It’s not every day you interview someone who tells you he wants to kill himself.
He was a Vietnam veteran named Greg, a man with haunted eyes and a soft voice filled with the horror of his experience in Southeast Asia: the jungle rot, the lost friends, the children rigged to explode when some unsuspecting GI scooped them up.
Greg limped from an old leg wound and was fighting doctors who wanted to amputate. But his real battle was in his mind and soul. Greg simply couldn’t adjust to being back in “the world.” The sight of an Asian face on the street, the pop of firecrackers on July 4, a traffic helicopter chopping through the sky, were enough to drop him back into that jungle hell.
He said he couldn’t take it anymore. He was at his breaking point. “The last couple of weeks,” he said, “I’ve come to where I’ve been seriously considering killing myself.” Despair seemed to roll off the man in waves. “I don’t see any hope,” he told me.
There are few things that make you feel as utterly unsuited to the moment as hearing someone confess a desire to take his own life. I hadn’t bargained for this. It was 1985; a musician named Paul Hardcastle had a hit called “19,” a technopop dance song about the war, and I had simply gone to a vet center in Los Angeles to get a soldier’s perspective.
With Greg, I got that and then some. I don’t remember how I responded when he mentioned suicide. I’m sure I babbled something about seeking help, getting to the other side of pain. Greg wasn’t having it.
“That’s what got me this far,” he said in that whispery voice of his. “But now, those answers aren’t doing it for me. My thing was that, not just the guys I knew, but for the 58,000 that got blown away or that are missing, they deserve better than for me to just give up. But now, I kind of feel like they were the lucky ones. It’s like being back in the corner and I don’t know which way to go and the right way isn’t working. And I’ve tried the right way for so long. I think the only thing that’s kept me really from doing something like killing myself so far is because I don’t want to be that bad example, I don’t want to go against what I’ve been advocating all this time.”
Besides, he said, “It takes a lot of guts to kill yourself – to me. And I just haven’t got the guts yet.”
“Yet.” That word hammered me.
For a few years, I would periodically check in with Greg to make sure he was OK. But after a while, we lost touch. The other day I thought of him for the first time in years and decided to see if I could find any trace of him online, find out if “yet” ever came.
For vets, it comes all too often: In 2018, they had a suicide rate of 27.5 per 100,000, almost twice the national rate. Which suggests that for all the wounds of bone and flesh that are sustained in war, perhaps the most insidious are those of mind and soul. How can you be the same person you once were after you’ve seen a child explode?
I didn’t think I had much chance of finding Greg – his last name is as common as his first – but I did, stumbling upon an interview he gave in 2007. So as of that date at least, 22 years after we met, “yet” had not yet come. Which gives me hope that maybe it never did or will.
On Memorial Day, we honor those who sacrificed their lives in America’s wars. This year, though, I’ll also be thinking of Greg and all those like him, keeping unwilling company with demons of sorrow and despair. Surely, it’s a bitter thing to die.
But sometimes, it is not much easier to live.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, FL 33172. Contact him via email at email@example.com.