*STRESS WARNING* We acknowledge that some content may be difficult for people. This article mentions an experience with suicide and grief. Please do not read if you are sensitive to this topic.
I joined the military immediately following the summer of my senior year. I had no real reason to serve other than to ensure I had money in my pockets until I decided what I wanted to do with my life. My father had done everything he thought he needed to do to teach me to enter the real world, but nothing could prepare me for my initial experiences. I checked onboard and was befriended by a young man, short in stature, reddish blonde hair, and smiling ear to ear as he told me he’d be free from this prison soon. Each day, he would tell me how much time he had left, but would also tell me how my time would go by quickly. I had grown hopeful, as I didn’t like sleeping in my rack or the smell of the ship, and I felt I had been discarded from my department to a made-up department of misfits charged with cleaning and rehabbing bunks for Marines. One evening, I was awakened by the frantic pleas for help as a young sailor ran through the ship, screaming, “he hung himself!”
What I would see would change my life forever.
There he hung, lifeless, face blue from his airways being compressed by the rope. Just yesterday, he was joyfully counting down the hours he had left until his time was up. Maybe it wasn’t a countdown until his last day in the military, but his last day of suffering. Did I mistake his laughter for happiness? What was so terrible back home that he would end his life here? My mind raced with questions as my brain attempted to make sense of what I was seeing. I think about that day multiple times a week, sometimes even in my sleep. Watching him being pulled down, the efforts to save him, his body being carried away and me standing there frozen. We didn’t speak about that day for decades; we lost a piece of ourselves, but we carried on with the plan of the day as if someone didn’t just break in front of us. There were no special teams to address how we were coping. No Chaplain to offer prayer to get us through. It was just a roaring silence, unnerving to the strongest of men onboard, but it somehow led us back to our normalcy.
What I understand now is suicide doesn’t make anything better. It actually made it worse for everyone who saw him, everyone who loved him and those like me who saw him as hope that one day we would successfully complete our time and feel that happiness. I don’t remember much about my first few months in the Navy, but that day haunts me and for the next decade, I planned to leave as soon as I could.
This experience would shape how I interacted with others and how I carried myself. Smiles disturbed me and made me question what people were hiding. What pain are they carrying behind that mask? I lost trust in what was taught to me as a peaceful gesture and a sign of well-being; it failed me during my first test of adulthood. Nothing prepared me for that, especially since I had been trained my entire life not to fail—and the first time I failed, it led to death. Although worry is natural, the feelings which accompany it once you’ve experienced trauma are somewhat overwhelming, sometimes debilitating, as your mind wanders to the worst thing imaginable. In my case, when you haven’t learned to counter the effects of trauma, they can lead to depression and anxiety, the three mixing to make a cocktail for mental deterioration.
When I don’t hear the sounds of my daughters cheerfully bonding, I give a slight knock at their door, or I call out their nicknames for a response. Even after I hear their annoyed voices, I’m still not at ease. When my sons go silent for too long, I send a text striking up conversations about their progress in school or their favorite sports team; they respond, but I wonder what I’m missing. To my friends, co-workers and subordinates, I sometimes over-extend myself, helping them through their problems and championing them back to health while neglecting myself. Although tiring, I find a bit of satisfaction in thinking I’m helping the best way I know how in hopes that I don’t fail again.
Those who witnessed the horror and confusion on that day hesitantly mention it in conversations today. “Man, do you remember the guy that…” and I abruptly interrupt them with his name. I haven’t forgotten it, and maybe my over-extension of myself is to ensure he is immortalized and his death isn’t in vain. Maybe the recurring dreams are a reminder to check on those around me, to tell them I love them, and to remember smiles on the inside matter more than those on the outside. I know as I near the end of my career, I have become worried more about my mental health than I’ve ever been— and maybe that’s my shipmate telling me to get well. Whatever the reason, I know I’ve suffered too long, won battles that others have lost and there is a reason I’m still here—a reason I’ll search for until I’m called home.
Rest in Power to all my shipmates who have lost the battle within. Peace and blessings to everyone whose lives were disrupted by the wake.
About T.G. Miles
T.G. Miles grew up a military child in multiple towns across the southeastern United States. He would join the military after completing high school and served more than 28 years on active duty. His more recent years of military service have been spent mentoring and counseling servicemembers on building resiliency and identifying needs for care. In 2020, he earned a degree in Psychology and began working closely with mental health professionals, ensuring servicemembers he served had quick access to care. After retirement, he wants to continue serving the military population as a therapist and while continuing his own personal journey to mental wellness. Some of his accomplishments include his rise through the military ranks to the highest enlisted rank and being a recipient of two leadership awards for his efforts to improve morale and culture in his military units. T. G. Miles prides himself on being “a fan of the underdog” and uses his position to identify people who need additional motivation and resources to be successful.