An alpha male is assertive. He’s dominant. He’s often found within leadership positions, and frequently ranked in the military. He’s expected to hide his emotions and deal with personal issues privately.
An alpha male is not expected to take his own life. But many are; and more and more frequently they are taking innocent bystanders with them.
Iraq war veteran Ivan Lopez opened fire April 2 at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, killing three people and injuring 16 before turning the gun on himself. At the time of the mass shooting, Lopez was undergoing tests to identify signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. None were found.
Among other tours, Lopez had served four months in Iraq in 2011, but was not wounded nor did he suffer any battle-related Traumatic Brain Injury, according to Army Secretary John McHugh.
This mass shooting – the second at Fort Hood in less than five years when U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan shot dead 13 people and injured 30 more in 2009 – compounds an issue that has been taboo for far too long within the U.S. military.
Mental illness amongst active duty military personnel and veterans is being swept under the rug. And, we’re all suffering because of it.
Many military personnel are unsuccessfully dealing with the side effects of multiple deployments, including separation from their families and support networks. When discharged, they struggle to acclimate to everyday civilian life.
They are human, but we expect them to be superhuman because of their rough-and-tough lifestyles.
Lopez was married and had a 3 year-old daughter. He saw no direct combat. But although he had no visible injuries, reports show that he had other, less apparent ailments: depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. The same military doctors who did not find any PTSD symptoms in him, also did not find him unfit in a way that would have flagged a background check and prevented him from purchasing the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun he used in the shooting.
My question is how many deaths and shootings need to occur before our military starts to weigh equally mental and physical wounds?
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Adam Shatarsky is co-founder of the non-profit, The Wounded Walk, which will host a rally April 12 in Columbus Circle to raise awareness for physically and mentally wounded veterans.
He describes the Marine Corps as a dog-eat-dog world where if a soldier has a problem, they are expected to deal with it on their own. It’s unspoken that you should just “man up.”
One of Shatarsky’s fellow Marines committed suicide while serving at Camp Pendleton in California. According to Shatarsky, there was no indication that he would take his own life. He hadn’t shown any signs. Time and again we hear that there was no indication and that “we never thought it would happen to us.”
The record amount of military suicides is a whisper until it’s replaced by the shout of a mass shooting.
But, last year the number of suicide deaths within the U.S. military hit a record high and exceeded the number of those who died in combat in Afghanistan in 2012. An average of 18-22 veterans commit suicide daily – totaling 8,000 per year, according to the 2012 Suicide Data Report released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers outreach in nearly 200 specialized PTSD treatment programs throughout the country. These medical centers offer one-one mental health assessments and psychotherapy, medications and group therapy.
But many military vets consider the outreach programs to be “clinical” and “unwelcoming.” What’s not considered is that these men and women are trained to not only hide their emotions, but to not have emotions at all.
How comfortable, then, would they feel walking through the doors of a VA-sponsored medical center?
To their credit, the military and the VA are now more active in ever before in their campaigns to de-stigmatize PTSD, depression and anxiety. Several military personnel have taken the mental health issue into their own hands by offering innovative solutions such as yoga classes with the goal of teaching the soldiers how to counter their stress through meditation and other non-pharmaceutical methods.
This shooting shouldn’t launch another gun law debate. It should trigger discussions on what’s behind the gun – mental illness. The stigmas of weakness that have long been associated with depression, anxiety and other mental disorders need to be chipped away within the military and by us citizens as well.
Sufferers of mental illness may show no signs while they deal with the accompanying shame, secrecy, isolation and social exclusion. There is no shame in seeking help, but we as a community need to make it known that it is ok to do so by changing the conversation around mental illness.
Shatarsky is lucky. He has a support network in his fellow Marines. His goal is to create a family and a community where veterans come to share their stories – and their grievances.
We all need to make every man and woman feel so lucky. We as a community need to step up to create support groups for our wounded veterans. The goal should be to decimate isolation and depression and replace it with social inclusion and reduced discrimination. We need to let veterans know that they are not alone.
The nature of the stigma will evolve as the stigma is challenged: There is no weakness in mental illness.
Our job is to identify the stigma in every context – then destroy it.
This was published on CNN and the LoudounTimes.