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Posted by on Nov 3, 2009 in Education, Health, Society, War | 9 comments

Veteran Suicide: Witness To The Isle of the Dead

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The subject of veteran suicides rises every so often, like a dark island that floats off shore, but lays submerged under the water most all the time. Only small boats with intrepid rowers that are strong enough to go out past the riptides can see the sleeping dead under the water.

But every so often the ocean heaves and there it is again: the landmass rises and you see that it has been weighted down by huge blocks of granite inscribed with names of senators and doctors who didn’t ask and will never tell. And in the air an old banner clotted with seaweed rises along with the Isle of the Dead, and it says: Compassionate Mother: Remember Us, for Our Souls Were Not Restored After Shock.

And by each soul sleeping there are tiny flags that read ‘rest in peace dear soul,’and ‘may you live forever.’

The Harvest Kings
From my journal, VA hospital latter 1970s… once again…and ever again, until we all can understand and tend to.

What are harvest kings? Young men and young women known for their beauty, youth, and strength who are bound over and sacrificed at the end of the growing season, so the old king can give the appearance that he is not waning in power, so the old king can continue to rule without opposition from the young…

Thirty-some years ago, the upper echelons of the military were just beginning to understand/accept/tolerate the actuality that sending the young to war, harmed their minds, spirits and souls. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: We fought against many, many superiors back then, military men who thought they knew it all, civvie docs who thought they knew it all. They didnt. Not even close.

We fought to gain humane treatment for men and women injured in war… the war nurses alone, a category to themselves, were ignored for decades. There was often, back then too, a sneer that accompanied ‘higher ups’ speculations about ‘the weaklings’ who were ‘shell-shocked.’ That alone ought have been reason that those particular ‘higher-ups’ be taken out to count the ammo dumps, instead of being allowed to work near actual human beings.

Here, one of the ‘outcomes that need not have been’ for one returning vet, one who needed proper diagnosis, effective meds and close and compassionate follow up for as long as it takes. As. Long. As. It. Takes.

“The Harvest King,
post-Nam, ‘79”

As a volunteer at the VA,
I taught art to the men to help them, and me,
try to understand the unspeakable that
was so all the time spoken here.

A year stateside, he’d thrown his sister to the ground, jumped her. They both were screaming; she because it was her brother, he because for a moment… he thought she was not human.

Their mother ran
from the canning kitchen,
apron blinding her,
hands purple
with berry juice,
thick ankles caving in,
hitting ground every third step.
She fell upon her children
trying to tear them
apart for life’s sake.

The paramedics,
raced to the house,
and though no one was dead,
the poor house ached
as though it needed a corpse.
All the way to the VA
the mother held
the son’s face hard
in her purple hands,
diving into him with her eyes,
trying to snare him
and swim him
back to earth again.

Later, the neighbors, so hurt,
so curious, and so looking away,
whispered, “He cracked; you see,
the sister has long, straight, black hair
. . .like ‘them .’”

Dr. Albar,* the supervisor at intake, told us he himself had been “at” Nam. Nobody with him ever got “shocked by shells or this trauma-thing these boys are making up now.”

“Some are just not strong,
and many who went to Nam
were half-crazy to begin with,” he said.

The boy drew a picture of a canning jar filled with cut-worm guts, and rotten tomatoes.

Up north, in “the bread basket
of the nation,” we all used to play
in tomato fields after harvest
wearing whatever white t-shirts
and car rags
we could find,
so we could really see
how the yellow seeds
and red veins
splattered like real guts,
stained us with shapes like
sacred hands,
black fishing holes,
scary night quarries, and all this
dripping down,
all this tomato blood
made into snarled bait lines.
The blackish-white mold made
us smell like yeast bread rising
mixed with sour mash.

“Do you remember those sourish e-vile tomatoes? Do you remember that?” the boy asked. “And do you know my ancestors had a harvest king? A boy from the village sacrificed each year. Made land safe, fertile, so the anointed king would live a safe and fertile life. Did I tell you that?”

