It’s a difficult number to process: every day, 20 U.S. military veterans commit suicide. We’ve reported on the role traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder may play. Lisa Fletcher reports on an interesting place where some at-risk soldiers claim they saved their own lives by running toward the sound of gunfire.
You might say salvation sometimes comes by surprise. On this hot early summer day, it was on the site of a former secret nuclear facility, in South Carolina, where a very varied collection of former warriors, SEALs, special forces, law enforcement, and just generally tough people came together to compete.
Tim Burke is a former member of the U.S. Special Forces, a Green Beret. He runs these competitions called the Tactical Games at different locations across the country.
Tim Burke: The idea that we put into the games is anybody can stand on the range and shoot accurately at rest. But if we get your heart rate and your respiration rates up, and now we ask you to do a fine motor skill. That’s where talent, that’s where skill sets get built.
Amy Way: My very first games I was overwhelmed and intimidated and feeling very out of my league.
Amy Way is a former flight nurse with the Air National Guard, and now a civilian nurse. She did intensive physical training and some recreational shooting and then upped her game.
Lisa: So, tell me what it’s like being a woman as a part of this competition, because it is like 95% men.
Amy Way: It’s funny. You can spot these guys from a mile away. And then most of us girls, you’d never know if you just saw us out and about. But I mean, it’s great that nobody cuts us any slack. They’re all super supportive and helpful.
Lisa: Why are you here at this competition?
James Gill: It’s a challenge. It gives me something to work for every day. It gives me another reason to stay in shape.
James Gill has a different reason to compete, and it’s largely against himself.
He was a Marine, in IRAQ in 2006. When his team went to clear a building, they walked into a booby trap. He lost a leg, and an eye, and had many other serious wounds.
Lisa: You work very hard to take up the gap physically, but what does a competition like this do for you mentally?
Gill: One, it gives me a mission, something to focus on, and it makes me feel good about my accomplishments. I try and stay as busy as possible to distract my brain from whatever negative thoughts I might have about the world around me, but for my mental health, I have to have a purpose.
Burke: And I think a lot of those guys are just struggling with that transition. And so unintended consequences. When I started this, I started a sporting event, I thought. It really quickly became a community. And ultimately it became a net to catch guys that were struggling with that transition. Case in point, I’ve had at least eight men from my background, SOF, special forces, seals, Marines, special operations come up to me, literally put their hand on my shoulder. They’d say, “dude, the tactical games saved my life.” And I’d go, “awesome”. “No, you don’t understand. It has saved my life.” I was sitting there with a pistol in my lap and somebody commented on Facebook, “Dude, I went to the tactical games. It was awesome. And I saw it and I thought, I’d try one more thing.” It’s like, how do you process that? You know what I mean? I came out to do something fun. And now I got these guys that are just like, really made a difference.
Gill: There are certain things that I know I struggle with, so I’m working on those physically. I have some limitations, but I make up for it with other skills, with shooting, and other things. I was 21 years old when I was injured, I’m 35 now, I’m not ready to hang it up.
The Navy SEALs have a phrase: The only easy day was yesterday. Nothing appeared easy this day, but for those who are struggling with their post-combat lives, it’s not always about today, it’s about making it to tomorrow.
For Full Measure, I’m Lisa Fletcher.