With our nation’s Independence Day upon us, there is a devastating reality out there marring the celebratory reverie typical of this joyous time. Specifically, that we are losing a tragic number of those entrusted with protecting our great country to suicide. According to NPR, a staggering twenty veterans who risked their lives for us are now taking those same lives every day.
The factors behind this cruel irony are many and varied. The causes may be debatable, but the effects are not. Numbers don’t lie.
I served my country as a Navy SEAL but, prior to deploying, looked my own demons in the eye close enough to recognize them in the faces of others who were not as fortunate as I. They came home traumatized, putting on a brave face to mask the inner torment they were experiencing that, ultimately, left them without hope or, in their minds, anything to live for. They’d lost their sense of connection, nothing to replace the camaraderie that dominated their lives when the mission was everything.
They, like me, were serving something bigger than themselves, a greater purpose that defined their self-worth. They felt as if they were in control because the mission before them was always clear, with markers that delineated success and victory, benchmarks they would do anything to achieve. As warriors, they protected the freedoms of this land; have been through blasts, explosions, firefights, and their brains bear the scars even if they managed to emerge with their bodies intact.
I know about this all too well. You mask your pain and you mask your problems, because that’s what you’re called to do to complete the mission.
Until you get home. Then the mission isn’t there anymore, but the problems still are and you can’t mask them anymore. In that moment, the world feels dark and empty, riddled with a cold that can permeate even a beautiful July 4th day. You don’t know what’s coming next and the prospects of whatever it might be terrifies you. Almost like what SEALs refer to as the “black silhouette;” when you have someone in your scope but can’t get a clear focus. That’s life dominated by pain and ripped of clarity. You don’t understand what you’re missing, even as you’re convinced no one’s going to miss you.
As a young boy, I was told I’d probably never walk again due to degenerative hip condition. But I overcame that and convinced myself I could overcome anything. Then I ruined the same hip in a parachuting accident while preparing to deploy. I wallowed in self-pity, seeking answers from within myself that weren’t to be found. They gave me drugs that turned me into a zombie, one of The Walking Dead. When I took them, I couldn’t feel much except a dull pain, and life was just cloudy. I didn’t care what I was doing to my wife or my friends or my family. I wanted the pain to be gone. And the more it was gone, the more I wanted to take the drugs so it wouldn’t come back.
The specialists, doctors, and therapists all agreed: I could either reclassify or leave the Navy entirely. My SEAL career was finished.
That’s when I gave up on myself, that’s when I hit rock bottom. And maybe that’s what I needed to force me to look in a different direction for help. In my case, that meant toward God. If I wanted to get better, if I wanted my life to change, I knew I needed help I couldn’t get from medicine, physical therapy, or even from my SEAL brothers.
I needed God. And not just God Himself, but trusting that God had a perfect plan for me. Because I couldn’t find the answers I needed inside me. And if they weren’t there, it stood to reason that only by surrendering to a greater truth, that there is something bigger and better for me, would I find hope again.
This wasn’t an easy thing for me to do, because I had never truly surrendered my life, my dreams, my goals, my future, or my desires to anyone at any time, celestial or otherwise. I had always done things my way and if others didn’t agree with me, I’d ignore their wisdom and move on. This was different. I had tried everything to heal, to make my body right and whole. Having failed physically, I had to look elsewhere; inward, toward my soul. If I couldn’t heal myself from the outside in, maybe I could heal myself from the inside out. It was my soul that had to change, especially if I wanted my body to as well, after undergoing hip replacement surgery that was my only chance to remain a SEAL.
In giving myself up to Jesus, I found purpose, community, and hope. Though my outer self was wasting away, my inner self was being renewed day by day. I was no longer chained to whatever past I’d been dragging along with me, and I fully believe that the twenty veterans we lose to suicide every day can be saved from the turmoil into which they’ve sunk by finding a personal relationship with Jesus, just as I did.
Our soldiers’ minds have slipped into the darkness, much like our country has slipped, and turned away from their Father. Our founding fathers, great leaders and God fearing men that they were, made sure we remembered the need for this by putting “in God we trust” on our coins and “One nation, under God” in our pledge to the flag our soldiers fight to make sure waves strong and proud.
Do not let our brothers and sisters turn to emptiness, but go and be the light that they need. Serve them as they chose to serve our nation, putting you before themselves to protect this land, protect our freedoms, protect the very spirit that we celebrate on the 4th of July. Now it is our turn on the home front to pay it back to them, because we understand that freedom is not free; it comes at the highest cost our heroes are now paying. They need our help today and every day after. From organizations where soldiers can get help like Mission and the Navy SEAL Foundation. From you and me.
Let us show them there is hope, that we the people are one nation and one body, together fighting the good fight.
Because my wish for this and every 4th of July is simple: That the day comes when the number twenty dwindles to zero.
Patrick Bisher is a decorated Navy SEAL for his service in Iraq and the author of "No Surrender: Faith, Family, and Finding Your Way", (Post Hill Press, July 4th).