In 2016, shortly after my son’s passing, I wrote that “The older you get, the faster time goes by.”
At age 24, he became one of the estimated “22 a day” — the number of veterans who take their own lives. Doing the math, 2,190 days have come and gone since then, totaling 48,180 veterans dying by suicide in the past six years. These are American heroes who likely suffered less-than-visible wounds of a war they never stopped fighting.
According to the Veterans Administration Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention 2021 Annual Report, the ten year average number of veteran suicide deaths is around 6,000 per year. This is an astonishing casualty count when you consider the number of combat and other fatalities in recent wars: 58,220 in Vietnam; 383 in the Gulf War; and 6,840 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thankfully, the number of veteran deaths by suicide has decreased by a few hundred per year since 2019. Several factors contribute to this progress, including greater awareness, growth in the number of education and treatment programs for veterans and their families, and the reduction of U.S. involvement in military conflicts.
Aside from the obvious reason I’ve spent a great deal of time focused on veteran suicide, there’s a nagging question some families like mine might ponder. Is it acceptable to honor our loved ones on Memorial Day? It is a day set aside for Americans to honor military personnel who perish in our nation’s wars. Our son didn’t die while he was serving in war, but a lot of the evidence shows he died because of what he experienced in war. Shall we pause to honor our loved ones only on Veterans Day, which is designated to honor all U.S. veterans, living and gone?
Families of veterans who died by suicide likely may wonder if we’re guilty of “stolen valor” when openly honoring them on Memorial Day. Still, those who know, know. For months after he returned, it was clear our son was battling something we could not understand. War changes even the strongest of people. Many military families would agree that the person to whom we said farewell died in the desert, at sea, in the jungle, mountains, or woods, somewhere far away from home.
When I found him lifeless, wearing his desert combat uniform clutching his dog tags in his left hand, there was no doubt he brought the war back with him. His journal contained details that eliminated any doubt that his daily and nightly reality included the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings about his actions in Afghanistan. He was dying for a year from his mental battles, which culminated in a final, physical act. Yes, Adam’s and other veterans’ suicide deaths are casualties of war every bit as real as if they experienced the same mortal end in combat.
A recent federal class action lawsuit, Manker v. Del Toro, got me thinking about the notion that Adam actually “died in Afghanistan.” This is the sort of thing about which survivors agonize. We search for meaning and connections that somehow might explain what, how, why this happened. In this case, the plaintiff is a dishonorably discharged veteran diagnosed with PTSD while on active duty.
The plaintiff won, which means the military will automatically review the discharge status for any veteran whose clinically diagnosed disorders may have caused behavior that, when adjudicated, resulted in a dishonorable discharge. Under the best circumstances, a medical, general, or honorable discharge would grant access to military benefits and revoked constitutional rights. This win could positively alter the course of the lives of discharged military men and women and their families.
Like the plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, military doctors diagnosed Adam with symptoms of PTSD while serving in a theater of war. He was not eligible to receive disability benefits when he separated. Because he died after active service, he was not eligible to receive such posthumous benefits as a death gratuity, which is financial compensation paid to his estate.
By correlating a veteran’s suicide death to combat-related PTSD, granting military death benefits could bring a measure of comfort and a great deal of closure for survivors. Military dependents might be eligible to receive income, financial support for childcare, health insurance, and other VA benefits.
These are thankfully unnecessary for my family. While these benefits will certainly help with the peace of mind that comes with financial stability, they do little to resolve dependent families’ sense of “limbo,” knowing we may celebrate our loved ones on Veterans Day and legitimately honor them on Memorial Day.
People who know and care about us don’t question how and when we commemorate our son. Not a day goes by that we don’t think of him, regardless of what the calendar says. What I have learned through my journey over the past seven years is that we must make time to remember the full lives of people who no longer walk alongside us.
My son’s military career does not define his full life. He was empathetic, hilarious, a protective brother, a loving son, and a loyal friend. Each Memorial Day, Adam’s spirit inspires us to honor and respect all the American sons and daughters who offered their lives to protect the freedom and safety of others here and abroad.
Let this not be “just another Memorial Day.” Please join me and my family in remembering not only the heroes who lost their lives from physical wounds, but those who also died fighting mental injuries they sustained on the same battlefields. While both are unthinkable and tragic, we’re starting to achieve results in preventing the latter due to greater awareness and advocacy.
If you are a veteran in crisis, or you know one who is, immediate assistance is available. The Veterans Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via phone, text, or online chat. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1. Chat online at veteranscrisisline.net, or text 838255. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect.
Dean Lambert is the father of U.S. Marine Adam Lambert and the founder of The Love Always Project, a grassroots movement that seeks to normalize conversations around the inevitability of the death of a loved one. Visit https://www.lovealwaysproject.org to learn more.
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