In August 2015, I attended multiple funerals in just one week. I said goodbye to close friends, and trusted teammates I had relied on during extremely intense combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve lost over 100 guys in my peer group, some of them in battle, but too many here at home to the ravages of substance use and suicide.
The statistics are alarming and heartbreaking. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans and active-duty personnel die by suicide every day. One in 15 veterans are dealing with a substance use disorder — which is often a precursor to either intentional or “unintentional” suicide, those who drink so much they don’t wake up.
Few people realize these often-quoted statistics are actually at least five years old. The current rate is likely much higher. Between the nationwide opioid crisis and growing need for mental health services for active duty and veterans, I’m certain those numbers will double in the next two years.
Not prepared for my friends to die
As a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team Seven and SEAL Team One, I was fully prepared to lose my life for my country.
I was not prepared for losing my friends.
Seeing friends who had become like family die in the line of duty is infuriating. As warriors, we accepted that risk, but nothing prepared me for the crushing grief and sense of loss. But, that anger pales in comparison to the sense of failure I feel knowing veterans who survived the horrors of war — only to come home and drink themselves to a slow death.
During my active duty, our team went on eight missions a night for 2-3 weeks straight. When we finally got one day off, we’d drink to deal with the stress and forget the trauma. This went on for years.
I was also severely injured during my combat duty; my back broken, my lung collapsed and my shoulder destroyed. I recovered, but suffered from nightmares, sleeplessness and chronic pain. I never saw a counselor because I didn’t know one was available to me. My doctor said, “You’re just depressed. Go to the gym, work out and get some sleep.” Instead, I ate six codeine pills a day and drank. It was the only thing that seemed to help.
Things got progressively worse when returning home. I was down to just 45 minutes of sleep a night because I couldn’t quiet my mind.
One day, I decided enough was enough. I went to the clinic and told them I felt sad and angry all the time. The doctor told me the same thing: go to the gym, drink less, eat better and get more sleep.
Three months later, I finally got a psych referral but had to wait another month for an appointment to see the counselor. When I did, he was late and ended our session early. I got about 20 minutes of his time, which he ended with, “Here’s a prescription for some Adderall and more Ambien. See you next month.”
We have failed our veterans miserably
My experience is not unique. Over the past several years, the VA has been bombarded with thousands of veterans seeking treatment for life-altering injuries, chronic pain and mental health issues — and, those are just the ones who’ve come forward for help. The system is completely overwhelmed, resulting in ridiculously long wait times, which for many vets, isn’t just “too little too late” — it’s simply too late.
The veterans community care program is a step in the right direction, allowing veterans to get care at a community provider. But we can no longer wait until they return from combat to take action. There’s been a lot of talk about suicide and addiction among vets, but these conversations are 10 years too late for the thousands of veterans who’ve already lost their lives.
The solution starts at deployment, not discharge
We must be proactive and provide military personnel with brain health support and resources in the field — to teach them coping mechanisms before they become so far gone that they turn to a bottle, a pill or a bullet to end their suffering.
This strategy is only successful if we get the therapist out of the treatment room and into the field. Embedding counselors in-uniform with military units to interact with and meet the warrior on their own terms will get them talking. Support staff need to be living and working among the soldiers so they can truly understand what our nation’s heroes go through every single day.
If we have enough money to send these warriors to sacrifice their lives and endure the trauma of war, we have the resources to fix them when it leaves them broken. We have an inherent obligation to help these men and women get the support they need.
In addition to in-field support, we must help them find a purpose. For years, these warriors have dedicated their lives to service, and once it’s over, they’re mostly left with pain, loneliness and isolation. And overall, too many fill that void with alcohol and drugs if we don’t give them a better alternative.
In honor of Veterans Day, I implore you to reach out to a solider or veteran in your life. Ask them how they’re doing. They may not be ready to admit they want “help,” but they may be ready to make a change.
If we can get them to admit they’re not happy with the life they’re living, we can begin to bring them back home — mentally and emotionally — to the families who miss them, even as they’re sitting in the same room.
Dan Cerrillo, a decorated Navy SEAL veteran and Board Member for the Navy SEALs Fund, is chief of staff for American Addiction Centers.