Mike survived the jungle, but not the memory.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Today is America’s Veterans Day. I honor and thank all veterans for their service. I thank the military families who have sacrificed so much in order for my loved ones and me to live in safety and freedom. I pray for you all today.

I’d also like to share a personal story about my brother Mike. Mike was drafted into the Marines at the age of eighteen. Like so many others who were sent to Vietnam, Mike didn’t make it. Yes, he survived the jungle, but he didn’t survive the memory of the jungle.

After his tour of duty, he drifted from one thing to another, never really settling down. The day after his twenty-ninth birthday, as my sister prepared for her high school graduation, and I prepared for my year-end exams, Mike took his own life. He left behind a wife, a five-year-old son, parents and siblings.

I was thirteen. I’ve learned to go on, but I’ve never gotten over the loss of my brother. Every holiday, every milestone moment, every family gathering, I think, “Mike’s missing. He should be here.” I still cry sometimes when I hear a song or see a movie that reminds me of him.

He looked healthy, but he wasn’t. He had lots of energy. He was young and strong. He laughed. He fought. He played hard. But his mind was sick. And not in the way that we like to use the word sick as an insult; He really was sick. He had a sickness that can be terminal without treatment, and that sickness ultimately killed him.

Mental illness is just that–an illness. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not a spiritual flaw. It’s not a quirk. And it’s not irreversible. If you are bothered by intrusive thoughts, accusing thoughts, thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness or evil, if you can’t sleep, or if your thoughts just interfere with your day-to-day goals, get help.

I know you’ve heard it before, but the thing is, you really can be helped. You can live a peaceful, satisfying life, the kind of life that you want, without losing your personality and independence. Really. I’ve seen it happen. It might take some time until all is well in your mind, and that time will be the most challenging. You might have to experiment a little to find what works best for you. You might have to keep on it, like a diabetic has to control his diet and insulin levels, for the rest of your life. But you can start today. And health care professionals can give you the tools you need to at least ease the pain right away.

Don’t wait. If you found a small, cancerous tumor on your body, you wouldn’t wait until the cancer spread over you and became unmanageable before getting help. And you wouldn’t try to fix it yourself or pray it away. You’d see a doctor, because cancer is a serious illness. Mental illness is an equally serious medical condition.

I know that there are career concerns and social concerns that go along with seeking help. You can deal with those after you get well. You might worry about the side effects of medication. Discuss the risks versus benefits with your doctor, but keep in mind that more people die from untreated mental illnesses than from psychiatric medications.

I know some of you have sought help, and it didn’t work out. Keep trying. If one doctor or therapist isn’t helping you, try another. And another. And another. Until you find someone who does help you. That’s easier said than done, but you can do it.

When he ended his time on earth, Mike didn’t know that his wife was newly pregnant with his daughter. He didn’t know his wife would die from cancer soon after giving birth, and leave his small children orphaned.

I miss Mike especially on Veteran’s Day, because today he should be honored. He should be comforted and appreciated and loved-on, especially today. I can’t do that, but I can remember him, and share his story.

And to all who have served our country, I thank you. Please be good to yourself.

Mike's grave marker
Mike’s grave marker. Washington Park East Cemetery. Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo courtesy of findagrave.com

4 Comments on “Mike survived the jungle, but not the memory.

  1. Hi Kathryn,
    I am sorry to hear about your brother, Mike. It is a sad day for you, today. However, your story is very important for other people to hear who may know of someone suffering from mental illness. I agree, people will realize someone needs help that has a broken arm or leg, but may not realize somebody that has mental problems to get help.
    Thanks for your essay, it may save someone’s life! 🙂

    • Thank you, Debbie. I am passionate about mental health issues. Military service has a high risk for mental trauma (how could it not?), but anyone with a mind is at risk. It’s important that we all take stock from time to time, just as we take our blood pressures, to catch any problems early.

  2. Katheryn . . . . I don’t see how you could ever get over the loss of your brother. Can I at least acknowledge your sorrow, even if I cannot mitigate it from behind this monitor. I was a 20 year old Army pilot in country 1965 – 1966, and was fortunate to come home with little of that baggage. Oh, I have more sleepless nights now in my advanced years brought on by my regret in not accepting another tour in Vietnam. My obligation was up, and so I sent others to carry on the fight in my place, opting for the comfort of civilian life and a new wife. I think I should have stayed the course, but then my daughter tells me that it was time to move on. Well I ramble. I just wanted to express my support and sympathy, and a hope that you still have many good memories of your brother in the “bank”. Be well!

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