On July 11, 2013, my stepfather, a Green Beret, donned the uniform he wore proudly for 18 years and scrawled a note on an index card.
"To the regiment, I have ridden my pathetic life about as far down the spiral as anyone should have to. I accept my dishonor and shame. I am a disgrace to the regiment, and willingly execute this, my last humble act. I am so goddamned tired of holding it together. There has been no end to it all. God has played Jenga with our lives. Goodbye and good luck.
- Michael Bruce Lube, Sergeant First Class, US Army Special Forces"
Then he picked up his favorite gun, a Heckler and Koch USP .45mm pistol.
I sent him text after text that morning. I told him that he'd be a grandfather some day. I told him that despite the tribulations we had gone through, we were strong; we were a family; we could struggle through. We could make it. We would find a way to alleviate his demons, to seek out healing.
I'll never know if he read them.
Late that morning, as a SWAT team shut down the highway outside our apartment and prepared to breach the door, he called my mother to assure her that this wasn't her fault. "I won't let the Army take my [Special Forces] tabs," he said. "I'm going to die a Green Beret."
He placed his green beret, carefully folded, far from where his body would fall, along with a picture of he and his mother and the collection of letters to loved ones he had just finished writing.
Then he pulled the trigger.
Michael was not a perfect soldier. His recent record was besmirched with disciplinary actions. He had a short fuse. He had become violent, and his emotions were prone to sudden fluctuations. After his last tour in Afghanistan, he became abusive, and displayed classic signs of PTSD.
My mother and I reached out to his chain of command. We related the desperation of the situation to his teammates. Again and again, we pleaded for help, and again and again our voices fell on deaf ears.
Although the Army recognizes PTSD and maintains that troops suffering from it will not be punished, this fact is little known. Particularly within the Special Forces community, perception is reality — and the perception is that PTSD is a one-way ticket out of active service. It is the ultimate Catch-22 — a reality that has gone under-addressed because of conventional military wisdom which marks service members with PTSD as potentially unreliable, unpredictable and undeployable.
This stigma leads to a tragically familiar cycle of marginalization, isolation and desperation for soldiers with PTSD.
Marginalization manifests in feelings of inadequacy; the soldier feels that he is no longer able to contribute as a member of the team, that he has suddenly become the weak link in the chain. This self doubt leads to isolation. He feels that he is incapable of service and insulates himself from his comrades and commanders.
Special operators measure their value by their relevance and operational capability. When they feel they've become irrelevant, they become desperate. An operator who feels that he cannot perform has stripped himself of his own identity.
The consequence of this downward spiral is all too often suicide.
Michael was faced with a set of scales. On one hand was an 18-year career of military service; his livelihood; his identity; the only life he had ever known. A pension and a secure future for his family when he reached retirement. On the other was help for his PTSD. Giving up his service and his pride as a Green Beret to be able to go to a shrink and talk about his feelings.
To Michael, there was no question. The latter option was never in the cards. He was born and bred a warrior and that was something he would never give up. It was in his blood.
And so things fell apart. He became more violent towards my mother and I. He was overmedicated. He began drinking more regularly. He was tortured by nightmares where he could not protect those closest to him, where he saw himself killing my mother.
The effect on my family was devastating. My mother was torn between safeguarding her son and seeking help for her husband. I went away to boarding school; my family ceased visiting; Michael became more and more isolated. And with this isolation came desperation.
Michael's actions had horrific consequences that rippled throughout our entire family. The effects of his PTSD spread like an infection, subjecting each of us to his violent tendencies and emotional abuse. We all began to question our own choices — were we supporting him enough? Had we made mistakes? Was this our fault?
In a way, we were developing our own symptoms of PTSD.
Michael's avenues waned to nil. He was beyond his own control. His PTSD had eroded his willpower and he was beginning to crumble.
And then the news came: this pattern of conduct would lead to a dishonorable discharge.
The Army turned a blind eye to one of its most dedicated servants, abandoning him to solve the problems that it was responsible for giving him.
Michael was not perfect. But he did not deserve to die.
A reported 319 active-duty personnel committed suicide in 2012, compared to 290 who died in combat, according to a report by the Department of Defense. According to the DoD 2014 Suicide Prevention report, 479 service members committed suicide in 2013.
Now-retired Adm. William McRaven established the advisory board Preservation of The Force and Family in an attempt to alleviate what has been described as a suicide epidemic among our armed forces.
PoTFF's research funding was cut severely in the 2015 budget. When my mother attempted to meet with several key members of the appropriations committee, including Rodney Frelinghuysen, the Republican Congressman from New Jersey who was instrumental in orchestrating the cut, most refused an audience. Those who did not claimed to have insufficient clout to sway the committee's decision.
Grayson Ullman says soldiers should have avenues for help outside the workplace, an option his father didn't feel he had.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Grayson Ullman
As budgets are slashed, soldiers continue to die. The Catch-22 goes unresolved. Bereft of viable treatment options, they continue to take the only action they see remaining to them: suicide.
Out of desperation and a desire to prevent Michael's story from repeating itself, my mother and I founded an organization rooted in anonymous peer-to-peer support.
The military must open its doors to NGOs like Warrior2Warrior. Although the DoD has released new policies encouraging each branch of the military to allow soldiers to seek help outside the system without repercussions, it simply isn't happening. The internal solutions are not working. It is time to explore new treatment modalities. In pursuit of this goal, behavioral health experts from elite institutions around the country are combining forces with seasoned researchers and retired Special Operations Forces leadership to create the Institute for Forging Resilience, an organization which is partnering with W2W to study, validate and ultimately advocate directly to congress for these de-institutionalized approaches. Perhaps then we will see some change.
Until this cycle is abolished, suicide among our soldiers will continue unabated. Until commanders are trained properly to deal with their soldiers' emotional compression; until the stigmas of PTSD are uprooted; and until "safe" psychological care is widely available, tragedies like Michael's will continue to unfold.
For more information about Warrior2Warrior, visit the website: www.warrior2warrior.org/
Warrior2Warrior is for SOF, by SOF. To speak to a peer mentor, call our toll free hotline: 1-855-W2W-PEER
Grayson Ullman is a senior at Georgetown University. He is an English major.