22 Suicides A Day: The Military and Its Troubled Soul (The Hurt Locker)

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“I’m ready to die, James….

Another two inches, shrapnel zings by; slices my throat- I bleed out like a pig in the sand. 

Nobody’ll give a shit. I mean my parents- they care- but they don’t count, man.

Who else? I don’t even have a son…

I’m done….I want a son, I want a little boy, Will.”

In the final moments of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning masterpiece, The Hurt Locker, Sgt. JT Sanborn (played by Anthony Mackie), reveals a jolt of emotions barely present during the two hours that precedes it. Loneliness, regret, relief, and desire- all tragically manifested on screen, disarming the audience who didn’t expect it coming from a soldier who, up until that point, has been stoic. Tragedies had come one after the other, yet the three heroes depicted in the film act as if part of their training is how to successfully internalize their feelings. Joined by his overly-daring leader and a younger soldier who has seen enough trauma in his short career, these three try to survive an emotionally draining deployment that seems to grow in difficulty with each passing day. They are the faces of today’s military.

They are the tough young men and women who have enlisted in the military for various reasons. Some to build a better life from the weak foundation they were raised on. Some joined for the educational benefits. Some would just like to run away. There are also the few, believe it or not, who still join in an act of patriotism. No matter what the reason may be, these people come together during the amount of years they signed the contract for, become this unified team, and take on each mission given to them- no questions asked. They lose their sense of individuality, for the most part, and operate under the instructions of the government.

But what happens after their contract ends and re-enter the “real” world?

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Not too long ago, I came across the staggering number 22- presented by the Department of Veteran Affairs as the amount of veterans who commit suicide each day. 22 veterans. One suicide every 65 minutes. I’ve never particularly had the need to research suicide rates before, but I became naturally curious, as was the rest of the media outlets who have tried to dramatize, validate, or rebut these findings, swinging it whichever way that would conveniently fit their political agendas.

The study itself doesn’t even include half of the states in the country, so the numbers should naturally be higher if everything was accounted for; better yet, it shouldn’t even be taken seriously as a complete study. Nevertheless, excuses pile on top of the other. Some say that any homeless person could have been wrongly labeled as a veteran. People who thought the number was just a fraction of what it really is would argue that there are a number of families who choose to not label the death of their loved ones as suicide, due to the stigma behind it. Others point out the fact that most of the suicides are committed by the older veterans, not the veterans of this current War on Terrorism (which would only make sense, since over 70% of the veterans in this country are over 50 years old).

Amidst all the back and forth in trying to make these figures more or less significant, I’ve noticed the lack of sensitivity towards the issue at hand. While searching for some clarity, we made the many faces of this ongoing tragedy feel even more of a statistic than they already are. The numbers may not be as accurate as one would like, but they still reveal the tragic truth behind the figures.

-Male veterans under the age of 30 are three times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts.

-21% of the nation’s suicides are by veterans, when they only represent less than 10% of the population.

-For every military member killed in combat, 25 veterans take their own lives.

That more people die by their own hands, as oppose to being killed in the battlefield, is alarming in itself. While many are quick to attribute suicides with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a great number of young veterans who’ve killed themselves is due to their failure to adapt to the civilian world after their service.

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Many films have shown the effects of war (mainly focusing on PTSD) on its participants, but The Hurt Locker is one of the very few that have successfully examined various states of their bruised psyche. In Bigelow’s film, the leader of the pack is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the dare-devil EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) Specialist, who replaces the previous one killed during an operation; he joins Sergeant Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) on the last month of their almost year-long deployment. James is reckless, stubborn, and an individual who gleefully marches to the beat of his own drum. He loves the thrill he receives from the close proximity to death which he encounters with every bomb he dismantles. It is the one thing that he has grown to love more than anything in his world.

“[Speaking to his son] You love playing with that. You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don’t ya? Yea. But you know what, buddy? As you get older… some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-a-Box. Maybe you’ll realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And the older you get, the fewer things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.”

