Recently, a friend sent me an invitation to join her family for Memorial Day weekend. A barbeque, movies and ball game would be all involved. While I felt honored, I also felt a tinge of betrayal at how far America has strayed from the ideals intended for Memorial Day. What was once dedicated as a day to commemorate our war dead and decorate their graves, it is now a day to take a short trip, reconnect with family, do some housecleaning, catch up with errands, barbecue and have a cozy time.
America has a lot to memorialize, whether it’s Memorial Day or the days and months after. We have lost about 645,000 service members since World War I. According to the Department of Defense, there were 4,424 deaths in Iraq as of June 29, 2016. The Defense Department also reported 2,372 deaths in Afghanistan as of July 27, 2018.
Meanwhile, studies by the Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that 20 veterans succumb to suicide every day, while 1,387 active duty troops kill themselves annually, on average. Simply stated, more veterans and troops kill themselves every year than have died in war since the 9/11 attacks. This begs the question: Why would veterans — people who somewhere, sometime, wrote a blank check for services to the United States government, to include their life — kill themselves, an ultimate sign of despair?
Today, many people are unaware of the origins of Memorial Day. Shortly after the Civil War, widows, relatives and others would gather and decorate the graves of war veterans. Some insist the practice began before the Civil War. The aim was to commemorate that these men (and some women) had not lost their lives in vain. On July 4, women decorated the graves of veterans at Boalsburg, Pa.
Today, Boalsburg is widely considered the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1968, Congress mandated Memorial Day to be held on the last Monday of May, The law took effect in 1971.
I am an Iraq War veteran, and I battle post-traumatic stress disorder. I am very much alive, physically. Emotionally, that’s a different story. While we remembered the war dead during the long Memorial Day weekend, we should not forget on all other days the living dead among our veterans.
While actual numbers are difficult to obtain, many studies indicate that returning troops suffer post-traumatic stress disorder rates from 9 percent to approximately 30 percent. Part of the problem of obtaining actual numbers is the unwillingness or inability of some troops to admit or understand PTSD diagnosis.
We are afraid of being shamed and ostracized by a society that cherishes the go-getter, the living, the active. While we cannot resurrect the war dead, we can better understand and assist the living dead among our returning veterans, those suffering from invisible but sometimes fatal combat wounds.
Since returning from war, it took me more than a decade to understand that a PTSD diagnosis did not mean I was crazy or different. I was a traumatized person dealing with my condition the best way that I could. I became a recluse; every loud noise startled me. I drank abusively; I refused to take my pills.
Dreams became increasingly vivid and bizarre. I would cry over the slightest perceived slight. I thought my family was selfish and lacking in understanding. True, they were not acquainted with PTSD or its aftermath. Before and after deployment, we had not been briefed on PTSD or how to detect and respond to its symptoms.
Psychotherapy and other clinical interventions have helped rouse me back into the ranks of the living. While I still struggle with despondence, sleep and emotion regulation, I soldier on, with intent to fully reclaim my life. A pill box has become my constant companion.
Clinical terms have become part of my everyday language. Therapists, social workers and psychiatrists have become like family. I take pills to wake up, to stabilize my mood, to calm me if anxiety is too elevated. I take a variety of pills to put me to sleep, but I am still living. Focus and concentration remain challenging.
Suicide should never be a way to commemorate any combat wounded veteran, but neither is a barbeque the appropriate way of commemorating our war dead.
Patrick Machayo is a disabled Army veteran from Lyons, N.J., who fought in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma in 1985.