Recently, I was engaged in conversation with a well-known public figure that had obviously done his homework on Armed Forces Mission. As I shared our mission and goals he quickly, cut me off saying, “I know what you do, I got that, but who are you?” It was actually a rather refreshing question. After all, when was the last time someone asked, “Yes, but who are you?” It was refreshing not only because I was prepared to respond, but because it is a question that I often ask of others that are struggling on the edge of the abyss between life and death. While I know there are many circumstances that create risk of suicide, I am also convinced that one of the fundamental issues is often a crisis of identity. Thus, the reason I often ask others, “Who are you?” Everything we think, say, and do is somehow related to identity.
Most the time we focus on the “do” part of that last sentence. Men are especially notorious for doing so. We find ourselves in a group of men we don’t know; and the question is inevitably asked, “So, what do you do?” The question may be a sincere desire to learn, relate and build a friendship; yet many men, would acknowledge that it is often a question of stealth to quickly ascertain perceived value; our place in the food chain. Perhaps women do the same, but I can only speak as a man.
Many of the veterans I work with struggle over this issue that in their mind, what they are doing now, is not as important as what they used to do. Adding to the issue is the fact that often there is a lack of harmony or congruence between the three – THINK SAY DO. We say one thing and do another; or we say we want to change – we want to be a better husband, wife, parent, employee, but we continue to ruminate on negativity and failure. Where is the harmony?
As the conversation with the celebrity continued it became clear that he was at odds with a certain element of society that perpetuates an ongoing sense of brokenness and entitlement. He made it clear too that he was not interested in being part of any organization that fosters the idea that veterans are broken people. Was that a personal challenge? Sure it was. But I assured him that was not who we are and it is certainly not who I am. I may be a chaplain, but for good or bad, I’m not a softy or a pushover and I am not a broken veteran. However, I do work with broken veterans every day and the fact of the matter is that veterans take their lives at a rate two to three times more than those who have never served. So, there is a problem, whether we want to admit it or not.
I am very much aware that there is a certain unavoidable tension in the work that we do at AFM. It is a tension that I personally must deal with every day in my life. I accepted the celebrity’s challenge because it gave me pause to think about the congruence of my own THINK SAY DO. So, for the sake of those who want more information than simply knowing about my mission, I share my own personal beliefs. Knowing my Board at AFM as I think I do, I would have to believe that the majority would also say the following is consistent with the heart of the AFM organization. I suppose you could call what follows - a Chaplain’s Manifesto.
When we talk about veteran suicide, we are simply stating facts. This is the real world that we live in. We don’t do so as a bleeding-heart organization spouting sob stories intended to elicit a sympathy that perpetuates the never-ending cycle of brokenness and despair. That’s not who I am and that is not what AFM is about even though we deal with broken people every day.
Our vision statement is clear. “AFM is a Veteran led and Community supported organization focused on the elimination of suicide in our community.” We are veteran led – We are leaders; we operate from the position of strength. Our vision informs our mission and that is to build resilience and restore hope. You can’t do either by staying broken and filled with despair.
When I share the reality that 8,000 veterans a year take their own lives, I am not looking for sympathy. Rather I am seeking to rally courageous battle buddies who willingly engage in the battle to save lives. Such battle buddies may be fellow veterans or compassionate civilians that want to make a difference. And believe me when I say You Can Make a Difference! The fact is that after more than 600 suicide interventions, everyone that I have worked with is still alive. Their hope is being restored. University research out of Berkly reveals a similar result.
When individuals at risk have someone who intervenes in time of crisis there is a tremendously reduced risk of suicide. In one study, 94% of individuals who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge during a 40 year period are still alive or died of natural causes, not suicide. In every workshop, I teach participants that suicide is not about people wanting to die so much as it is about hurting people not knowing how to live anymore. Intervention demonstrates to the hurting person that someone cares and that knowledge is the first step in rediscovering hope and the courage to reengage in life. When I share the stories of hurting people it as much for the person who can help as it is the one who needs help. We will continue to do what we do regardless of who is willing to help, but we could accomplish the mission so much faster with battle buddies willing to take the training that saves lives.
Psalms 84:7 reads, “They go from strength to strength…” The context is important. They were in the Valley of Weeping, but they turned the dark and heavy place into a place of flowing springs and life. They refused to allow their circumstance to define them. When we allow circumstances to define us the outcome will always be a crisis of identity. We will never find resilience or be able to hold on to hope. We will always be at risk; subject to another round of brokenness and despair when circumstance defines our identity.
Look, I get it. Circumstances cannot help but influence us, but they do not have to define us. Too many people allow their circumstances to become their identity. From my own experience I have learned that those events in life which have most shaped me, most influenced me have been the breaking events of life. It is not the times when I am sitting on the mountain enjoying the view, but when I am down in the valley, and things appear hopeless. Those are the events that have most shaped my life and strengthened my soul. But the suffering itself is not my identity it is only the means of rediscovering my identity. It is the means of moving from strength to strength. Strength begets strength, courage begets courage. It is only through challenge that we discover this truth.