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Unconquered by Kilimanjaro, Part 1: Understanding the War at Home

Trigger warning: This piece discusses topics including war, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Substance Use Disorder (SUD), depression and suicide. If you or someone close to you is suffering from suicidal ideation, we encourage you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or seek out local resources for support.

 

For many retired military professionals and first responders, the transition to civilian life is abrupt and jarring as they grapple with challenges like survivor’s guilt, PTSD, depression and suicidal ideation. According to Sheep Dog Impact Assistance (SDIA), an Arkansas-based non-profit that specializes in serving these types of individuals, a lot of these problems stem from a lack of support and direction offered upon leaving the service—support and direction that they aim to provide.

“When you spend the vast majority of your adult life doing something, it becomes your identity,” says USMC Veteran of 27 years and SDIA Warrior PATHH Program Director, Chris Jackson. “In the course of a single day, you lose that identity.”

Many military veterans find themselves in a sort of void after leaving the service—one with plenty of people telling them what they should be doing while lacking the structure and guidance needed for them to act on it.

“To be quite honest, I don’t think that any of the military services do a very good job of helping you with that transition,” said Jackson. “They spend years training us and giving us seven days’ worth of ‘here’s how to tie your tie, put on your suit and write your resume. Good luck.’”

After living with so much structure, routine and discipline built into every day, it’s easy to fumble the first steps into civilian life.

There are some well-known organizations out there to provide support and community—Veterans Affairs (VA) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) offer resources and assistance for veterans who seek it—but there’s still a gap between what they offer and what is actually needed.

When SDIA CEO and Founder, Sergeant Major Lance Nutt turned to these organizations in between combat tours, seeking a familiar camaraderie and connection that he had while actively serving, he found himself unsatisfied.

“The culture was, ‘let’s go hang out at the VFW Lodge or American Legion Lodge and let’s sit around and drink and smoke and relive our lives in the military,” Nutt said. “It just didn’t resonate with me—it still doesn’t today.”

Nutt didn’t want to spend his time looking back on the trauma he’d experienced during his tour overseas, feeling it would only serve to keep the wounds fresh. He didn’t want to fall into the same trap that many veterans find themselves in after service.

PTSD takes a major toll on veterans. A large percentage learn to cope, but many find themselves grappling with it. There’s no way to truly comprehend the scale of the problem without looking at some difficult numbers.

According to the Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, published in November 2020, the total number veterans who completed suicide between 2005 and 2018, a 13-year timespan, is over 89,000. By comparison, the total number of reported active-duty U.S. military deaths between 2006 and April, 2021, a little over 15 years, is 13,969, according to a Congressional Research Service report published this past May.

Put simply, the number of military veterans who die by suicide surpasses the number of active military personnel who die in combat by multiples, annually. If war is dangerous, it seems surviving it can be even more so.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is also pervasive among veterans, with Veterans Affairs (VA) reporting roughly 10% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. Nearly 30% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD also suffer from co-occurring SUD.

Nutt and his team at SDIA believe that they can provide the structure, fulfillment and healing needed to turn those numbers around. Their personal understanding of the challenges faced by veterans in the wake of their service has helped them create programs that battle the problem in ways that aren’t necessarily accessible elsewhere.

 

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