Resolve, Freedom’s Sentinel, Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan and the Philippines, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Joint Task Force – INDOPACOM. LOC Ray’s last posting was as the I Corps Chief of Staff at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – Seeing our abrupt departure from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover and marking the 20th anniversary of September 11, I felt anger and sorrow. For many veterans of the past 20 years, it is difficult to reconcile the sacrifices without the benefit of victory or even progress. For those who have spent their entire careers and most of their adulthood in war, the personal cost in terms of mental, physical and family health is neither well understood nor properly accounted for.
The recent recognition of the suicide crisis among the military and veterans by the White House and the Department of Defense is a welcome start, but we must change the way we approach the problem. Recent suicide statistics from the CDC showed a 3% drop in the overall suicide rate in the United States in 2020, but military rates continue to rise. The Defense Department’s 2021 Suicide Report reflects a 41% increase in active duty suicide rates between 2015 and 2020, killing 580 military personnel in 2020 alone. Most alarming is a recent assessment by Thomas Howard Suitt with Brown University’s “Costs of War” project, which notes that since 9/11 we have lost 7,057 in combat, but probably around 30,177 to suicide. The crisis is likely to worsen as wars end and the military struggles to transition to an unknown and sometimes alien civilian life. Too many people continue to suffer in silence, compromised by decades of conflict, failing home fronts, the desperation, guilt and shame that can accompany a life as a warrior.
On December 26, 2020, I stood on my balcony with a gun to my head, intending to end my life as the police surrounded my house. I had a mental and emotional breakdown that would traumatize my whole family, let my friends, teammates and my command fall and dishonor me.
I was married with three wonderful children, a very respected member of our small suburban community and a very accomplished Special Forces officer for almost 25 years. My career has been marked by achievements and resounding successes – first promotions, selection to command at all tactical levels in Special Forces, a graduate degree from Harvard and selected to serve as a military aide to President Obama – wearing nuclear football for over two years.
Behind the public facade that I so ardently protected was a garbage can fire of mental, emotional and physical deterioration and a struggling family. I suffered from complete mental exhaustion from the cumulative impact of untreated mental and physical health issues, operational and job stress over a career in SOF, including eight deployments. I was consumed by the inner warfare and completely oblivious to my own deterioration.
In the aftermath of that horrible night, I was devastated, confused and struggled to understand what, why and how it happened. I have been criminally charged (and still on trial), vilified by the media and lost my freedom, my career and, even worse, my family. Months later, and after intensive hospital treatment, I was diagnosed with severe chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, insomnia and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
I have struggled over the years, compensating like many of us, by compartmentalizing emotions and numbing myself with alcohol. The job, mission, and deployments made it possible to focus, learn, feel at ease, and ultimately succeed. The house, however, was unknown. I no longer fit in or have a role, and apparently I always felt a failure. My downward spiral accelerated after I returned from an extremely difficult deployment to the anti-ISIS leadership in 2018. I came home different and the life I returned to changed.
This was the second long deployment in two years after having spent a difficult year in Afghanistan and my marriage was irreparably damaged. Over the next two years, I would have deployed twice more and lost four more soldiers as well as many friends and teammates. I became more and more depressed, negative, guilty, angry and suicidal. My family also suffered as I endured this difficult life, my deteriorating health and my inability to connect emotionally. It is a tragic situation but unfortunately not uncommon.
The human cost of eternal war
I joined the Army Special Forces right after 9/11 as a team leader and like many of us started losing friends and teammates when the war started. Then came the memorials of regular units and the losses of my own command. Not only from combat 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, have taken their toll.
The losses extended beyond close friends and included the forces of our partner country, civilian casualties and moral injuries resulting from devastating campaigns. As the Green Beret, we train, live and fight alongside our foreign partners, whom we have observed from afar as they were abandoned, hunted down and killed if they did not have the chance to get out of Afghanistan. in the last days. These high costs with no clear benefit will undoubtedly impact veterans of this generation and fuel the flames of an existing mental health crisis.
PTSD, depression, head trauma, chronic pain and physical injury, relationship problems due to long absences, and drug addiction are hallmarks of persistent wars. Fueled by a culture of relentless standards and perfection as well as a general lack of awareness of mental, emotional and spiritual health, we face continued risks of human deterioration and failure.
A tragic example is the loss of an army officer and exceptional friend, Colonel Scott Green, who committed suicide last June. A beloved and accomplished leader in the Ranger and Airborne forces as well as a husband and father, it was a devastating loss that left many people shaken and wondering “why”. Achievements and professional success do not prevent mental compromise. Unless you were walking in Scott’s boots it’s hard to understand what he was wearing but I know it got too heavy and he felt like he had nowhere to go. turn. There are others like Scott right now. As an army and as a society, we owe them more.
Do the same thing but expect different results – It’s time for a change
As a society, we respond to mental health, shifting our finite resources from one crisis to another. We devote vast resources to physical health, but Resilience Classes or Mental Health Awareness Month are superficial offerings for proactive mental health. With all of my education and training, I couldn’t understand or recognize my own deterioration – I didn’t have the tools, and I wouldn’t have admitted that I had a problem. I now regularly visit the Behavioral Health Clinic, which I never set foot in in my 25 years of service until I hit the wall. The stigma is still there. I’m ashamed in the room. There is no eye contact, no conversation, no leadership when it’s needed. This is in stark contrast to the physiotherapy clinic where focusing on rehabilitating an injury is only part of health and improving performance.
The military’s goal remains to fight and win our country’s wars, but investing in mental health will not lead to lowering effectiveness or standards in combat. Personal responsibility and better choices are key to making a difference in this crisis, but we need to improve mental health awareness and foster a climate and culture where our military members feel they can ask for help.
Reducing shame and despair is essential in this effort to save lives, and we cannot continue to be offered a false choice between health and mission or career. It starts with the leader’s vulnerability, genuineness, and compassion. We are all sensitive to relationship issues, substance abuse issues, and mental health needs. It’s time to let go of judgment and come forward for someone. A friend showed up for me in my darkest hour and saved my life. Mental health is health and should be a priority throughout the military and, if necessary, led by Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act.
We have lost too many of the best of this nation because of this conflict and we are losing more every day here at home. We stand to lose much more as wars end and the military moves on to civilian life.
I now reconcile my life and my responsibility but also my responsibility to recover and to live better for my family and my friends. For a while, I felt I was on a collision course but powerless to stop it. With help and a lot of hard work, I’m learning a better path, but it cost too much.
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