Searching for the Clear
I couldn't bring myself to go into his barracks room and view the body. I stood outside the door, one in the endless row of identical doors on the second deck of my company's barracks. The NCIS agent described to me the scene. "Go straight back into the bedroom, button hook right into the closet, and you'll see him hanging there on the left, feet propped up on a chair. His body is frozen in an 'L' shape. Rigor mortis set in. Looks like he's been here all night. You'll smell it."
I put my hand on the doorknob and almost puked. I never did walk in the barracks room to see him, my Marine. I beat myself up over that. I feel like I dodged some kind of punishment, a lesson I, as his commander, deserved. A day or two following the incident, after his body had been removed, I finally entered the room while other Marines I commanded conducted the personal effects inventory. My mind played tricks on me. Every time I glanced in the direction of the closet, I saw my deceased Marine—the brown hiking shoes he always wore, the jeans, plaid shirt, his dress blues belt around his neck.
At age 33, with ten years active-duty Marine Corps service on the books, I had assumed command of Company B, Marine Cryptology Support Battalion, the commanding post of two hundred thirty Signals Intelligence Marines assigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. I assumed command full of spunk and excitement, command philosophy in hand. Finally, I had the chance to command a company! I had a list of operations and exercises, and events I planned to do with my Marines. Low on my list of command priorities was the topic that, in hindsight, would come to consume my time and energy—mental health. Less than a month into my command, I sent a Marine to the hospital for suicidal ideation. In the following months, I referred a handful more to behavior health psychiatrists for suicidal ideations. Five months into command, one of my Marines put herself into a coma for three days, though she ultimately survived her suicide attempt. Nine months later, a different Marine attempted suicide, and he did not survive.
Lance Corporal A has committed suicide.
It was slightly past 0800 on a Wednesday morning in March of 2020. I'd spent the last hour fighting the D.C. traffic only to still be late for a doctor's appointment at Walter Reed. I lay in a gown on a hospital bed as a doctor ran a cold wand on my lower extremities to try and diagnose the unexplained swelling, my consistently low body temperature, and lack of proper blood flow. Since taking command, finding time to care for myself had become an afterthought. I didn't even have time for the appointment. The doctor was mapping blood vessels in my right leg when my cell phone rang in my pocket. I silenced it. It vibrated with a second call, and I glanced at it quickly. My company executive officer was calling for the second time. I frowned as the doctor talked at me about my blood valves not closing all the way, stress, and extended periods of time on my feet. I felt guilty being away from work, for the attention I was asking for from my doctor. My cell phone vibrated again, and I saw the text from my executive officer.
Lance Corporal A has committed suicide.
My whole body went hot. It was as if my heart had gotten up and started sprinting. I read the message again, confused. There's no way Lance Corporal A committed suicide. One of my best junior Marines. This is a cruel joke, I thought. I sweated noticeably. The doctor was still charting my blood flow and I saw the spiky chart on the computer screen. Silent tears rolled down my cheek, but the room was dark, and the doctor didn't notice. He finished the ultrasound and told me I had vascular insufficiency. He said something about rest. I threw on my uniform, grabbed the paperwork, and ran out of Walter Reed.
Once in the car, I called my executive officer repeatedly. He didn't answer. What was happening? I called my senior enlisted leader. She hadn't heard the news and was equally as confused as I was. She'd returned from a three-week assignment to Japan with Lance Corporal A only a few weeks ago and was shocked to hear he'd taken his own life. We agreed it was a mistake, and I hung up.
I finally reached Fort Meade at about 0945, desperate and covered in sweat. I don't remember what happened next or in what order. I learned Lance Corporal A didn't show up for morning formation, which was unlike him. After calling his cell phone and getting no response, the Company Gunnery Sergeant told the Marine on duty to bang on his barracks door and wake him up. After getting no response, the duty opened the room and found Lance Corporal A in the closet, hanging from his dress blues belt. No note. No alcohol. No drugs.
I heard in the voices of those recounting these details that this was no joke, no misunderstanding. Everything felt cold. Frozen. How could this be real?
