by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Domestic Correspondent
My battalion’s mortar platoon lived on the bottom floor of the barracks at Camp Lejeune and those Marines were always a pain. But they were good at their jobs and on the weekends, when the weather was good, they would have a barbecue down by the smoke pit.
“Marines from First Battalion, Sixth Marines rest between patrols during the battle for Marjah, Afghanistan, in February 2010.” via Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Tim Ryan was one of those mortarmen. He had a thick Boston accent, and one time I ran into him at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. I think it was predeployment leave. We were both flying to Boston, and he was on an earlier flight. But when they announced the boarding process, he barely moved from the airport bar. He had been drinking alone most of the afternoon, so I helped him up and did what I could to get him to his gate. He was happy to be going home.
Tim was the first Marine in our battalion who killed himself after our unit got back from Afghanistan in July 2010. He was 23, and he died on May 7, 2011. He would not be the last. From then on, it seemed like every six months someone we knew died. In total, at least nine Marines from my unit have died since coming back from that deployment.
Two months before Tim there was Joey Schiano, a Marine from my battalion with whom I shared a recruiter in Connecticut. He wrapped his Volkswagen around a tree.
Soon, my friends and I were in a never-ending pursuit, trying to understand why our friends were dying long after we had returned from overseas. It’s a question we still haven’t been able to answer, nor it seems has anyone in the military or veterans community.
In 2018, 321 active-duty members took their lives: 57 Marines, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and 138 soldiers, according to Military.com. The total was the same as 2012, which was the highest recorded year of active-duty suicides since the Defense Department began tracking those figures in 2001.
According to Department of Veterans Affairs data, more than 6,000 veterans killed themselves annually from 2008 to 2016. While both departments have dedicated millions of dollars to research, it seems we’re not closer to understanding these suicides or how to stop them.
At funerals and weddings and reunions, mental health doesn’t come up much with my friends. Just that we need to do better staying in touch. I like to think that we do. Our platoon has its own Facebook page (so does the battalion), my team has its own group chat. We’re working on a reunion in Washington, D.C. for the 10th anniversary of the Marjah battle.
Sometimes I think about my first few months in the fleet, when I had just arrived at the battalion after finishing boot camp and infantry training. The unit had just returned from a rough deployment in Ramadi, Iraq. One afternoon, everyone was in the quad outside the barracks. A Marine in Alpha Company locked himself in his bathroom and killed himself when he was on the phone with his mother. Maybe this wasn’t the Marine Corps I had read about growing up, I thought. Or maybe I had just been lied to.
The number of deaths have slowed down since 2014, but the sense that someone else could turn up dead is always there. When I recently messaged another Marine with whom I served, asking how many our unit had lost since the 2010 deployment, he responded: “Gimme a minute to figure out. Why? Did someone else die?”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources