Commentary

September 6, 2012

Attacking symptoms of suicide

Commentary by Capt. Scott Taylor
Air Force Legal Operations Agency

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) — As an area defense counsel in the Air Force, it is my job to represent Airmen who get in legal or administrative trouble, and I love my job.

I have spent the majority of my legal career as an attorney representing people in trouble, both as a civilian and now as an ADC. It has been my experience that people seldom make bad decisions in a vacuum. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, stress, and depression are very common factors amongst my clients over the years.

For the majority of people, these factors do not excuse behavior, but we are failing our fellow Airmen if we ignore environmental factors that can substantially contribute to that behavior. Being a defense attorney allows me to see my clients and not see them for the worst thing they have ever done, but rather see the whole person and all the good they have done in their life as well. I come from a very conservative background, and I was very surprised to find I enjoyed the work and the lifestyle of a defense attorney. It has changed my outlook on life dramatically.

Stress

Ask any doctor about the effects of stress on a body and you will hear that stress has powerful effects on your physical and mental health. Stress comes in all forms. In the United States, approximately one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has major depression or PTSD. Veterans with PTSD or depression experience more serious legal problems, a higher lifetime use of alcohol and other substances, and worse general health. A 2007 Department of Defense report noted that military service can result in “hidden wounds” such as combat stress and PTSD. These hidden wounds can lead to difficulty controlling anger, irritability, self medicating with alcohol and other drugs, and other reckless or high risk behaviors. stress is not limited to combat stress however.

Military life comes with a significant amount of stress that takes its toll on our mental health, our physical health, and our family lives. Awards and great performance reports are a fantastic achievement, but every award or great performance report comes with an investment. As we all strive for excellence in all we do, we make an investment with our time and our health through long hours, extra duties, volunteer work, and all the associated activities that come with being the best. We can all relate to giving our best and having that achievement seemingly overlooked. We can all point to a time when we felt a quarterly award was deserved but someone else was nominated instead, which only increases the mental workload. Every deployment, every award, every stellar performance report, and every significant accomplishment is paid for. We cannot place these stressors on Airmen and then treat the negative consequences of that investment as an isolated behavioral problem.

Consequences

Not all of my clients over the years can reasonably point to stress as a legitimate source of poor decision-making. I have represented people as a civilian attorney who are criminals in the classic sense of the word. I have also represented a large number of people who made a poor decision either during or after a divorce, or when dealing with a medical condition, or suffering personal loss, or who dealt ineffectively with pressure or, again, stress.

As I get to know the whole person when I meet new clients, I am often struck with how often bad decisions are accompanied with family problems, alcohol use, drug use, or other negative behaviors. It is extremely rare when I meet someone who woke up one morning and decided to break the law. Few people truly contemplate the consequences of their actions; rather we live in the moment. I have represented a lot of very good people who did some very bad things, and who are often dumbstruck as to how they wound up in serious legal trouble.

External factors tend to pile up and lead a person down a path to their downfall, and when I speak to clients under the attorney client confidential relationship, I can’t help but notice how many are shocked that they were capable of making such poor choices. These choices can be as simple as deficiencies in the work place, to fitness failures, to alcohol-related incidents or drug abuse, to serious criminal conduct.

Attacking Symptoms

Part of my job entails telling the whole story, and explaining how a client arrived at a point in their life where they made a decision to break the law or some other poor decision. I have represented veterans in my civilian career and have personally seen the negative consequences of a conviction, or a punitive or involuntary discharge. I met veterans who never got help, and who escaped into drugs or alcohol, and who lost their families and homes. I met hopeless people who served their country, but now have nothing to show for their sacrifices. I represented one particular homeless veteran on a drug charge, and made an argument to a judge that his service should be taken into consideration. That judge turned the tables on me and asked why I did not serve. He asked me if I was too good to serve my country, and I did not have a good answer at the time. Later, the same judge administered the oath for my commission.

That experience is a large part of why I am here today, serving you as an area defense counsel. By the time that I met him that homeless veteran was too deep down the rabbit hole for me to make a difference in his life, though I tried my best. I think of him and I think of everyone on this base who is facing stress, no matter the source. That homeless veteran was an Iraq war veteran, who self medicated with drugs and was involuntarily discharged. He had nowhere to go, and no one to help him since because of his discharge, he did not qualify for most veteran’s benefits. He never addressed his mental health problems that I could see as plain as day. Instead, the symptoms of his illness were punished and his life became unrecognizable to him.

The Way Forward

I committed to giving up my life as a civilian attorney and entering active duty to serve you. If I do nothing else during my time on active duty, I hope to represent Airmen who need help, and to put the brakes on the Air Force taking negative action before they go down the same path as my civilian clients. All the awards and officer performance report bullets in the world mean nothing if I do not try to help you avoid those same pitfalls. Certainly, there is misconduct that is simply derives from personal shortcomings and poor decision making. However, I know a good amount of misconduct or poor decision making is also accompanied by signs of a bigger problem.

The solution is to talk about these stressors. Talk to your friends, talk to your families, talk to a chaplain, or talk to a mental health professional. When you hold that stress inside, and are too proud to talk because you are afraid of appearing weak; that leads to misconduct, fitness problems, or even suicide.

I sincerely hope that anyone contemplating hurting themselves will talk to someone before making a decision that cannot be un-done. I have represented clients who have done some of the most awful things imaginable, but I have never met someone who we should give up on.

I write this because everyone is both a potential client, and potentially someone who could hold my clients fate in his or her hands. We all like to think we will always make great decisions, and it is easy to isolate poor behavior and look at it in a vacuum. However, with all the sacrifices and stress that accompanies military service, never forget that it could be you facing a charge for driving under the influence, a fitness failure, a bad performance report, or even a court-martial. My clients are great people who sometimes make bad decisions. My goal is that everyone recognizes and talks about their stressors with someone so you do not need my services.

If you really think about your stressors and find the people around you who want to help, you can avoid the poor decisions and the symptoms of what you are going through. But if and when you make that poor decision, no matter how awful, I will be there gladly to stand by your side when no one else will and defend you to the best of my ability.




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