The words are jarring, particularly considering their source.
Writing of his own mental health struggles, the military's "warrior" culture and the toll of war, a former high-ranking official at Joint Base Lewis McChord lays it bare. Things need to change, he argues.
"Behind the public façade I so ardently protected was a dumpster fire of mental, emotional and physical deterioration and a family struggling," wrote one time I Corps Chief of Staff Col. Owen Ray in an opinion piece published by The Cipher Brief last month. "I was suffering complete mental exhaustion from the cumulative impact of untreated mental and physical health issues, operational and career stress across a career in (Special Operations Forces), including eight deployments. I was consumed by the war within and completely unaware of my own deterioration."
It's a chilling acknowledgment, considering what came next. On Dec. 27, 2020 — the night Roy recalls in his writing — the Green Beret held a gun to his head while locked in an hours-long standoff with police at his family's home in DuPont. According to the Pierce County Prosecutor's office, Ray threatened to kill himself after he pointed the gun at his wife and kicked her in the face and chest in front of their children. Today, he's awaiting trial on charges stemming from the terrifying ordeal.
In his op-ed, Ray — who was honorably discharged and retired "in lieu of elimination" earlier this year — says the events of Dec. 27 changed his life forever. As he wrote online, he also believes that the military desperately needs to "improve mental health awareness and foster a climate and culture where our service members feel they can ask for help."
"In the aftermath of that horrible night, I was devastated, confused and struggled to understand what, why and how this happened. I was criminally charged (and still face trial), vilified by the media and lost my freedom, my career, and worst of all, my family. Months later, and after extensive inpatient treatment, I was diagnosed with severe and chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression, Insomnia, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)," Ray writes.
"Reducing shame and hopelessness are critical in (the) effort to save lives," he continues, "and we cannot continue to provide a false choice between health and mission or career."
For South Sound residents and thousands of the area's military service members, Ray's words can be hard to reconcile. It's one thing to understand and empathize with the challenges and struggles faced by those who've bravely served our country. It's quite another to see Ray — whose rank and position of leadership in the Army gave him a platform to address some of the very same issues he now seeks to highlight — as a victim.
But here's the thing: Regardless of what you think of Ray or his alleged crimes, the issues he describes in his op-ed — including the need to address military mental health, reduce stigma and rethink warrior culture — demand our attention.
The stakes are simply too high, and we know all too well what can happen when warning signs go ignored.
Last month, the Biden administration described suicide among service members, veterans and their family members as "a public health and national security crisis," and for good reason. "Since 2010, more than 65,000 veterans have died by suicide — more than the total number of deaths from combat during the Vietnam War and the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined," the White House noted. Brown University's Costs of War Project recently reported a similarly alarming finding: Since 9/11, just over 7,000 service members have died during military operations; more than 30,000 active duty and veteran who served during those same wars have died by suicide during that time.
As recently as 2018, 17 military veterans died every day from suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Nationally, the Biden administration has announced a list of goals and executive actions aimed at reducing these tragedies.
Here at home, efforts to address this crisis start at a place many Pierce and Thurston county residents know well: Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Last week, a panel of military experts from JBLM — including Col. Christopher Perry, the Chief Medical Officer at Madigan — met with The News Tribune to discuss what's being done. In addition to holistic health, physical fitness and spiritual fitness programs available on base, Perry said that Madigan's Department of Behavioral Health has over 200 employees, and that every day these medical professionals are actively treating people who need help.
Perry previously served as chief of Madigan's Department of Behavioral Health, and said that he's seen "tremendous progress" in the way the military deals with mental health issues over the last decade. In part, he credits new programs and existing programs at JBLM — like the expanded use of family life counselors, the suicide prevention hotline and efforts to increase the number of clinics on base.
"The key takeaway, having managed the Department of Behavioral Health, is that our 200 employees — the clinicians in that group — have full schedules pretty much every day," Perry said. "We don't have appointments that are going unused, which ... is telling me that we've really turned the corner on problems with stigma, because our soldiers are accessing our care."
Asked directly about suicide, Perry said that the increase the military has experienced is tied to an increase observed in the general population, which is a point of disagreement among military leaders and researchers. But however you parse the statistics, Perry acknowledged it's a problem the military must solve.
Noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs has a large role to play once service members leave the military, Perry said that one of the biggest challenges for active duty members is figuring out who needs help.
"We look at our statistics every year, and we know that we do pretty good once we identify somebody at risk of getting them into treatment," Perry said. "The problem is identifying those people. ... When suicide is rare, it's hard."
As difficult as the task might be, it pales in comparison to the alternative. According to the Department of Defense, from 2015 to 2020, the the suicide rate for active-duty service members climbed by more than 40%, going from 20.3 to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 service members.
A year ago, Ray narrowly avoided becoming yet another statistic in this national crisis. Today, he's focusing on "reconciling my life and my accountability but also my responsibility to recover and live better for my family and friends," he writes.
Whether you believe Ray deserves sympathy or not, it's an opportunity many more active duty and military veterans should have.