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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Reflections on a friend unable to reach out for help

The sergeant major retired from the Marine Corps at the top of his game. He had the love, respect and notoriety of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and his nine rows of battle ribbons depicted 30 years of exemplary service and heroics. With three beautiful children, a life dedicated to helping others and with a charismatic personality, I'm unable to wrap my head around the reason the sergeant major took his own life.

All the good intentions I had for reaching out to my friend were for naught. I was too late. All that was said is that he finally succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I can only surmise that he couldn't drop his head on the shoulders of others and it appears by his communiques that throughout his trauma he struggled to maintain a sense of normality — until he no longer could.

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I've been on the road for two weeks traveling to Texas via New Mexico. My daughter Simone, a student at the University of Texas in Austin, has a birthday on April 11. I thought I'd stop by for a piece of cake. En route, I planned to visit some old soldiers who, because of the demons of war, live secluded lives in the wilds of New Mexico.

This trip, I found no joy traveling the blue highways of the Southwest. Regardless of limitless country and open skies, the sergeant major's demise hung around my neck like the fabled albatross. He showed no visible symptoms, but I knew that because of his experiences it was unlikely that he'd proceed with the next chapter of life unscathed. Trauma is personal, and it doesn't disappear if it's not validated. When it is ignored, as in the case of the sergeant major, its silent screams continue internally, only to be heard by him.

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I visited my buddy Al, who lives between the Zuni and Navaho reservations. After 30 minutes of traveling a washboard road, I found his ranch resting on 40 acres of isolation. I was his last visitor, and that was three years ago.

Novels such as "My Antonia," "Old Jules," "Dakota" and "The Great Plains" speak of the countless lonely lives who live on the fringe of society. After reading this genre of fiction, I am convinced that if there is a reality, then John Donne's contention that "No man is an island, entire of itself" is a major step toward survival.

Al was one of my Marines who served in three wars and still lives his life walking the razor's edge between sanity and insanity. PTSD never dissipates, you just learn how to live with it.

My next stop was at Jeff's, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. We spoke of Vietnam, and he disclosed events that somehow I never knew. He too struggles, yet he fills his life creating history and restoring ancient artifacts. Together we restored an 1803 Harpers Ferry frontier rifle. Our imaginations got the best of us as we fanaticized that the weapon was part of the Corps of Discovery and accompanied Lewis and Clark.

We live in a world insensitive to emotional pain, where one's attitude is the sole determinant of the impact of an event. Too often it is assumed that one creates his own reality. When you most need support and validation to get through the worst pain of life, you are unable to reach out, mostly because you are unable to see and understand the demons that will crack your soul.

As I'm cutting through the Panhandle, heading to the Davis mountains via the Vietnam Research Center in Lubbock, Texas, I think of the sergeant major. He founded numerous charities and championed awareness of the 20 veterans who commit suicide each day. Yet nobody was there for him.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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