I had to tell the rest of the Company about his death, I knew that, so my company leadership and I agreed to hold an all-hands formation at noon that day. There were phone calls to coordinate with a base chaplain and the local mental health clinic to have support professionals on stand-by. I don't know who made those calls. Maybe it was me. Noon came fast; I told the formation to fall out and huddle close around me. In the middle of my one hundred and fifty Marines on hand, the Battalion Commander and Senior Enlisted Leader, I told them Lance Corporal A was dead. I told them quickly, to spare them from confusion about why I unexpectedly pulled them away from mission. I tried to walk the line between authenticity and too much emotion. Maybe I didn't show enough. One Marine turned white. The Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of Lance Corporal A locked eyes with mine. His eyes were angry, accusative. A corporal a few feet away from me sobbed uncontrollably. I remember telling myself not to look at the sobbing Marine too closely. I can't panic, I told myself. I can't pause. They need me to be strong. Another Lance Corporal just stared at me vacantly. She'd confessed privately to me only a month before that she'd been experiencing suicidal ideations. Was this her reality check?
Was she next?
You can't fake leadership in a situation like this. If you don't already love and care about your Marines, a crisis isn't the time to start. I emphasized that his death was not the fault of anyone there. (Just mine, I said silently, to myself.) In a time like this, I said, we needed to bond, not dissolve into loneliness and grief. I told them to stay together, to take care of each other.
There were more calls to make, to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Walter Reed Coroner, the Casualty Assistance Calls Office and ultimately to Lance Corporal A's family. In the case of death, it's the responsibility of the Casualty Assistance Calls Office to make the first call to the primary next of kin—Lance Corporal A's parents. Once that happened, my senior enlisted leader and I called his parents.
"We are so, so sorry for your loss," I said, as gently as possible. "We feel his loss, too. He was part of our chosen family."
"When can we expect to get his body?" his mother asked quietly.
"As soon as possible," I promised.
"I'd like to bury my son next Friday," she said softly and hung up.
At some point during the day, I remembered it was my day to pick up my kids from school, while my husband, also an active-duty Marine, attended a work function at the U.S. Naval Academy. I called him and told him about Lance Corporal A.
"Don't worry about coming home," he said. "I'll cancel my function." David had been a company commander a year prior and he knew what a suicide within a company meant for the commander. When I finally dragged myself through the front door that evening, I was met by my 4-year-old son dressed in fire truck PJs and dragging his favorite plastic sword. His face was red, blotchy.
"A.J., honey?" I said.
A.J. blinked up at me, dazed, and I knelt down to examine him. His tongue was scaly and swollen. He had a red rash on multiple parts of his body, and dozens of tiny blisters on his groin. His forehead was on fire.
David appeared around the corner, exhausted, a dishtowel in hand, and I lost it.
"Can't you see that he's sick?" I shouted. "That he needs help? How could you not notice this rash?"
The dynamic of marriage between two active-duty Marines is an entirely other source of stress. I scooped up A.J., threw him in the car, and drove straight to the Emergency Room.
I spent the next few hours in the ER waiting room cuddling my limp, sleepy boy and texting my company staff about details of the suicide eight-day brief and various requirements to come. The ER doctor almost instantly diagnosed A.J. with scarlet fever.
"Scarlet fever is the result of not treating strep throat in a timely manner," she politely scolded me, while simultaneously giving A.J. a massive dose of antibiotics. "It's important to catch these cases before they escalate."
Being active duty Marines in leadership positions requires David and me to be work-focused all the time and many things fall through the cracks. One of us will think the other one is doing something and they're not. There have been times we've sent the kids to school with no lunch, times we've forgotten to pick them up. My daughter is four and a half, and I've never taken her to the dentist. Our family life is a constant conversation about who has the shittiest schedule, and who can get out of their afternoon meeting to get the kids. God forbid school gets out early. We try to keep the lines of communication open. We try not to keep score.
A.J. and I returned home around midnight, additional antibiotics in hand. I felt physically and emotionally numb. In one day, I'd been diagnosed with vascular insufficiency, lost a Marine, and botched motherhood. In how many more ways could I fail? I'm tasked with caring for the mental wellbeing of my Marines as well as the health and safety of my children. But who cares for the stress and mental health of the leaders? I thought suddenly of Vice Admiral Stearney, commander of 5th Fleet, who oversaw thousands of troops and all of the Navy's operations in the Middle East. He committed suicide in 2018 while in command.