James’ reliance on his job for some clarity and happiness is the tragedy of his life, and for many other veterans who feel the same way. Without doing what he is trained to do, without the luxury of his arduous routine, he is almost the opposite of his impulsive, quick-thinking self. When Sanborn expresses to him his sadness over not having his own family, he tries to empathize but seemed too far removed from that kind of loneliness that he couldn’t even relate. In another essential scene at the end of the film, James stands in the cereal aisle dumbfounded, almost incapable of taking on the simple task that his wife has given him: to pick out a cereal. He soon realizes that he can’t just be home, that he has to go back to the life that he has become accustomed to.

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Sanborn, on the other hand, plays by the rules. He is very careful with the intricacies of his job, and hates deviating from the routine. He is challenged by James’ presence, because it takes him out of the comfort of his professional image. He knows no one could take the place of his former friend and leader, and James is not exactly making the transition easy for him. But working with James, at the very least, took him out of the cocoon that numbs him from the outside world. There’s only a trace of his politeness left, and a guy who used to be comfortable playing the second fiddle is suddenly aggressive enough to be the leader. At the end of their deployment, it was an encounter with an innocent suicide bomber that became the catalyst of his emotional breakdown. Staring at death in the eye forced him to re-examine what he’s been lacking in his life. The military was his safe haven, where he’s given enough tasks to forget about things that civilians would normally worry about. Ultimately, his conflicting emotions got the best of him- the relief of barely missing death, but the sadness after his realization that no one would have cared if he hadn’t.

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Sanborn’s story is usually forgotten in the real world. The dramatic arch of people who suffer from an eternal loneliness is not as glamorous of a story as someone whose ways have changed due to the horrors he’s seen through battle- like the younger Eldridge; he’s pretty much on his way to be diagnosed with a PTSD after blaming himself for the deaths of his leader and, consequently, the officer who was helping him deal with it.

The Hurt Locker  knew Eldridge’s story has been told numerous times before, so Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal chose to focus more on the complexities of James and Sanborn. They are the types who need the authoritative nature of the military to maintain their sanity. I’ve seen this regression numerous times before- active duty personnel who held leadership positions during their time in service, only to be relegated to work as a cashier in department stores once they’re discharged. These people joined the military for a reason, and they temporarily fulfilled that void during their enlistment, only to be disappointed with life when they become a civilian.

As prevalent as PTSD is, it is this type of disappointment that leads to the propensity of suicide in the veteran community. Even mental health researchers believe that PTSD is not the main cause of suicides, but military officials believe otherwise. President Barrack Obama and his team have ordered more funding for the mental health coverage for veterans needing psychiatric help related to war trauma. But until they also recognize the James and the Sanborns of the community, the occurrence of veteran suicides will not decrease.

What these veterans need is the guidance of professionals before they are discharged. I’m not talking about the three days of mandatory separation classes that the military has in practice, but a more personal counseling program that guides them through the challenges waiting for them on the other side. Transitioning from active duty to a civilian is an extremely difficult task that deserves more attention than what three days worth of classes could possibly do. They need to know that there are many options for them in a more detailed and helpful manner. These men and women dedicated years of their lives for the country, the least the government could do is prepare them for the next stage.

“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” – Chris Hedges

As The Hurt Locker draws to a close, we witness James looking uncharacteristically lost in the comfort of his own home. All he seems to talk about is the bombings he had seen, as if they were pleasant dinnertime stories. He expresses his yearning to go back as a bomb technician, only to be met by his wife’s silence.

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A few moments later, the film cuts to James back in Iraq wearing his bomb disposal suit as he marches towards another bomb. The amplified heavy metal music playing in the background suggests that this moment is his resurgence. He is back doing what he loves to do, yet there is a certain sadness in knowing that James will never be normal again, for the horrors of the war will forever be his home.

MCM