Mullane: A Vietnam vet wants to stop veteran suicides
It’s a statistic that haunts Steve Gibson — an average of 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves each day.
“I saw that number and I haven’t been able to forget it. I was appalled,” said Gibson, 69, a Vietnam-era Army vet and retired electrician.
“I’ve been a member of various veterans groups and I just started talking to veterans and they say, ‘Never heard of it.’ Nobody ever heard that 22 veterans a day commit suicide. And I’m wondering why,” he said. “Why is this allowed to happen in this country?”
In retirement, he aims to become a one-man movement to spread the word, hoping to treat the despair that can lead to death. Sitting beneath a pavilion on a sunny afternoon at Middletown Veterans Memorial Park in Levittown, he displayed a tattoo on his left forearm, “22 A Day.”
The tattoo starts conversations, he said, but he wants more than a chat and commiseration. He wants action. He’s just not sure what to do.
“I’ve tried to get the word out online, but it’s moving slow. I’m not really an organizer, I’m an electrician. But I really want to start something that’s effective,” he said.
What drives so many ex-military to take their own lives?
“So I spent a year and half at Fort Jackson (South Carolina). I was trained and did what I was told, all the soldier stuff,” he said.
Readjustment is tough, and tougher for those in combat.
“My dad went through that,” Gibson said. “He was a bomber pilot in World War II. And he had nightmares all his life. He flew the plane, they dropped the bombs, and he never knew if those bombs killed innocents, women, kids. It’s a burden, and it bothered him all his life.”
Hard as it was for those who fought in “The Good War,” as author Studs Terkel called WWII, it was hardest for the men who served in Vietnam. No generation of American soldier was more vilified by the antiwar movement and pop culture.
“They thought they were serving their country, and then they’d come home. There were no parades, no ‘Thanks for your service.’ They’d come home through airports, and people were waiting for them, and they’d scream at them ‘Baby killers!’ and they were spit on,” he said.
“I remember how it got to the point where guys coming home would not wear their uniforms out of fear,” he said.
The sense of abandonment was compounded by movies, television programs, books and periodicals that portrayed the men who served in Vietnam as damaged goods. Reports of employment discrimination were so broad that, in 1974, the federal government enacted the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, prohibiting denial of hiring veterans by federal contractors.
It wasn’t until President Reagan called Vietnam a “noble cause,” along with the cathartic effects of the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that the screamers and spitters were largely marginalized, to this day.
But for Vietnam vets, it was too little, too late.
“The damage was done,” Gibson said.
There are 58,000 names on Vietnam Memorial. How many more would there etched there if the men who took their lives due to their war experiences were included?
“No one even knows,” Gibson said.
Though America of the 1960s and ’70s finally came to its senses and today honors its veterans, the problem of readjusting to civilian life persists.
“So these kids today, they come out of the service, they don’t know what to do. Some of them are lost. The lost ones can turn to drugs, turn to alcohol, turn to crime,” Gibson said.
In despair, some take their own lives.
“The transition is hard, going from a regimented military life where everything’s planned out for you, to a civilian life where you’re free to do what you want. Some guys can handle it, some guys can’t,” he said.
The ones who can’t are his focus. He believes he has a solution.
Three months before someone’s enlistment is up, bring them in, start retraining them, debriefing them, get them back into a civilian mindset.
Explain to them what they may experience. Provide programs to ease the transition, even if it takes the rest of an ex-soldier’s life. Anything to save the life of a vet, he said.
“These younger veterans, I show ’22 A Day’ to somebody who just got out, and they know what it is, know all about it. The guys my age, they have no idea. We didn’t talk about these things. And the public, they know nothing about it,” Gibson said.
He has an acronym. SAVE — “Suicide of American Veterans Eliminated.”
“That’s the goal of what I’m trying to do, eliminate,” he said. “But I need to get the word out. Because everybody I tell is flabbergasted to learn the toll.”
Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.