THE YELLOW RIBBON

(I initially wrote this article for CHANGE.ORG    and it appeared in the war/peace section on March 25th)

By Jennifer Rawlings

       This past weekend I was performing at a theatre in my hometown in Kansas. After the first show the other comedians and I went to a local bar to grab some horrible cardboard pizza and cheap wine. My parents, who still live in the house I grew up in, and my older brother that lives down the street from them joined us at the musty pub. We sat in the corner on stained red “pleather” couches and had to raise our voices to be heard over the drunken revealers playing pool and fooz ball. The sound system was blaring a sound track by Toby Keith singing “I’ll put a boot in your ass.”. My hometown was just as I remembered it: rowdy, small and friendly.

           As I was washing down my preservative laden pizza with tart white wine a woman that looked like a cross between Brook Shields and Courtney Cox approached me.  She extended her hand towards me and said “Jennifer?” My addled, exhausted brain began searching my high school Rolodex, trying to figure out who this was.

“ It’s me, Tina.” The synapses were starting to fire and I was quickly putting the puzzle together. Tina was one of my best friends in high school and I had not seen her since gradation. I threw my arms around her and gave her a huge hug, hoping that this was my long lost friend and not the waitress or someone asking for directions to the bathroom.

          One of the first questions out of my mouth was: “Do you have kids?”

“Yes,” my slight friend replied,“ Six, well five.  My oldest son died this year from complications of muscular dystrophy.” Tina’s face was pale and she looked like a child. She continued:  “my second husband took a gun to his head after his second tour in Iraq. He killed himself in front of me and the kids.” Tina buried her face in my sweater as I held her crying in the middle of the bar. I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there hugging my long lost friend, searching for words that couldn’t be found.

             Suicide rates among soldiers are the highest they have been in nearly three decades and are exceeding suicide rates in the general population. There are months that there are more suicides among soldiers than soldiers killed in the line of duty. Each and everyday an average of five soldiers try to take their own lives; compare this to 2001 statistics, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when there was an average of one suicide attempt a day among soldiers.

              Tina’s husband, Lance, was thirty-six years old when he shot himself in the head. He joined the Army right out of high school and had served in the Army for over eighteen years. He was a year and half away from being able to retire with full benefits. Lance loved the Army, he loved the community, the camaraderie and the discipline. He often told Tina that he couldn’t see himself doing anything else.

        Lance’s first wife was his high school sweetheart, Kimberly. Lance and Kimberly had three children together. They were by all accounts a very happy family. Towards the end of his second deployment in Iraq Lance got an emergency message that his wife had died from a drug overdose.

           Lance buried the love of his life. He felt guilty about her death and was convinced that it could have somehow been prevented. He blamed himself for leaving his wife with three young kids for months on end. Fifteen days after her funeral the Army wanted Lance to go back to Iraq and leave behind his three children that had just lost their mother. He was sick and grieving and had to beg the Army to give him more time with his children. The Army finally agreed and slowly Lance seemed to recover from his devastating loss.

               Tina and Lance met,  fell madly in love and joined their families together. Tina got pregnant and the baby was nine months old and in Tina’s arms the day her father took his life.

             “ Seeing my husband take his last breath and bleeding to death in my arms – I felt like I had failed him.” Tina said. “ I had called the Army so many times pleading with them to help my husband. They would prescribe him some pills and then everything would start over again. He was depressed and scared. He wasn’t afraid of dying – he was afraid of living with all the images he had seen in Iraq.”

               After eighteen years of serving his country, Sergeant First Class Lance left behind a wife and four children, three that have no mother and no father. They are the forgotten casualties if war.

( The names have been changed to protect the families privacy)