The week after Lance Corporal A took his life, panic about COVID-19 swept the nation. My focus as a company commander was to return the remains of my Marine to his family and monitor the mental health of the other Marines in the company, as my staff and I simultaneously tried to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic. The Marine Corps was increasingly anxious about COVID-19. In my personal life, A.J. quickly recovered from scarlet fever but I was preparing for a surgery that would require a day at the hospital and subsequently two weeks of convalescent leave. I called my doctor to reschedule (again) but was warned that rescheduling the procedure could mean waiting months, as this was the last week they were conducting non-life-threatening surgeries. The Marine Corps requires regular Physical Fitness Tests to ensure the readiness of every individual Marine. I took a Physical Fitness Test just to have something on the books before surgery. It was the worst official score I've ever gotten. I'm drowning, I thought after the test, but I'm supposed to be commanding.
I had surgery on Friday and spent the weekend on bedrest.
"Why are you putting on my cammies?" my husband asked early Monday morning, watching me dress.
"Forget convalescent leave," I said. "I simply can't be out right now, and my body is so swollen I can't fit into my own cammies."
I drove to Fort Meade, purposely leaving the narcotics I'd been issued for my recovery back on my nightstand. I needed to feel everything.
Lance Corporal A was a popular Marine, and dozens of Marines wanted to attend his funeral in his hometown of Los Angeles. In the early days of COVID, approval to travel was granted via an exception to policy form that required the signature of a three-star general. Approximately two dozen Marines requested the exception so they could attend the funeral in Los Angeles, but we were ultimately allowed only one traveler—the body bearer. Weighted with a sense of duty and responsibility, all of us in my company section wanted to be the body bearer. I was proud of the maturity and professionalism displayed by my Marines. Ultimately, I selected the Company Gunnery Sergeant to be the body bearer, because he was altruistic and mature, but mostly because in a year serving under me, this was the only thing the Marine had ever personally asked of me.
I worried nonstop about the other two hundred and twenty-nine Marines in my company. There were many I didn't know very well. (I relied on my small unit leaders). Any spare moment I found I spent walking around, talking to as many Marines as I could.
"I keep waiting to wake up from this nightmare," sobbed a nineteen-year-old Marine, who was Lance Corporal A's closest friend.
"I'm fine," said the young Marine who'd discovered his body. "I've seen dead bodies before."
"I have to hit the gym and throw around heavy shit to get out my rage," said a Lance Corporal, who himself had suffered suicidal ideation earlier in the year. "I'll never forgive him."
"He was the best of us and had so many friends," said another young Marine who had gone through Military Occupational Specialty school with Lance Corporal A. "I just don't understand."
Whatever personal emotions I had, I suppressed. Although Lance Corporal A's suicide was the first suicide in my company, this was the 34th suicide at the National Security Agency in a twelve-month period. One day, several weeks after Lance Corporal A's death, staring intently across the small table in his windowless office, NSA's senior enlisted leader asked me, "How are you doing?"
The question caught me so off-guard, I froze.
"I know you're a strong leader and care for your Marines—got it. But how are you, ma'am?" he said.
In the weeks since Lance Corporal A had committed suicide I'd tried to keep the focus on the junior Marines. I tried to stay busy with tasks, tried to keep moving. But to have a senior enlisted leader with thirty years' experience zero in on me, the commander, was a tremendous relief.
"How are you, ma'am?" he said again.
I lowered my head and, for a few moments, I allowed myself to fully sink into my emotions. I was consumed by exhaustion, by sadness and confusion, and an all-encompassing sense of failure. Few words were said, but in my expression, I told him I was struggling.
"I've been there," he said. "Exactly there. I know what this feels like. I know it's not okay now, but you will be okay again, one day."
His remarks helped me keep going.
The weight of leadership through this situation felt unbearably heavy. I felt as though I was moving so slowly all the time. Even my heartbeat felt low for weeks. I reached out to ask for help from mentors, friends and sometimes strangers. My peers were not necessarily faring better.
