Col. John Mosher, director of operations for the Maine Army National Guard, compares thoughts of suicide to a looming mountain.
“When you get to the top of that mountain, you get a new view on life,” he said. “But when you’re at the bottom, it looks insurmountable.”
To highlight suicide awareness among military members, Mosher is planning to literally climb a mountain. The 20-year guardsman will participate in the annual Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday.
“[Suicide] is an issue that really needs to be brought out into the light,” he said this week by telephone from his office in Augusta. “The more I thought about it, the more I saw a metaphor forming.”
Mosher, 45, of Burnham is even taking that metaphor one step further. He’ll carry a 25-pound stone tablet mounted to a military backpack as he ascends more than 5,000 feet to the summit of New England’s highest peak. The stone has the word “resilience” carved into it along with the phrase “Do not go gentle into that good night” from the well-known Dylan Thomas poem.
“Every soldier, every veteran has a load on their back. It’s the weight of their experience, of that separation and loneliness,” he said.
Suicide is never a comfortable topic, but it’s probably even less so among members of the military. Feelings of helplessness are contradictory to the stoic attitude expected of soldiers. Mosher admitted he probably didn’t develop strong feelings about suicide until recently.
“It’s one thing to see every soldier go overseas and come back, but I had a neighbor and good friend who was a veteran who took his life this spring,” he said. “To see him struggle for as long as he did and watch the trauma that came out of that. I don’t want to see soldiers struggle like my friend did.”
According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 128 suicides in the Army last year. It was the highest total of any year since record keeping began in 1980.
The Maine Army National Guard has deployed more than 2,300 service members to Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and ranks among the top 10 states on frequency of deployment.
“Virtually every service member, whether they experience combat directly or had a rear echelon job, is going to have some level of post-traumatic stress,” said Lt. Col. Andy Gibson, a chaplain and director of deployment cycle support for the Maine Army National Guard. “It’s a minority who get the disorder, [but] everyone could benefit from talking to someone.”
The Guard has a family assistance hot line at 888-365-9287 that is staffed constantly, as does the Maine Veterans Association, which is accessible through the state’s 211 resource directory. Mosher said people shouldn’t feel embarrassed or weak about asking for help.
“The earlier people go and ask for help, the easier it is,” he said. “It’s not long before the weight of those experiences leads to addiction, family problems, depression. People need to understand that what they are feeling is a very normal reaction, but they need to man up, be brave and fight for their life back.”
Mosher has been training for the 7.6-mile run for a few months now. He knows it will be difficult, but he expects to have support along the way.
And his great reward will be the view from the summit.
If he has one message, Mosher said it’s this: “Suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem. Every veteran is a national treasure. They need to fight for their own lives with the same bravery they displayed during their service.”