[I have not given a Memorial Day speech in several years. If I were to give one next year, it would be very different than ones I’ve given in the past. Memorial Day has taken on a mew meaning for me since the events of 2015. I see it now as a gift of incredible measure. Consider that you are in an audience at a memorial day ceremony, probably at a cemetery. The national anthem recited, a band played, flags rippling in the breeze. The master of ceremonies introduces the speaker. People politely applaud. The speaker begins with a clear, strong voice…]
Today I want to give you a gift that I received shortly after Memorial Day in 2015, a powerful gift that can support us in our darkest times, illuminate the path that is ours to run, give us courage to take our next step, confront any obstacles. It is a gift that, if received and understood properly, will continue giving the rest of our lives. Let me walk you through the darkest night of my life, and how I came to share this gift with you today.
During my three post 9-11 tours, I came to believe that the greatest threat to individual liberty was not in Afghanistan or Iraq, not in Al-Qaida or ISIS, but in the restrictive regulations coming out of Washington DC. I believed then, and still do today, that our most important defense of liberty is not in wars oversees but in the ballot box and connecting with others about what is most important to us. These were not welcomed viewpoints in the Army JAG corp. I found that Americans from all parts of the political spectrum believed as I did. Yet, politics continue to divide us rather than unite us.
In 2013, after almost 20 years of service, the Army released me on a medical discharge. That was not how I wanted my military career to end. I could no longer perform the routine duties required of soldiers based on a couple of combat related injuries. Like many others facing similar discharges, I felt some shame and remorse, like a wounded horse placed in a stall who still wants to play in the fields.
In the summer of 2014 I spent over 6 months in bed, too weak to do anything but sit up in a chair for a half-hour a day. After of seeing a variety of doctors, a clear diagnosis appeared, two B-cell autoimmune viruses, believed to be inucrable. Coupled with the daily pain of my injuries, my life became something I did not want.
Memorial Day, 2015, as Memorial Day did for me every year since 9-11, brought its own memories of friends who we sent home in body bags coupled with stories about the politics of war. I felt more despondent than ever. In fact, I determined to end my life. If I could not live on my own terms, I could at least die by them.
I planned, and I waited for the right moment. That moment came a couple of weeks later when my wife took our two youngest boys to a soccer match. I stayed home alone for health reasons, as I often needed to do. I wrote a note and some instructions, but hid them to be revealed later as I did not want them discovered too soon. I then departed to execute my plan, and myself.
I stopped by a sporting good store and purchased a shotgun with a debit card I knew would be traced after my final goodbye texts. I then drove to an empty field area on the south side of Fort Lewis. I started sending good bye texts to my wife, kids, and a few close friends. As I anticipated, they launched into immediate action. Within minutes my phone alerted me to a location ping.
A suicidal veteran with a weapon, intent to use it, and a last known location just outside of a military base will create responsive action. The military would not want another scenario of a scorned veteran killing several soldiers on base before either killing himself or being killed by MPs. However, I had no intent to harm anyone else. I just wanted to give them a plausible place to look for me. Then I simply powered down my phone, removed the battery, and drove to Tahoma National Cemetery, about 45 minutes away.
I arrived around 1130 pm. I left a note on the dashboard and locked my keys in the car. I then entered Tahoma through the woods, bypassing the locked gate. Entering the facility after hours and carrying a weapon onto that property are both federal offenses. I staged the events of the evening not for dramatic effect, but to allow myself no way out, nothing to go back to if I changed my mind.
Why Tahoma National Cemetery? It’s motto is “Where Heroes Rest”. I wanted to rest, rest from my memories, the stories in my head, my illnesses and pain, my judgments about myself. Just rest. A permanent, eternal rest. I walked along the main entrance road. No lights other than the glow of a waning moon behind a scattering of clouds. The flags that lined the road on Memorial Day no longer stood. However, I could see numerous wreaths, small flags and flowers still honoring numerous tombstones. I walked for about half an hour into the cemetery. If the shot didn’t kill me instantly, I did not want to be easily found.