"Command is great and it's terrible," one of my senior mentors wrote in an email, where he described the loss of a Marine to suicide that he'd dealt with as a company commander. "You can try to explain it, but nobody can really understand until they're in the seat. Most of the stresses are invisible, but still very real. Your Marines are completely reliant on you."
"I had to make that dreaded call to a mother once too," another Major told me. "I'll never forget her scream. I was more angry than in grief. Angry at him, at his selfishness. He had two stepdaughters who found him. He did it while they were home."
"While in command, I didn't think I needed help," a Lieutenant Colonel told me. "I lost two Marines to suicide. My First Sergeant made me seek counseling. It made me better in the office and at home with my family. Now, I share often with my squadron that I used mental health resources. I wasn't afraid of being vulnerable and it opened the idea for others to use the service, too."
My company held a small, socially distanced memorial in the Fort Meade training center, a characterless, hollow, multipurpose space that had seen better days. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we were unable to hold the memorial in a chapel or someplace nicer. Not having a large gathering with a hard start time and lineup of eulogy speakers stung. The traditional display of combat boots, rifle, and helmet was staged in the middle of the huge room. We purposely turned off the inhospitable florescent lights, allowing only natural light from the large windows to spill across the room. Candles flickered on a folding table draped with a red tablecloth. Displayed in the middle of the table on a huge posterboard sat a portrait of Lance Corporal A. In the photograph, he stood at attention outside the company spaces, guidon in the background. His cammies fit trimly on his healthy young body. Sleeves rolled tightly. His thick dark hair was freshly cut to medium regulation, professionally tidy on the sides but long enough on top to show his youth—he had decades before hair loss would become a worry. His brown, almond-shaped eyes stared directly at the camera, a look of determination and strength on his face.
The first day Lance Corporal A came into my office, he looked so young. I'd only been in command a few weeks, and this was his first duty station after his basic training phase. Lance Corporal A had torn the MCL in his knee while in Signals Intelligence School. This could have been a career-ending injury. I asked him about his knee and his readiness.
"It's weak, Ma'am, but I'll get it back to 100% within the month," he said, and he did.
This was the Lance Corporal A I knew.
On a second table lay stationery where attendees could write a note to the family describing a favorite memory of Lance Corporal A. I crouched over the table and wrote about the time Lance Corporal A threw on a Santa outfit unprovoked and played St. Nick during the Battalion's holiday party when the original Santa failed to show. The enormous Santa suit was falling off and the fake white beard looked ridiculous. Lance Corporal A could have spent that time hanging out with his peers and chowing down on the great food, but instead he wanted to ensure all the kids got a chance to sit on Santa's lap.
COVID-19 guidelines allowed only ten people in a room at once, so the memorial lasted all day. A line formed outside the auditorium and one by one, Marines trickled in to pay their respects. A video and pictures of Lance Corporal A's funeral played on repeat on the projector. The video included footage of the casket draped in an American flag coming off the conveyor belt of a Southwest plane at LAX airport, our company Gunnery Sergeant standing on the tarmac in a salute. Ten uncomfortable metal chairs staggered six feet apart from one another faced the projector. Lance Corporal A's best friend occupied one of the chairs all day. She stared forward at the videos, expressionless. Marines hugged or embraced one another, and then quickly separated and looked around to see if they were going to be chastised for breaking COVID social distancing guidelines. This was so hard. Dog tags with Lance Corporal A's picture, name, birth date, and death date were there for the taking. As I write this, his dog tag hangs on my jewelry tree atop my dresser. I've been unsure if this is the right spot for it. Sometimes I want to tuck it into a drawer, out of sight.
There'd been minor debate about not having a memorial at all. Suicide is not something to glorify or celebrate, the against faction argued. Figuring out how to honor a fallen Marine and provide closure to the rest of the company while not glorifying suicide felt impossible. Not everyone agreed with how we conducted the memorial—make it shorter, perhaps fewer flowers—but in hindsight I'm thankful we did it the way we did. The memorial was for his family and for the Marines. We could celebrate his life without celebrating the manner in which he took it.
