The Worst Statistic

His name was Chuck Irvin.  Chuck was a skinny kid, tall with a cherubic face, rosy cheeks, cream blue eyes and perpetually curly hair; a mix that doomed him to look forever as though he were in high school.  Even on duty days when he didn’t get the chance to shave, his facial hair would grow in faint and patchy, just as though he were still in high school.

He was an Electronics Technician onboard the Ike, and he had made first class.  He was a friend of mine.

The thing about chuck was that he and I connected.  The military is strange, but Nukes are stranger, and in a community that canonized Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and considered free time a chance to play Everquest without stop, Chuck was a breath of fresh air.  A fan of pre-20th century literature, a student of philosophy, I remember the late night talks we would have on watch that would shift seamlessly from the great Greek philosophers to Sun Tzu to Dickens Cervantez and wherever else we may go.

He was a good looking kid, but one not without his failings.  He drank and smoke too much, and played pool to the point of addiction, staying out at pool halls hustling marks until getting run out at two in the morning only to clean up and start heading into work at five.  And yet he could be naive to a fault, falling in love with one of the most dangerous women in our department.  Viv was a good freind of mine too, but a product of the strange atmosphere of the new, gender integrated, Navy she proudly proclaimed her status as “Queeen Bitch”.

Chuck’s love for her remained forever unrequited, and in fact it took Viv a couple of years to stop punishing him for it, even though he got over her in a couple of months thanks in part to some helpful advice from his friends, and to a large does of razzing by just about everyone else.

I remember clearly the day I found out.

We had all crowded into a classroom on a support barge (we were in drydock at the time due to an extended overhaul period) for duty section turnover.  First we discussed the stuff you usually discuss; conditions in the plant, maintenance we would be doing that day as well as other evolutions.  Duty section turnover was the kind of event where you have to prop your eyelids open while mainlining caffeine just to stay awake.

Then, when business concluded and the rustling began as people began to drag themselves up out of their chairs, a Lt. Commander stepped up to the front of the classroom and held up a hand.

“Um,” he said with a grim look on his face.  “I just have a few things I wanted to say.  We lost a shipmate last night, and I wanted everyone to know that nothing we do here is worth taking your life over.  Okay?  So, remember that.”

And then we were dismissed.

I remember, and at times still harbor, the anger I felt at that announcement.  It wasn’t the brevity that bothered me so much; we were sailors after all, and we had a job to do.  It was the anonimity.  You see, the nuclear propulsion program in the Navy is a highly stressful field, and it’s not uncommon for there to be at any given time a decent number of fellow sailors who will appear to be pushing the limits on what they could cope with.

Indeed, I spent much of that day fretting over who might have taken their life the night before, especially since I knew two or three guys who were having some pretty serious problems.  For this reason I felt a guilty kind of glee as I ran into each, while at the same time experiencing a growing dread.

As it turned out, one of my suspects would tell me what happened that afternoon as he was directly involved with what happened.

Chuck Irvin, the day before discovered that he had come up positive for marijuana, an offense that results in reduction in rank, loss of pay, and restriction to the ship for three months.  Afterwords, you are discharged from the Navy under the Navy’s zero tolerance program, with I believe an Other Than Honorable, though it has been a while and it’s possible it could be a BCD or Dishonorable.

In any case, Chuck went home late that night, called his mom, and while on the phone with her, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

**

If there is any article you read today, the article you must read is this article in the Washington Post that details how troop suicides are at a record high.  It is a terrible problem, and one in dire need of fixes.

Two of the problems that seemed to stick out for me are the lack of psychologists with an understanding of military life and war available to the military community, but just as bad, if not worse, is a stigma that exists in military culture against getting help, a stigma I’m somewhat familiar with.

Now, the military has a reputation, and pushes that reputation hard, of being tough.  And this is probably for the best.  You’re taking men and women just out of high school and you are putting them on the front lines in hostile territory where they could not only be killed, but are asked to kill.  It’s a harsh reality that is punctuated by the fact that it could end at any moment.

But here’s the thing, you can only toughen up so much.  At the end of the day, we’re all people, and we all have psychological and biological limitations.  There is a kind of romantic edginess to being so tough that nothing gets to you, but the reality is that some people aren’t wired that way, they can’t be wired that way, and most importantly, that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from being good soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.