He drew tomato jars then,
worming the sky with leeches,
painted milk spilled,
trees pruned bare,
bunches of grapes
with blue eyeballs
painted upon them,
all staring up at the sky
He called his mother Charlie,
Charlie One.
I was Dr. E. for Echo.
He named his dog Hotel.
Some days, he thought he was not
himself, but Jim, a high school friend.

His family took him home from the VA in fiery autumn. He wanted to be dressed in his jungle greens, so he could dance in the tomato fields. It was there within that week that this tall child drew the entire continent of Asia in the dust by heart. He used an M-1 carbine pen, and all the red ink of his head for finality.

The mother of the purple hands
wrote to us,
and we held ourselves,
like doors begging not to be opened.
Dr. Albar snarled, “What do you want, sympathy?
Destroy those drawings now,
and close his file.
Just record
the results of the case;
No crocodile tears, plebe.”
(He had been in officer’s training
somewhere and had brought with him,
or learned,
a strange form
of humanity there.)

That night, I wrote in the boy’s file with a crazy grieving hand, summing up all differential diagnoses as I understood them, all contraindications along the way, double-checking the records of not closely supervised meds and too spare intervention. At the end, under “Supervisor’s Comments,” I wanted to write, “With the death of this young man I now realize that war, for any reason, is a form of insanity. I therefore renounce my rank as well as my commission,” and sign it, “J. Albar M.D.”

But I didn’t. Couldn’t.
Instead, I sealed the boy’s drawings
in a large manila folder
and wrote upon it:
“The Secret of the True Heart.”

Inside the envelope and somewhere now
in the storage vaults of paper records
of The Veteran’s Administration Hospitals
there is a closing statement
that says just these few words:

Let us weep,
for the Harvest King is dead.


The Isle of the Dead continues to be submerged by various groups and governments and yet, there is a huge pack of people who serve those who served, and most are civvies– and more are needed… please go down and volunteer to assist in any number of programs at the local VA– I’ll tell you a secret, yes the shrinks and medicating docs are important, but as and sometimes MORE effective are the water carriers, the chess players, the floor wipers, the jokers, the regular people who jostle and joke with the men and women, like they’re somehow family. That kind of medicine is effective and priceless.

There is a need too for those who keep pulling the subject up regarding lack of proper and timely care for war vets with severe PTSD who may be, at risk for suicide (K. Kattenberg being the most recent at TMV). You too can help row like heck to keep the subject– and the people within your reach insofar as you can– above the water line.

Although violent suicide with use of firearms has been associated with males, the current stats point toward same means amongst female war veterans who take their lives.

It is not just the work of the VA to bring soldiers home. It’s everyone’s work, and not to just say, ‘Thanks for your service,’ (although that’s appreciated) for that makes the war the only focal point of the life of the young over and over, even though they’re home now and trying to return to some semblance of normal again. Rather being friendly, regular, befriending with, “Been fishing lately? How ’bout them White Sox? Hey buddy, can you help me pile leaves this Saturday for ten minutes? Hey, where’d you get that jacket? Noticing the small things. Small talk that engages. Like that. Medicine of a kind not found in bottles.

The focus of care and diagnoses and medicines must be extended to include not only on returning vets from Iraq, Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom deployments, but also– and often especially– men and women who served in the Gulf war, in Vietnam, in Korean Conflict, and in World War II.
*Albar, not the VA chief’s real name, but a gloss on his actual name.
“The Harvest King”, belongs to a forthcoming book called La Pasionaria. ©1979, 2009, C.P. Estés, All Rights Reserved. Placed at TMV under Creative Commons License. Author and publisher give permission to copy, distribute, transmit… that use be non-commercial, work be used in entirety, and carry author’s name and this full copyright notice. The multimedia artpiece of the ‘Compassionate Mother,’ the same permissions CC, ©2009, C.P. Estés, ARR, this artwork from a forthcoming book on La Mujer Grande, Blessed Mother to be published by Frassinelli, Italy.