Retaining signals intelligence (SIGINT) Marines, like Lance Corporal A, has been a challenge for the Marine Corps for decades. Signals intelligence is information gathered from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars and weapons systems. SIGINT Marines possess game-changing skills involving high-speed, multi-functional technologies, but many SIGINT Marines work in nice cubicles, away from the excitement of the firing range and the adventurous deployments Marine recruiters promised. In this high-demand occupational specialty, junior Marines are often offered high paying and attractive civilian or contracting jobs as they come close to re-enlistment—especially when assigned to the NSA as their first tour.
As the commander of the largest company of SIGINT Marines in the Corps, retention could not be overemphasized. Together with my Battalion Commander, we devised a plan by which these high-value Marines could fulfill their desires for military adventures and travel, yet continue to serve in their critical billets at NSA. We sent a half dozen SIGINT Marines to the Combined Armed Training Center (CATC) in Fuji, Japan, where they'd temporarily experience a different and exciting part of the Corps. They'd have a chance to work with our allies, understand cultural differences, and see that there was more to the Corps than their specific cubicle-prone specialty. We constructed a three-week training event for a group of the most promising junior SIGINT Marines to stay at Camp Fuji barracks and train with the units out there. Lance Corporal A was among this group.
Lance Corporal A was ecstatic when I told him he was headed to Japan as part of this hand-picked squad. I told him to take tons of photos and keep me informed. When he returned from Japan, Lance Corporal A strutted into the company spaces, all smiles. He told me about eating raw fish eyes, of the Japanese stores with steep rooftops, of exploring Tokyo and the English club where he had befriended two Japanese Marines. He passed around a stack of printed photos of the team laughing during a snowball fight, of Japanese Marines teaching them how to paint Japanese characters, of the teams grimacing while tasting fried locusts.
"This one's my favorite," he said, and passed me a print of him smiling with Mount Fuji in the background. The next week, Lance Corporal A hanged himself.
After his death, the NCIS cleared the barracks room of all evidence. My company staff and I sifted through his belongings, preparing them for shipment to his family. Atop the wooden dresser underneath the single window in his room, I found a letter Lance Corporal A had written to a friend.
Being here, in Japan, this has been one of the best times of my life, he wrote. I can't wait to tell you all about Japan.
I stood there in his barracks room, reading and rereading that letter, dumbfounded. Furious.
In the months since Lance Corporal A took his life, I've driven myself mad with trying to understand why he would do this, and how I completely missed it. If he'd just had one of the best experiences of his life, then why take his life immediately after? What happened on that trip to Japan? Was I somehow responsible? I've reviewed my actions as a commander over and over. Was the Corps too hard on him? Was I too hard on him?
I've made so many mistakes throughout my career and in my life, but none I can think of are associated with Lance Corporal A. On the contrary, I was personally investing in his future. I knew him well and I saw a long and bright career ahead of him. He had many friends, was unmarried, had no children, no stressors that I, or anyone, was aware of. At the start of each week, Lance Corporal A would regularly tell me about his weekend fun hiking with other Marines or getting milkshakes at the local diner. What did he leave out of these conversations? Why, Lance Corporal A? Why?
In the summer of 2020, I completed my assignment as Commander of B Company, and was promoted to the position of battalion operations officer. I passed the torch on to the next commander at B Company. In November of 2020, when Covid-19 restrictions had eased, I went to visit Lance Corporal A's grave in Los Angeles along with Mr. A, Lance Corporal A's father. Commanders are responsible for taking care of their Marines and their families. To me, this responsibility endures, even though I am no longer the Company Commander, even though my Marine is no longer alive.
At the cemetery, Mr. A and I cleaned up the wilting Dia de los Muertos marigold flowers and replaced them with fresh bouquets. Small Halloween decorations of ghosts, skulls, and a purple bat adorned the grave. Lance Corporal A loved Halloween. The tombstone for the grave still hadn't arrived. Instead, the grave was marked by a laminated print of Lance Corporal A's boot camp photo, name, and a card reading "Feb 4, 1996 to March 4, 2020" zip-tied to a flowerpot.
"We chose this plot," Mr. A said, "because the young man buried next to it is also a servicemember who died in his 20s."
I silently wondered if that man, too, died of suicide.
