The Few, the Proud, the Suicidal
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life is very rarely — despite what they would have us believe — like the movies.
By Joshua Chavez
I joined the Marine Corps hoping to die.
That is not the reason that I gave to my mother. I spoke to her in cliches. I told her I wanted to “be the best of the best,” to become part of a band of warriors. I “wanted to protect those who could not protect themselves.”
Soon after, I boarded a jet flying across the Pacific with my M16 service rifle, heading toward what I hoped would be my destiny. Leaving $400,000 of military life insurance to my family, I would finally be useful.
Growing up I never learned how to deal with my emotions; unintentionally, through life experience, I did learn to be strong. But I did it without the steadying hand of a father. I learned how to be strong for my older brother and younger sister after we witnessed our mother’s suicide attempt in a dismal motel room, landing us in foster care.
They become cogs in the military machinery, and when that machinery is done with them, it spits them out
I then learned to be strong in foster care, fighting to prove myself as the new kid. I had to be strong again years later during my mother’s violent outbursts when she would hit me and my siblings. I learned to shield my meek older brother, crying out for her to stop as her fists beat the self-worth out of me. Every thud against my body solidified my desire to leave this world. Why would a mother treat her own children like this? Wasn’t she supposed to love us?
I enlisted at age 17, having never been taught to be a real person — a whole person. My lessons had come from the aforementioned life experiences, as well as from watching movies and from what my few young lovers seemed to expect from me. The lesson was that “real men don’t cry.”
The Marine Corps magnified that lesson with its own mantras: “Never fail,” “Improvise, adapt, overcome,” “Overwhelm the enemy with brute force to crush their fighting spirit.”
As one of the Marine Corps’ real men, you are not taught to feel; you are taught to win wars. That mindset comes with a price: “Some to your left and some to your right will die within a year,” our Drill Instructors (DIs) growled. I was hoping to be among the “some.”
Others in boot camp had joined for less morbid reasons. Upholding family tradition, job security, travel, education benefits. In the latter category was Corral, which, according to our DIs, made him someone who’d joined for the wrong reasons. Corral was a gentle, intelligent, feeble boy in my eyes — certainly not what you would picture when you think “Marine.”
He was not much older than I was, at the time probably 19 or 20. We were rack mates and developed a bond at lights-out. Talks calmed our nerves. He spoke of all the good he would do after he used this military steppingstone to get into medical school. He confessed his fear of falling short during boot camp. I reassured him we were all going to make it through together.
I tried to protect him as I had once protected my brother. When Corral nearly fell out of hikes, I’d encourage him to keep up. But he drew the wrong kind of attention from our DIs: he wasn’t loud enough. I reassured him it was all part of the game, to be strong, dig deep and push hard. After 13 weeks of countless hours of yelling and pushing ourselves to the limits, we earned the title: We were Marines.
A month later we would meet again at Camp Pendleton, one of the few times I can recall feeling joy at a reunion. This would be the last time I saw Corral.
In late 2011, he was killed in an IED blast while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. Hearing the news from a Marine we’d gone to boot camp with, I stood numbly in the chow hall. I spent the rest of my deployment avoiding the thought of my friend being gone. I blamed myself: Why had I helped Corral through boot camp? Why had I told him to be strong? Why did this happen to someone who wanted to make a difference?
I was the worthless one, the one abandoned from birth and repeatedly cast aside by loved ones. How unfair it was that life had taken the wrong person. Though I suffered no visible injuries in the Corps, I still lost a lot. I lost the closest thing I had to a friend, I eventually lost my fiancée, I lost the ability to connect with others. Above all, I lost the ability to feel anything but dullness, pain in my bones, sorrow in my soul.
And for what? For a knee-jerk “thank you for your service”?
Some who enlist are true believers, while others are pragmatists like Corral. But too many are like me: troubled young men and women. Maybe they aren’t literally hoping to die, but they’re desperately hoping for something, some meaning. They feel they have nothing to lose and nothing to really come home to. They become cogs in the military machinery, and when that machinery is done with them, it spits them out as they were or became — broken.
Broken pieces that have served their purpose, no longer needed, which helps explain why 20 veterans commit suicide each day.
Lance Corporal Corral wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to die.
In the end, neither of us got what we wanted. But the military got what it wanted out of us.
- Joshua Chavez, OZY Author Contact Joshua Chavez