And to a degree, there needs to be a fix in the military culture.  An acceptance that mental health and psychological medicine are not necessarily signs of weakness, but tools that can make a military unit stronger, and even better, could help honor our soldiers by giving them the foundation they need to lead a rich and fulfilling life once they have finished their service to this country.  Along with suicide, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a plague within our military, one that threatens the force readiness of members still in the service, while at the same time darkening the lives of those who have left the service.

These members of the military deserve better.

But it’s a hard road to travel for this community.  A broken bone, a bullet wound, even the sniffles, these are physical, visible, understandable.  With mental problems, you can’t see the damage, and often valid psychological ailments are too quickly used to categorize someone as “soft” or even a “malingerer”.

Again, I know.

I joined the military in 1996, a time period during which the military, and especially the Navy, were trying to improve their image.  One of the curious things that I remember, and those in my generation of the Navy should also remember this, is that upon arriving to boot camp, we received “Blues cards”.

The blues card was a little folded up piece of construction paper about the size of a business card, blue, and on the front cover was a frowny face with, “Feeling blue?” written on it.  Inside were a list of steps you could take to help make yourself feel better, things like, “Talk to a friend” and “Excercize”.  The clincher, however, was that if you were feeling too stressed or depressed, you could hand this blues card to your Recruit Division Commander (our version of the drill Sergeant), and they would immediately have to stop giving you a hard time and help you cope with your feelings.

Needless to say these became a joke, and to be honest, for good reason.  The flaws with such a program are numerous, far too numerous to list them all.  Suffice it to say, not only did the RDCs not take them seriously, but the cards were too prone to abuse, and to be honest, didn’t necessarily give us recruits the impression that the command actually took real stress and depression problems seriously.

They were at once too much, and not enough by half, and I wasn’t surprised to hear a few years later that they had disappeared from boot camp.

The thing is, the problem still exists, and back in boot camp there were people who needed real help and not just empty platitudes printed on a blue card that seemed to beg to be mocked.  There were kids who kept crying themselves to sleep long after we well adjusted manly men stopped crying (It took me and my buddy Sam three days).  There were kids who just didn’t get it, and yeah, to a degree boot camp is a filter, a place where you get rid of those people who just don’t have what it takes.  On the other hand, there were some good sailors in that division that never made it to the fleet.

It wasn’t until 2002 or 2003 that I finally saw a counselor, in private, nothing on my record.  She wasn’t a doctor, and yeah, I had some issues, but nothing life threatening, nothing that would prevent me from doing my duty as a sailor, and while some issues remain unresolved, that brief period helped me out, and I’m glad for it.  I want to see more members in the service get that kind of help and more.

Chuck needed that kind of help, and whether it was a failure of his close friends to not see it, a failure of his own to hide it, or a failure of the service to provide I can’t say.  It’s probably a mixture of all three.  But it’s a problem that’s not going away, and we need to face it.

2 Responses to “The Worst Statistic”

  1. terry says:

    Thank you for this very honest post. I saw this story last night on the news and it makes me so sad.

    My Dad suffered from bipolar disorder and I saw first hand how difficult it is to get treatment, navigate the mental healthcare system, and worst of all, deal with people’s perception of what mental illness is.

    I also saw, clearly, how and why homelessness and suicide can occur.

    My Dad was a civilian. I cannot imagine what it must be like for people in the military. And to have forces working against getting diagnosed and treated is unconscionable.

  2. Thank you very much, Terry. It actually can get worse too considering that certain treatments and diagnoses will bar you from certain military fields. For instance, with the Nuclear field in the Navy, diagnosis with just about any mental ailment, even the very treatable depression, pretty much guarantees getting axed from the program.

    Granted, for some conditions there should be restrictions to work in certain fields, and I think that perhaps the Navy’s standards for the nuclear field are justifiably high. However, these are folks that are serving their country and want to do their jobs and feel like they are part of the team.

    So there have got to be some available avenues to help perhaps transition people, or make temporary reassignments or something so that the problems these folks encounter don’t get compounded.

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