December 02, 2011

Name: Roman Baca
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: NYC, via CT and NM
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Email: [email protected]

My fellow Marines and I stood in a parking lot in early spring.  We had not gathered together in such a large contingent since we were released from active duty following our combat tour in Fallujah, Iraq. It was a hot afternoon. Most of us wore wool Marine Dress Blue Uniforms, which are extremely unforgiving in the heat. A lone Marine held a shiny brass bugle to his lips as he stood atop a grassy knoll on the other side of the lot. The melody of “Butterfield’s Lullaby”, more commonly known as “Taps”, echoed crisp and clear as they faded into the hills. Six of us lined either side of a shiny wooden casket adorned with metal accents. We stood at the Position of Attention, our right arms raised in crisp salutes.  

Our platoon arrived in Fallujah, Iraq after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in 2005, and Fallujah was brimming with insurgent activity. We were a small platoon attached to two other platoons, all part of a larger battalion. Part of our job included patrolling the local area surrounding the base. Even though we encountered Improvised Explosive Devices, conducted searches for weapons, and were involved in firefights, our platoon returned home with every Marine. Fallujah was a dangerous place and leaving unscathed was rare for any unit.  

Marines we worked with returned to Fallujah in late 2006 as contractors, and reported that insurgent activity had again spiked. Contractors, Army units, and Marine units were getting hit hard before and after our tour. We were lucky to return to the Unites States safe. But once we returned, another war began -- the war at home.

A policy brief released by the Center for a New American Society outlines a theory on suicide: “One school of thought, known as the interpersonal psychological theory of suicide, suggests that the following three 'protective' factors preclude an individual from killing oneself: belongingness, usefulness and an aversion to pain or death."  At home, each Marine struggled to make sense of life when we returned to the civilian world. Each one of us encountered obstacles and problems. A few had problems at school or work. Some could not find a job. Others dealt with family or relationship issues. Two Marines disappeared, severing contact with the unit and the rest of the platoon. One Marine’s problems proved insurmountable. He chose to take his own life. After the news of his passing was disseminated by phone, the memorial planned, and the uniforms made ready; members of the platoon turned their attention to the glaring issue at hand: suicide.  

We were Marine Reservists, and when were finally released from active duty, we scattered to different parts of the world. “Time away from the unit, however, may result in a reduced or thwarted sense of belonging, as individuals no longer have the daily support of their units and feel separate and different from civilians. This is especially true for Guardsmen and Reservists.” We kept in touch, saw each other sporadically, and talked of a reunion. Planning for the unforeseen reunion started and we exchanged messages with other Marines. One of the Marines wrote that if any of us needed help, we had each other.  

As memories of Fallujah faded, so did fellow Marines. Some became police officers, students, actors, or business owners; and some went back for a second or third tour. One or two Marines reunited occasionally for beers or food. Small groups gathered and attended weddings.  

Marines, trained to be disciplined and aggressive, set their sights on a better future and were, for the most part, succeeding. If they had personal problems, they overcame them. Or, if they had problems, they kept the difficulties to themselves. “This stigma exists in both military and civilian culture. In the military, it prevents many service members from seeking help to address mental health care issues; 43 percent of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who took their own lives in 2010 did not seek help from military treatment facilities in the month before their deaths.”  

I cannot understand why the decision to kill one’s self is made. As I try to contemplate and understand our fellow Marine’s decision to take his life, I remembered how it felt preparing to leave for war. Before we left, I sat with my mother to complete two documents: a Living Will and a Power of Attorney. On white paper I outlined instructions, in harrowing detail, to be carried out upon my death. I remembered in Fallujah, when Marines were hurt or killed, we made more preparations. My battle-buddy and I exchanged letters we had written to be given to our loved ones in the event of our death. I also remember the other times -- the mortars dropping, the suspected bomb vest, the nighttime patrols -- when death loomed all-too-closely. A Marine at war doesn’t just face death; a Marine at war is forced to come to terms with death. The Marine and death make a deal in a Humvee in the desert, death sits down, and goes for a ride. The problem is, once the deal is made and the documents are signed, death never really leaves.

The Marine Corps preaches responsibility and leadership. It is the responsibility of the government to assist veterans, but it is also the responsibility of veterans to assist their own. “The military must take care of its own. Although a goal of no suicides may be unachievable, the increasing number of suicides is unacceptable. Additionally, although benefits and services available from the Veterans Health Administration will likely remain the best system of care for veterans, the DOD has moral responsibility to acknowledge and understand former service members. America is losing its battle against suicide.” Leadership, that was already built and tested in war, can aid the government in its fight against suicide. It is also through helping others, that we truly help ourselves.             

A recent New York Times article highlighted two organizations that set the example and are engaging veterans in ways that allow them to help themselves by helping others. “The Mission Continues organization provides stipends for veterans to work at nonprofit organizations and engages other volunteers in community outreach. Team Rubicon is a network of veterans and health professionals who travel to communities — from Haiti to Pakistan to Joplin, Missouri — devastated by natural disasters to provide emergency services. ‘To get the chance to do for others can be incredibly helpful in terms of providing perspective and giving meaning in life.’”

The night before the memorial most of our platoon gathered together for dinner. We shared stories of the past and plans for the future. We were allowed, for one night, to be the Marines that we were trained to be. We could feel camaraderie within the group again, and partake in the communal strength. We looked at each other and admired the leaders we had become in our respective lives. A promise was made to gather for a Reunion before the year ended. Most importantly, we all felt like we belonged again. It was that belonging that gave death the night off. Each of us must now strive to reinforce that feeling of belonging, through service large or small, and send death on an extended vacation.

Roman Baca is a Marine Iraq War Veteran and the Artistic Director of Exit 12 Dance Company in New York City.  After a career in dance, Mr. Baca served as a US Marine and was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq from ‘05-’06. He is also a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and is active with The Mission Continues.  


Thanks for writing this!

Younger vets don't seem to fit in with the old time pomp and circumstance, and non veteran related politics of the existing groups.

It would seem that some could get together and develop new places and reasons to meet?

What can be done to help all the homeless vets who need claims processed and to get a hand backup? The numbers are rising and traditional agencies are failing to produce good or timely results.

We may not have all the answers to our questions why soldiers commit suicide. The fact that they work far from their families and come home just for a couple of days, it's a sad reality. A sharp increase in U.S. Army suicides is likely due to an increase in a range of stresses on soldiers both at home and in war zones.

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