Over 30,000 service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have died by suicide, four times the number who died in combat. The reasons are multifaceted and interwoven, ranging from military culture to an apathetic public and the kinds of moral injury prevalent in messy wars fought for ambiguous aims.
The road to my own brush with suicide was filled with such familiar scenery, including guilt over dead and wounded comrades, shame over my own complicity in killing, and my growing unease with the purpose of America’s foreign operations.
I was a 29-year-old captain in the United States Army the first time I ever put a loaded gun in my mouth. To people who knew me, I had everything. I was married to a beautiful, devoted woman, a father of two bright and thriving young children, and a proven combat leader who’d already earned a reputation for taking on tough assignments and getting the job done against long odds.
It was 2011 when I closed my eyes and prepared to squeeze the trigger of a 9 mm Army service pistol. I was in command of 85 soldiers at the end of a long deployment to eastern Afghanistan. We had just a few weeks left before we were headed home, all of us alive despite the near daily improvised explosive device attacks we’d faced during a year of intense combat. I was mere days away from real food, cold beer, and the loving embrace of my wife and children. So, why was I seconds away from killing myself?
I’ve spent the past 12 years haunting myself over the answer. Perhaps a better question to ask is, “Why am I still here?”
My road out of hell looks like something more than just one highlighted by interventions like therapy and prescription drugs. My path to healing began one night when I showed up for a poetry-writing workshop at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.
The community of veterans I met that night gathered under the charisma of a second-generation Bangladeshi American poet, a woman who was raised in a conservative Muslim home. She guided us with gentle words about how writing can help us know what we contain. Once we know that, she said, we can show ourselves to others and begin to heal.
It is not lost on me that the woman whose work began to save my life that night is the mother of two sons who look like the young men I called my enemies in foreign lands over a decade ago. Being witnessed by someone whose identity is so different from my own is another kind of healing, a spiritual balm for wounds of moral injury, guilt, and complicit violence.
While we don’t have a perfect solution to stem the high suicide rates experienced by post-9/11 veterans, researchers and passionate advocates are getting closer each year. I’ve discovered, meanwhile, that there is a certain logic underpinning creative self-expression and community as tools for suicide prevention and healing from the hidden wounds of war.
According to a seven-year longitudinal analysis of veteran suicide using data from the 2011-2018 National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study, loneliness was the single strongest risk factor associated with veteran suicide attempts. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs listed loneliness and social isolation as “among the strongest predictors of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and other suicidal behavior.”
Is it possible that self-expression through the arts can bring about the kind of human connection that counteracts loneliness? Can poetry prevent suicide?
One group of poets, writers, artists, and performers believes so, and with funding from the VA, they are on a path to prove it.
In the More Than One Story program — partially funded by the VA’s Staff Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program — a virtual community center allows women and non-binary veterans to connect through poetry, writing and artmaking.
Early results are promising. Over half of surveyed participants report improvements in overall wellbeing on the Warwick Scale, a common clinical questionnaire, after just two sessions. Over half of surveyed participants also report improvements in loneliness.
While these are initial results and much remains to be seen about overall outcomes, the use of writing and artmaking in community as an intervention for suicide prevention holds great promise for further study.
My first encounter with suicide was not my last. I still struggle with suicidal ideations. But, in addition to medication and therapy, I now have the tools to venture within and address shame, guilt, and moral injury. More importantly, I have community.
I am hopeful that with more tools at our disposal, the more we will build community — and as a result, the fewer of us we will lose to suicide in the years ahead.
Ben Weakley spent 14 years as an Army officer before medically retiring in 2019. A disabled veteran, he is a poet, author, and advocate who serves as the director of development for Community Building Art Works, a non-profit dedicated to building bridges between veterans and citizens through expressive arts.
Veterans in need of emergency counseling can reach the Veterans Crisis line at any time by dialing 988 and selecting option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
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