By Thomas Brennan
It was a sensation that Marine Staff Sgt. Javier Jimenez could physically feel: the weight of life was literally crushing him.
“You start running out of air, the room starts getting smaller around you and your heart starts pounding,” Jimenez said, describing the “horrible” feeling that overwhelmed him. “You’re more hopeless than you have ever been before. You start worrying about the next day, wondering if you are going to make it there because all you want to do is die.”
For years, 34-year-old Jimenez, an infantry Marine who is currently transitioning to Wounded Warrior Battalion East, has dealt with thoughts of suicide as a means to escape his overwhelming anxiety. Diagnosed with psychosis, a mood disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder, Jimenez said he is constantly battling the urge to end his own life. It won’t be by his own hand though, he said, and he’s never physically hurt himself. Instead, Jimenez engages in risky behavior that he said he hopes will result in an accident that kills him.
“Even in Afghanistan, I would walk in the open trying to get shot at,” he said. “I was putting myself in risky situations because I wouldn’t kill myself, but the whole time I wanted to die. I just want to be put out of my misery.”
His risky behavior in combat carried over to daily life, he said. Feeling as though he has no control over his life, Jimenez said living for tomorrow has become increasingly difficult with each passing day, especially now that he is not actively participating in infantry training.
“Fighting with yourself to live to the next day isn’t a way to live your life,” he said. “Sometimes you spend the whole day thinking about suicide — every single second. When you get out and put yourself in that risky situation, you feel a rush. It’s the only time you feel alive. Cutting it close is the only time you don’t want to die because you finally feel alive. Not wanting to die is a good feeling, and I try to feel it as much as possible.”
But he’s not without hope — or help.
He said the treatment he has received from mental health providers at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune has been “outstanding” and helps him understand that things will get better with time and effort on his part. The infantry unit he is attached to, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, has been fully supportive, recommending him for Wounded Warrior Battalion East so he can focus fully on his treatment.
“There’s a lot of help available when you’re debating suicide,” Jimenez said. “I know it feels like you’re stuck in a horrible place with no way out; but there is hope, and that’s one thing the groups and the doctors are showing me.”
Opening lines of communication
At the School of Infantry aboard Camp Geiger, both Marine and Navy leadership encourage Marines and sailors to attend an anonymous group where they can discuss the stresses of life, marriage, military service and more. The group, which meets weekly, is a safe haven for dozens of Marines aboard the installation to vent and discover they are not alone. Because the Marine or sailor’s leadership is not notified of their involvement in the group, many servicemembers have turned to the group, which also advocates for one-on-one treatment if the servicemember is interested.
“The program … was spearheaded about a year and a half ago when a need among our (Marines) was identified,” said Marine Col. Jeffrey Conner, the commanding officer of the School of Infantry. “Marines being Marines, they want to come to work and put their best foot forward and have their game face on … but when they have difficulty with that we give them the resources and support they need to do just that.”
The program is discussed both monthly and quarterly to identify trends and, if needed, request more resources for the Marines and sailors, he said. In conjunction with the program, he said, the unit’s Family Readiness Officer and chaplain help identify at-risk Marines and sailors and refer them to the program. The group, he said, allows for open communication among Marines and their leaders and also builds awareness on how to be cognizant of what your peers may be going through.
As the sergeant major of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion, Daniel Wilson, 40, of Jacksonville said that some of the Marines within his battalion are stepping forward and asking for help, noting there is a receptive environment that allows for personal development through therapy without judgment or reprisal. Because AITB trains senior enlisted Marines, Wilson feels as though the open-door policy toward mental health will have a trickle-down effect within the Marine Corps and make others more accepting of those who ask for help.
“The reason they seek treatment may not even be combat related, it could just be stress,” Wilson said. “The Marine Corps has not written the book on managing post-traumatic stress … but we are doing everything we can to wrap our heads around it. … This is just one of the ways we are doing that.”
At both Marine Combat Training Battalion and Headquarters and Support Battalion, Sergeants Major Therester Cox and Christopher Garza said the message to Marines afraid of seeking treatment is that there is no stigma at the School of Infantry and they will not see any backlash for getting help.
“Get out, get help and don’t be afraid,” said Cox, 39, of Jacksonville. “To me, No. 1, everybody is a man or woman first. You’re important to somebody. … Now add to the fact that you are a United States Marine. It’s very important that Marines understand they need to get help because the Marine Corps is counting on you. You aren’t able to do anything for the Marine Corps if you aren’t taking care of yourself as an individual.”
The group is led by Navy Lt. Crystal Shelton, a clinical social worker who devotes her time between clinical appointments to interacting with the Marines and sailors as they train students, hoping to build awareness of resources and to minimize any stigma associated with mental health treatment, she said. The program is designed to be used for early intervention, she said, and it is also used to help people determine whether or not they are having a problem; but in order to help, someone needs to ask for it.
“Right here, what is happening is what other places are trying to model themselves on,” said Shelton, 38, of Jacksonville. “We’re trying to send the message that waiting (to get treatment) doesn’t help the situation. By waiting it usually makes things worse in their life. It you think there is an issue, come in and talk to someone. You don’t have to wait until you can’t do your job anymore.”
Navy chaplains, who are embedded within Marine units, often find Marines and sailors confiding in them when things in life aren’t going as planned. Trained to non-clinically identify symptoms of suicide, post-traumatic stress and other ailments, chaplains have access to resources they can make available to Marines such as counseling, retreats and more.
For Navy Cmdr. Marc Massie, 43, of Camp Lejeune, the best part of being a chaplain is that he can assist servicemembers with any problem and it will be kept 100-percent confidential. Chaplains are bound by law to maintain confidentiality regardless of the topic discussed even if the servicemember confesses homicidal, suicidal or fratricidal intents.
“Confidentiality means that it doesn’t matter what a servicemember says to a chaplain, it will not be repeated to anyone else,” said Massie, the station command chaplain for New River Air Station. “The reason the military does this is because it gives the servicemembers a safe place to go. The doctors, nurses and MCCS are great, but they are not 100-percent confidential.”
Whether real or imaginary, many Marines and sailors have fears that asking for help will ruin their career, he said, and part of what chaplains do is try to break down those walls and make it OK to talk. If someone were to walk in his office and confess that they were suicidal, which has happened in the past, Massie said that a chaplain will do whatever it takes to get the servicemember whatever assistance they need before they leave their office and even offer to go with them.
Sometimes, according to Massie, going to talk to a counselor can be a scary thing, especially when a Marine or sailor must tell their command they will be attending therapy. Massie said he has assisted many servicemembers in telling their command that they will be attending therapy and doesn’t allow the command to poke and prod, which often times makes the servicemember uncomfortable.
“I’ve counseled atheists, Wiccans and every other denomination,” Massie said. “It doesn’t matter if you even believe in a religion. We come at things with a human approach and just talk to people. We become a friend with them and check in on them from time to time to make sure they’re doing OK.”
It’s one more example of letting troops know that they’re not alone.
“I think most Marines would be surprised if they knew how many of their peers has asked for help,” Massie said. “It’s not as uncommon as people may think.”
Just ask Jimenez, the staff sergeant working to find his way back.
“There are people going through the same thing,” he said. “I feel alone but I know I’m not alone. That really helps when you’re fighting your own battle.”