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How the Navy’s Treatment of My Problems Led to My Suicide Attempts

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Some time ago, I read an article by David Wong on about the problems young people face as they enter the world of work. My psychiatric history includes two suicide attempts, both of which were rooted in work environments that were hostile and poorly matched to my capabilities. Because of this background, this quote from Wong’s article stood out for me: “You are forced to make a potentially fatal choice with no information.”

Like many of the people Wong described, I approached the end of my high school years without a clear path toward any kind of future. The only thing I knew for certain was that I did not want to go to college. After four years of a high school college prep program I had not enjoyed, I could not stomach the idea of paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for four more years of drudgery I was going to hate. When I joined the Navy, it was because I could see a path toward a future; I had an aptitude for electronics, they said, and they would teach me the skills I needed to work in a field that was important to the defense of our country. With confidence boosted by the Navy’s faith in me and sudden patriotic fervor, I thought a job in electronics would be a good fit.

I was wrong. I failed every troubleshooting exercise and every related exam question. As my test scores declined, I was called “stupid” by various instructors with increasing frequency and the depression I had experienced from boot camp onward became worse. It became apparent to me early on that this field wasn’t a good fit for me, but I was told, “You can’t get out of it, so stop malingering!” I felt ashamed, not only for my “stupidity,” but for my “weakness.”

My first suicide attempt occurred after blowing an exam everybody said was easy. I overheard the instructors talking about how I’d blown it and how “dumb” I was, and on top of that, my existence was blasphemy and God wanted me dead and my depression had progressed to the point I was experiencing delusions and I couldn’t function anymore.

After my release from the hospital, I expected I would be reassigned because my specific field was working on the electronic equipment that controls the fire of gun and missile systems. The job required a security clearance I certainly wouldn’t have still been eligible for, and common sense dictates that if suicidal people shouldn’t have access to guns, they definitely shouldn’t have access to a five-inch gun. So I was floored when the Navy told me, “Don’t you understand, ‘retard?’ You have orders, son, and orders must be obeyed!”

So I continued in the school but had to see a therapist on top of going to school. But, because my therapist worked during the same hours I did, seeing him meant I missed a lot of class time. This caused me to fall further behind, which meant I did even worse on the exams than before. This reinforced the idea I had a defective brain, as one instructor was fond of telling me. And having to explain to my instructors every week that I had to leave class for an hour to attend therapy led them to comment I was a “weak-ass pansy” on top of being “stupid.”

And so I continued to learn I had no aptitude for electronics, continued with therapy and continued being miserable. Until six weeks from graduation, when my therapist suddenly decided, “It probably isn’t a good idea for a suicidal person to have access to five-inch guns.” I was placed on limited duty, which got me thrown out of the school, because of regulations that said sailors on limited duty can’t be in a Navy school. I was reassigned to a clerical job in a field that, by the Navy’s own standards, I was not eligible for training in. I performed badly in the new job as well, which was unsurprising, considering my aptitude for clerical work was substantially worse than my aptitude for electronics. (I scored one point above the minimum acceptable score for the school I attended. My scores in clerical work were so low that I wasn’t eligible for training in it at all.)

I did my honest-to God-best but it wasn’t good enough, and being told I had to persist anyway was demoralizing and ultimately destructive. What would the Navy have gained had I been allowed to finish the training? An incompetent and suicidal technician in a field that numbers, among its responsibilities, the defense of surface vessels against anti-ship cruise missiles? What could go wrong?

To be clear, the passage I quoted from Wong’s article didn’t resonate with me because I think the Navy is too stingy with information that would help prospective recruits determine whether the Navy is right for them. The reality is that until a person does something, such as attempt to learn a new skill, there is no way to determine beforehand whether the endeavor will succeed. Life is largely a process of discovery through doing, and that process cannot be circumvented.

Someone once suggested I should have done research before signing up. The person suggesting this was unaware of the hours I spent talking about Navy life with my recruiters and former Navy members who had had positive experiences with military service. Those hours gave me an excellent perspective on what Navy life was like for them. But even if I had known I had mental health issues, could I have accurately assessed my potential for Naval Service by examining it through the lens of someone else’s experience? Research can be a useful guidepost if it is tempered with one’s own experience. When I enlisted, I was a week shy of my 18th birthday. I didn’t have a lot of experience at that point. I relied on the experiences of people who genuinely loved the Navy, believed in it and wanted to share it with people they thought would benefit from joining.

I didn’t know enough about myself and my mental health to make an informed decision about joining the Navy. I took a risk and it didn’t work out. I’ve never had any problem acknowledging my responsibility in this matter. What concerns me is how the Navy handled my situation; it reminds me of the Greek myth of Theseus confronting the villain Procrustes. Procrustes had a bed that would fit any man, for if the man was too short, Procrustes would stretch him on a rack until he was long enough. If he was too tall, Procrustes would chop bits of him off until he was short enough. That was my experience with the Navy in a nutshell. I didn’t fit the mold, so they chopped and stretched me until I broke.

The Navy’s refusal to consider my individual circumstances, insistence I continue training for a field for which I had no aptitude and their berating me for being unable to do better added considerable baggage to my existing emotional problems. My suicide attempt should have clued the Navy in that something was wrong. Fixing the problem should not have been so devoid of humanity that it made the problem worse.

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

Originally published: January 22, 2019
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