Identity crisis: A U.S. veteran and a casualty of war
July saw a record number of suicides in the Army and among recent veterans. I was nearly one of them.
I suffer from both traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, the two most common conditions of suicidal veterans. Sometimes life becomes overwhelming.
This summer, as has happened often before, I experienced severe depression, which leads to isolation. Then, when I was feeling most hopeless, I also started feeling tremendously reckless. I found myself feeling aggressive and impulsive, feelings that fuel erratic behavior. With each passing week of the summer, as I pushed yet another friend or family member away, it became easier to envision suicide as an option to break this insufferable tension.
From my service in Iraq, I carry memories I know I will never be entirely free of. In 2007, I was a platoon leader, guiding my soldiers through dangerous streets during battle in Baqubah, a city that was spiraling out of control with insurgency. In defense of my soldiers, I called in a mortar strike on a house where we believed enemy fighters were holed up. After the strike, we learned that there was an innocent family with young children huddled inside. Images of that family still haunt me today, and I haven’t been the same since the strike that killed them. My sense of guilt is sometimes overwhelming.
The internal tension I feel goes beyond surviving firefights and mortar rounds. It goes much deeper than being startled by loud noises and fearing large crowds, though these things are part of my life too. The bigger crisis facing me, along with a lot of other veterans, is one of identity. Who am I, after returning home from war?
Military service is not simply a job; it is an identity. Servicemen and women give their entire selves to the cause because lives depend on it. With each deployment, each combat experience, that identity becomes more entrenched. We survive near-death experiences and make the strongest of bonds, all as soldiers. And then, on returning to civilian life, that identity is ripped away.
After being seriously injured in combat in Iraq and no longer able to serve in the same capacity, I couldn’t see what of “me” was left. All I saw in myself were the remains of a once-accomplished leader, grasping feverishly at a lost identity. I tried to fade into the background of a civilian life that no longer made sense, as I tried to forge a new identity.
A civilian once told me, with earnest compassion, that the painful guilt I still feel over inadvertently killing innocent Iraqi civilians in the fog of battle was a good thing. It meant I had the ability to fully understand the implications of my actions — something unachievable through drone warfare. But that guilt is also a reason that I am a psychological “casualty of war.”
On bad days, it’s easy to see my problems as providing a kind of new identity. I am no longer a military officer; I’m a psychological casualty of war. I wonder, is this the role I am now destined to play? Would taking my own life put an end to the label or confirm its truth?
I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know that I can no longer trust myself with my own life. These issues and questions, along with the tension building inside me, must be addressed. I cannot continue like this. I am a father now, and I know I need to get help for the sake of my sons, if for no other reason.
Because of this, I have decided to admit myself into a PTSD rehabilitative, inpatient program offered at a Veterans Administration medical center in Pennsylvania.
It is an intensive program that will try my emotions, but I know that it is probably my best chance for a healthy life — and perhaps my last chance. I’m scared, and I wish I did not have to go through this. But more than that, I do not want to be like this anymore.
I’m not alone in needing this sort of intervention. Veterans around the country need intensive help in rebuilding their identities, and it’s imperative that they get it.
I truly believe that deep down, there is still something inside me worth saving, and that I can forge a new identity as my sons’ father. Whether I deserve to have my treasured sons or not, I want to become the father they need.
Shannon P. Meehan, a retired U.S. Army captain, is a communications specialist at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families and author (with Roger Thompson) of the memoir “Beyond Duty.” He earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and an Army Commendation for Valor in combat.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.