It is my job to know the signs of depression, PTSD and suicide risk. I have a Graduate Degree in Counseling, with two additional graduate certificates in Military Trauma Counseling and Substance Abuse Counseling. My husband and I operate the local branch of Reboot Combat Recovery, a faith-based course that helps guide people to a healthier mindset. Working with hurting people and recognizing risk is what we do. However, even with education and experience, I was not prepared for October 27, 2018.
My stepfather is a Vietnam veteran who is 100% disabled due to PTSD. He was 70 years old and had been carrying the scars of war for most of his life. We had spoken so many times regarding his pain, the inner struggles he waged, and the burdens he carried. He was in counseling with the VA, he saw his doctor regularly. He should have been in a good place. He seemed like he was in a good place – but appearances can be so deceiving when it comes to the walking wounded with internal scars and a war raging in their minds that just never ends.
Typically, I am my stepfathers “go to” when it comes to medical issues. I am the back-up phone call that is made if there is an issue. October 27, when things went bad, for whatever reason the VA called my husband instead. That one mistake – saved lives. My Stepfather had been quietly and internally escalating into distress and none of us saw the signs. Not his wife (my mother), not my husband, not even me (the “trained” professional). On October 27, 2018, he got up and had argument with my mom. Then he got into his truck and drove to the VA counseling office to sit in their parking lot until they opened. When they opened for operation he went in and tried to explain he was in crisis. They felt it was serious enough that he was immediately taken in and he spoke with his counselor for about 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, the decision was made to seek additional support, they offered to have an ambulance carry him to the local hospital, but he said no. So, they called my husband to transport him. My husband arrived at the VA counseling facility, and while he was speaking to the counselor, my stepfather walked out of the building and locked himself in his truck, where he took out his gun and decided to end it all. It took about 20 seconds for my husband to realize my stepfather's absence and he immediately rushed out the door, to see him slumped over with his head on the steering wheel.
There are no words to describe the horror Jeff felt as he ran to the truck door – he was simultaneously relived to realize my stepfather was still alive, and terrified when he saw the gun in his hand resting in his lap. Jeff rounded the truck to the driver’s side door, punched in the code to unlock the door (thank God he knew it) and said, “Man, you don’t want to do this.” My stepdad never looked up, he simply whispered, “I don’t want to die, but I can’t live like this anymore.” He raised the gun and fired. Jeff says to this day he isn’t entirely sure how he managed to stop the tragedy, other than God was looking down on them. Somehow, my newly retired (by one. month) Marine engaged in hand to hand combat one last time. In what I can only call a miraculous move of God-inspired ninja skills – Jeff launched his body across my stepfather, sticking his finger into the trigger as it was being pressed and managing to stop the gun from firing. They then engaged in a wrestling match within the confines of the truck until Jeff elbowed him in the forehead, causing him to be stunned, and stripped him of the weapon. At that point, utterly defeated, my stepfather cried out, “Why? Why didn’t you just let me go?!”
Since that time, my stepfather has come so far in establishing a healthy mindset. Who he was in October 2018 is not who he is in 2020, and who he is in 2020 is not who will be in the future – healthy is his daily choice now. He attends his VA counseling, but he also attends a men’s PTSD group at his church, as well as a weekly breakfast with fellow veterans where they just sit and “shoot the bull.” He is in a group chat with these same men, and they share jokes, scripture, memes and life stories daily. They share the good and the bad. He has found connections and relationships that matter to him, that support and encourage him in a way he can receive, that helps him feel encouraged and empowered.
He and I still talk, often and deeply. We have discussed that painful day many times. One of the ways we describe his mindset to others is to equate it to that of a drowning individual. He had help available at his fingertips. He was in counseling, he could have cried out to either myself or my husband, he had a church family, he had physical family present in his life, and this was not his first suicide attempt, he knew the spiral he was in. But much a like a drowning person, he did not have the ability to mentally process the need for help or reach out to grasp the supports and safety nets that were in place around him. He had no voice to cry out.
When an individual is drowning, the rule of water safety is to throw them an object to grasp so they might grab it and hold on. However, that panic mindset, that fear and helplessness in the midst of drowning, often causes individuals to be unable to stop their struggle long enough to grab hold of the very thing that might save them. And if you swim too close, they will inadvertently pull you down as they try to save themselves in the midst of the life and death struggle. My stepfather says that is very similar to his mindset at the time. He did not have the clarity of thought or strength of spirit to grab hold of the very things that could have saved him. Instead, he continued his panicked death swim into despair, and when he held that gun and went to fire, he recognizes he could have pulled Jeff down with him.
I want to you to know that hindsight is 20/20, but when we are doing life, we are all doing the very best that we can and sometimes we miss what is up close and personal. Often, those that are wounded are drowning silently and we never see the struggle they are up against nor do they have it in them to speak their pain and ask for help. Jeff and I both carried so much guilt following this close encounter – we blamed ourselves, we blamed the professionals, we even were angry at my stepfather because we thought he should have known how selfish this course of action was and how much it would have hurt the rest of us. It was not until later, when he and I talked, that it made sense to me how those drowning in despair and hopelessness closely mirror those in the midst of a physical drowning with their reactions and inability to reach out for help.
Recently, one of our grandchildren got into trouble in our pool. There were seven adults in the backyard, all watching the little ones’ swim – we are all about safety first and keeping eyes on the kids. Do you know all seven of us missed the struggle? Literally their father was just a few feet away in the water with them. Our twelve-year old son recognized the situation, jumped in and saved the day. There had never even been a cry for help – just a silent struggle that was missed even as we were watching closely.
Why do I share this story? Because, if you have lost someone close to you – the burden of guilt and responsibility can be crushing. Had the VA called me and not Jeff, I would never have been able to physically intervene like he did. Had Jeff not been as quick as he was to realize the departure from the facility, or not been as rapid as he was in responding, the outcome would have been utterly heartbreaking.
If you feel you missed the signs, if you could not get through to them, if the counseling, or the medication, or the talking, or the love just did not penetrate the darkness of despair – you are not alone! Even with all our love for my stepfather, even with all our experience and training, it was not enough to meet his needs, or to even recognize his peril. If you carry the burden of guilt, feeling responsible for actions that you did not see coming, or could not stop, it is time to lay that guilt down – it is time to forgive them, and to forgive yourself as well. Sometimes, those going under do so with such speed and silence, we never even realize the danger. I share this story with you because I want you to know – IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!
If you, or someone you know and love, is struggling with trauma issues - please don't struggle alone. Reboot Combat Recovery is an amazing organization with sites nationwide to support active duty, veterans, and first responders with their life experiences. Please - call someone and don't be afraid to call again and again and again - help is out there - you do not have to walk this journey alone!