“Do not forget to
entertain strangers, for
by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
@quoteAttribution:— Hebrews 13:2
For the last four years, I have spent five amazing days during the month of October at a national conference with military families in the throes of grief. As you can imagine, death in the military is no different than it is in civilian life. Family members and friends are left with the same emotions, whether military or civilian. Everyone experiences levels of shock, anger, sadness, numbness and emptiness. Everyone feels something crack open in the lining of their hearts. Everyone is bereaved. Even if the person who died served an entire lifetime in the military, grief for survivors is still the same as grief for you and me.
But imagine if that death were suicide.
In the last four years, suicide in the military has become one of the greatest concerns of our national security. In July 2012, there was a 22 percent increase of reported suicides in the U.S. Army alone since July 2011. FYI: These numbers do not include Army veterans who have returned from duty with PTSD and are trying to survive as civilians with families. They also do not reflect other branches of the military.
For most of us, suicide in the military is almost inconceivable. How could someone who has volunteered to join the armed forces kill themselves? Aren’t they the proud and brave? Aren’t they the ones who return home with parades and honorable pins and badges? Believe it or not, it is precisely these proud and brave and honorable men and women who are killing themselves. Suicide in the military is a reality of our culture and society right now. And one that we civilians, both religious, nonreligious and spiritual, are called to pay attention to with our eyes and hearts wide open.
During these last four years, I have been the spiritual adviser for military families grieving suicide with an organization called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Project for Survivors). Almost 20 years ago, Bonnie Carroll, executive director of TAPS, lost her husband, an Air Force pilot, while flying a plane when it crashed. Knowing the emptiness she felt after his death, she founded TAPS as a “peer support” program for grieving families and their children. Thirteen years later, Kim Ruocco, mother of two boys, attended one of the annual workshops for TAPS.
Kim’s story, though similar in terms of loss and grief, was very different. Kim’s husband was in the Marine Corps; he flew Cobra helicopters. He served several tours of duty while Kim raised their two children on military bases in the United States. Seven years ago, after he had learned that he was re-deployed, John surprised everyone when he went to a hotel near his military base and killed himself.
I was called in the middle of the early morning hours by a family member who was searching desperately for a clergyperson. She asked me to meet Kim at her home upon her return from the scene of his death. Kim, after flying to be with John when she sensed something extremely wrong with him on the phone, apparently had been told by a local priest that her husband was “in hell” because he killed himself. Her shame and sorrow that began to fester that day was beyond comprehension. Her sister, my informant, was terrified that Kim wouldn’t survive this horrific situation. So, she called me knowing that I had a completely different view of suicide than the minister at the scene.
When I arrived, her children, along with nieces, nephews and extended family, were sitting in the living room, stunned and terrified, hungry for some kind of hopeful message to erase the truth. The news about John was incomprehensible! His death was unfathomable, but a suicide was impossible. Sharing my faith that God had surrounded John with pure love and forgiveness was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I could only pray that my faith was enough to offer some hope. I spent an hour with them before joining Kim in her room.
On her bed, with my arms wrapped around her, we started what has become a journey with God — a journey of a lifetime — a journey that has risen our faith in God, in spiritual healing and in the power of the human spirit. A journey that has restored our faith in the healing power of communities that pray together and stay together.
Kim discovered TAPS after one year of weekly grief counseling with me. She was searching desperately for a community of survivors of suicide in the military. What she found at her first retreat with TAPS was a community of grieving families and friends, but without a purposeful attention paid directly to suicide survivors.
Since then, Bonnie and Kim have initiated a most amazing annual program for suicide survivors in the military — and I have been honored and humbled to be the spiritual adviser for their work.
Last weekend, almost 400 suicide survivors and their children gathered in San Diego. This happens to be the place where John Ruocco killed himself. So, we chose this as a place for healing and hope for newly bereaved survivors. And that is exactly what the five-day conference was all about — healing and hope for suicide survivors. The significant impact made by TAPS in the healing journey for suicide survivors in the military comes from their commitment to peer support. The common bond of being hungry for healing after suicide becomes a source of creating hope in and among survivors. People see in each other a stranger with angel’s wings. Survivors become living and breathing blessings for each other.
As a local minister committed to building healing communities and to encouraging hope in the most despairing situations, I am writing this message so that we can all consider ourselves to be members of this healing community. I feel safe saying that as more and more families are forced to cope with the loss of suicide in the military, more and more of us will need to see ourselves as strangers with angels’ wings.
The Rev. Laura Biddle is minister at Tabernacle Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Salem.
If you are grieving the death of a loved one who died in military service, then call TAPS (a comprehensive, national peer support program) at 800-959-TAPS (8277). If you need someone to talk to, there is a confidential around-the-clock number: 800-273-TALK (8255).