I finally sat on a bench over-looking a newer section of graves. I loaded the shotgun, prayed for forgiveness, and turned the safety switch from safe to fire. As I raised the weapon and placed my finger on the trigger, images started to appear.
Ghostly visages, most in uniforms of various wars, some in civilian clothes. One in particular reminded me of someone from our base killed by sniper fire near Mosul, Iraq. I do not believe that when someone passes away their spirit remains close to their body awaiting a resurrection call. I have no explanation for what I saw that night. It was and is as real and as close to me as you are.
A semi-circle of perhaps a hundred such ethereal beings appeared. I did not see them speak, but I distinctly heard a voice say “Why are you here?” Not a singular voice, but as if all of their voices blended into one. I told them, out loud, about the depth of my physical, emotional and mental pain and my plan to end it. A long silent pause. I raised my weapon again. The voice spoke again. “Is this how you want to gain admittance into your rest?”
I answered back, “I don’t know what else to do. I can’t live like this!” They nodded. I felt no judgment from them, just empathy and understanding. The voice spoke one final time. “We will stand witness.”
Witness. That word resonated. I am surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. I had not read a Bible in a while yet Hebrews 12:1 immediately came to mind. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Some of my witnesses were prisoners of wars they did not create, others shot, blown up, executed. Some died as civilians as a result of injuries sustained in combat. Others peacefully at home, as many of us would prefer if given the choice. A few died at their own hand. Statistics at the time listed over 22 veterans per day taking their own lives. A few minutes after midnight, I would probably be the first of 22 that day, another tragic statistic.
In that moment I found a courage I had not felt since I left the battlefield a few years before. I straightened up, squared my shoulders, and said “No, I will not enter this way.” I flicked the safety switch, took out the ammunition. The cloud of witnesses disappeared. I walked out of the cemetery and turned myself in to the police, ready to face the consequences of my actions.
The witnesses have not appeared again, although the memory of that night returns to me any time I dark, unable to see my path. I can’t run anymore, but I can walk. Every day I am given the resources to do what is mine to do. The journey from that night became a book, The Suicide Solution, which is helping numerous people turn their lives around.
I believe that my experience can also be a gift for you. I am not here to answer the centuries old theological debate of whether the spirits of those departed witness us here or from elsewhere. I am here to say that our memory of them is a gift they give us, a legacy they offer to us as support for anything we face.
Why are we here? We come to honor them, to remember. Let us do more than that. As we remember their stories, how they lived and died, let us determine to live our own lives to leave such a memory for those who follow us. Their gift to us today is so much more than drawing courage from remembering that they persevered against impossible odds.
Their epitaphs on stones or plaques ask us today, how do we want to enter our rest? For enter it we shall. Rather than avoid thinking about our own mortality, I believe we gain an incredible gift by answering their question “How do you want to enter?” I want to enter faithfully running, or walking, the path set before me. Performing my duties as I understand them, becoming the person they know I am.
In our darkest hour, in our greatest depression, against our scariest stories and eerie enemies, they stand witness. We are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, more real on Memorial Day than perhaps any other day of the year. Let us today remember, and with our remembering, rededicate ourselves to live. We may face the consequences of our own actions, a society plagued by indifference, a political system adrift in its pursuit of its own power, enemies both foreign and domestic, yet we shall stand tall.
Memorial Day brings tears. It also brings the courage of conviction. It bears witness to truth, honor and duty. Let us rededicate ourselves this and every Memorial Day to live in the liberty they died to defend. May the veil between us and them be lifted so we can see the gifts they offer us; encouragement, acceptance, light in our darkest hours, whatever we need to do what is ours to do. Take this gift. It is offered freely. The price is already paid. Allow this gift to bless you every day, and through you the world.