He told me he’d contemplated suicide once. He wasn’t one to open up about himself like that. He could tell a great joke and loved talking about hunting, but forget about anything more personal than that. He’d been a student of mine the year before, and after finishing the veteran reintegration class I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, he and I kept in touch. We’re about the same age, and he and I both have young kids, and so I saw him more as a peer than as a student.
He’d thought about suicide after getting home from his fourth deployment to Iraq—the last one. He had been over there so many times that sometimes he struggled with the dates. He’d been part of the American invasion force in March 2003 and ended up in Mosul, and he remembered the Sunni uprising and its violent aftermath. He’s proud of a lot of what he did, but none of that ever made it into the papers. He feels guilty sometimes too about some of what he did and saw, but unless he’s had a drink or two, he doesn’t talk about that stuff.
One night, he and I were sitting in one of those quintessential Northern Wisconsin taverns—dartboards to our right, pool table to our left—catching up. The walls were covered in vintage beer signs and neon lights. A row of slot machines pinged and rang behind us. Behind the bar were three tiers of bottles filled with clear or brown liquors, illuminated by yellow lights. There was a basketball game on TV, but I can’t remember who was playing. It was a weeknight, snowy and cold outside. And a few seats down from us on the left sat a pair of older gentlemen, maybe my grandfather’s age. They didn’t talk much. I saw faded tattoos on the loose skin of their forearms.
Two or three beers in, my friend and I got to talking about the class of mine that he’d taken. He had been a great student—one of my best, in fact. He was a little older than the rest, and he had a reserved wisdom his fellow students respected immensely. One of his classmates had gone through a rough patch recently, and had finally gone to see a counselor at the Vet Center up in Wausau.
“Was he suicidal,” I asked?
“Yea, pretty sure he was,” he said. The counselor had given my drinking buddy’s suicidal friend locks for his guns and asked that he pass the keys on to someone for safekeeping.
That’s when my friend confided that he’d contemplated killing himself too.
“I was home,” he began, “sitting on the couch, drinking, watching TV. I don’t remember what I was thinking about exactly, but I do remember feeling this tension and having this realization wash over me that if I just did it, if I just fuckin’ killed myself, that everything would be better, that I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.”
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I said nothing, sipped my beer, put it back down on the bar. He turned his head and stared at the wall behind the bar.
“But you didn’t do it,” I finally said.
He blinked. Shook off the gaze and took a long pull from his beer, finishing it off.
“How come?” I asked.
He raised his hand and gestured to the bartender that he’d have another. I turned and motioned the same, then returned my gaze to him.
“That’s the funny thing,” he said. “So I’m sitting there. Drunk. And I’ve got my 9-millimeter and I’ve made up my mind: I’m going to do it. I’m going to pull the trigger.”
He paused. Chuckled. Then he took a swig of his fresh beer.
“But then I remembered that I was supposed to play golf with my dad the next day,” he said. So he took the magazine out, ejected the round that was in the chamber, put the pistol in a drawer, and went to bed.
In the end, it doesn’t matter why he didn’t shoot himself that day, though maybe there’s a lesson in it: He felt a responsibility to his father and the golf date they had scheduled for the next day.
I didn’t ask why he didn’t kill himself after golf—the next day or the day after. Maybe I should have. My guess is he just kept reminding himself that there were people who needed him. Maybe that’s all any of us can do—remember that we’re needed and remind others they’re needed, too.
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There’s a saying in the military that he shared once during class: “If it’s stupid but works, it’s not stupid.” At first glance, a golf date with dad might seem like a stupid reason not to end it all, but it worked.
It’s not stupid.