Here's how a symbol can keep a soldier from dying twice

Here's how a symbol can keep a soldier from dying twice
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As I watched the last Facebook video made by U.S. Army Sgt. John Toombs before he took his own life, I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of the seemingly ubiquitous “buddy check” memes or “stop the 22 a day” ( the number of veterans that kill themselves everyday, according to a 2012 VA report) messaging mattered much in his mind.

On Nov. 22, 2016, he was removed from an inpatient treatment program for being late to take his medications. Despite having been sober for nearly two and a half months, his six years in the Army National Guard and 2011 deployment to Afghanistan had left psychological scars that weren’t healing so well, so he sought help. After he was kicked out he said he felt like a "like a stray dog in the rain."


That help not only never came but was substituted by apathy and a “tough love” approach to healing, according to an affidavit submitted by a licensed nurse who spoke out about the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Toombs’s mental health treatment and suicide.

I make it a habit in my work as a veteran advocate to remind clinicians that there are no professional patients. That doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and administrators are the professionals; and patients don’t present before them because they’re feeling at their best. I remind these health-care workers that they chose their professions, but patients don’t choose to be patients and, therefore, should not be labeled as unwelcome when their behavior reflects a person in need. I only wish I had that opportunity to tell that to Sgt. Toombs's providers before he literally took matters into his own hands.

But I cannot. No one can. All we’re left to wonder is whether we’ve learned anything by his story. Whether a hashtag or catchphrase, a Facebook meme or tweet, a compelling statistic or broad intervention strategy will be enough to fend off, or even just compete, with the inner voices and torment that embed themselves in the hippocampus, amygdala, and medial prefrontal cortex of a brain impacted by trauma and its downstream effects. Or how veterans in crisis are treated by their “healers,” within a system ostensibly designed to heal them, and how this experience colors the way they value themselves.

The best takeaway, if we can call it that, is the opportunity to do better when we know better. Sgt Toombs’s life is a cautionary tale that must be heeded if we truly want to confront veteran suicide in this country. One way to do this is to put in place a stark reminder of what ill-equipped and understaffed healthcare systems do to combat veterans, military sexual trauma survivors, and other veterans coping with “invisible” injuries.

On May 24, 2017 Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) introduced H.R. 2634, a bill that proposed to name the newly constructed residential treatment facility at the Murfreesboro VA — the place where Sgt. Toombs died — after him. The bill passed the House unanimously on Sept. 25, 2018, but it never moved forward in the Senate. The only chance it has now is to be reintroduced in the new Congress, debated, and brought to a vote in both houses.

My organization recently helped Sgt. Toombs’s parents, David and Susan Toombs, distribute a petition that sought to have a member of Congress reintroduce the bill and asked each and every member of the House and Senate to vote in favor of renaming the Murfreesboro building in memory of their son. That petition rendered 26,000+ signatures in two weeks and counting. This bill, if passed, would serve as an enduring scar healed only with progress in how our country deals with veterans who feel so diminished by their circumstances that living life feels worse than the prospect of death.

A soldier dies twice: once wherever he takes his last breath; and he dies again when he’s forgotten. Naming the Murfreesboro VA residential treatment facility after Sgt. John Toombs will ensure those veterans we lose to suicide do not die twice and are indeed never forgotten.

Sherman Gillums Jr. served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War and Global War on Terror eras, and is the chief strategy officer for AMVETS.