How can we prevent our Marines from killing themselves? And how can we, as leaders, educate ourselves and teach our Marines that we will do whatever it takes, whatever it takes, to address their pain? In command, I cared deeply and tried hard to always do right for my Marines, but clearly it wasn't enough. What could I have done better? Will there ever come a day when I stop asking that question?
The Veterans Administration 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report revealed that servicemember and veteran suicide rates are nearly fifty percent higher than their civilian counterparts. A new study released in June of 2021 by the Costs of War Project found that 30,177 Global War on Terror Veterans have died by suicide, four times as many troops and veterans than have died while deployed. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for servicemembers, and young men ages eighteen to thirty-four are most at risk.
Asking for help when you're a United States Marine is hard. Military culture tells servicemembers to be strong and self-sufficient. We fear losing standing within our units or having leadership roles taken away from us. But when servicemembers utilize mental health resources and when commanders speak openly about mental health, the suicide rate drops significantly.
The Marine Corps has evolved. No Marine who sought help, either following Lance Corporal A's suicide or at any point lost standing, duty or reputation, and certainly not in my eyes. Some Marines I know are still in therapy. Some got remarkably better and ended treatment. Others are continuing to work through their challenges.
Help can also come in many forms. While I did not seek professional help—this was a consequence mostly of maintaining a schedule which seemed hardly able to accommodate meals—I did seek help from many sources, and I needed it. I listened to multiple podcasts on mental health and suicide. I talked to David and other mentors. I consciously spent more time playing with my children, which provided a life-giving sense of calm and normalcy, and, after enough time, even fun again. Befriending Lance Corporal A's father did a tremendous amount to help us both. We still speak regularly. Mr. A recounts stories of Lance Corporal A as a kid, and I about Lance Corporal A as a Marine. Telling stories about Lance Corporal A keeps him alive.
Lance Corporal A was in the Corps less than two years before he committed suicide. He had enough spirit to make it through Signals Intelligence training with one working leg. Since his death, I have made discussions of mental health a regular part of my leadership. In these discussions, many of my Marines who suffered from PTSD and mental health issues tied their original trauma to experiences prior to joining the service. Regardless, once these Marines are in the service, it is the responsibility of military medical professionals and commanders to care for Marines and ensure their PTSD is treated.
A company commander standing in front of a formation of 200 Marines is not the forum for intimate, meaningful discussions about trauma and mental health. Likewise, stale PowerPoint presentations that Marines are required to click through annually is not the answer to addressing suicide, sexual assault/prevention, and trauma. The small unit level is where real conversations about rape, suicide, domestic violence, racism, and other important topics need to start. Commanders need to set the tone, start the hard discussions, and empower our small unit leaders to engage Marines one on one or in small groups.
Sometimes I catch myself still expecting to see Lance Corporal A, running in a formation or perhaps wedged under a shelf, a cell phone between his teeth as a flashlight, cheerfully calling out the equipment list as we conduct inventory. Maybe if I can be honest about my own blind spots, about how I lost one of my most promising Marines to suicide when I wasn't actively looking to prevent suicide, it could help others. Perhaps my words could reach those who, like Lance Corporal A, wonder how they can go on, or if anyone in their unit cares. What I can tell them is that I know, more than anyone would wish to, their fellow Marines will suffer in devastation at their loss. Their pain will only be handed over to the servicemembers and family members who survive them, and every single day will be worse because of it. This essay is also my attempt to find peace, my own personal after-action report.
While scrolling through my phone the other evening, I found a photo of Lance Corporal A playing in the snow at Camp Fuji. I texted the photo to Mr. A, as my kids battled for a space in my lap and begged me to read them "Go Dog Go". I still struggle to separate home and work life. I wanted to call Mr. A, but I can't make calls like that around my kids. Instead, after the kids were asleep, I took my dog on a long walk around Annapolis and spoke with Lance Corporal A's father.
"How are you?" I asked. It was dark and chilly on the dock streets of Annapolis.
"Managing, somehow. Still trying to put the puzzle together."
The black, glossy water entertained dancing reflections of the dock light and backyard patios, and then as quickly swallowed them.
"Me too," I said.
I ended the call sitting on a lone bench by the water. I sat on the bench a long while, watching the ripples in the water, waiting for the lights to reappear.