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Marines still face fight in war and at home

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (TNS) | Published: November 12, 2018

Matt Koetting, who served in the Marine Corps for a decade, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan -- where he was wounded by a roadside bomb -- knows about 30 fellow Marines who either killed themselves or died of an overdose.

At least 10 of them were from his former unit, the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay. The tally grows when those who tried but failed to commit suicide are taken into account, the 33-year-old veteran said.

A fellow reconnaissance Marine he served with recently killed himself in North Carolina.

"He was a guy that I never thought would do that," the former staff sergeant said, briefly touching on what was an accompanying factor. "He was a drinker -- like many of us are, or were at some point."

As most Americans go about the long Veterans Day weekend with football, barbecues and shopping, Koetting late last week discussed with about 250 mostly younger Marines at Kaneohe Bay some of the significant challenges facing the warrior ranks.

That includes the stress of living around the clock in a highly institutionalized environment, sometimes dealing with the trauma of combat and, in the case of veterans, transitioning back to the civilian world.

The shooting deaths Wednesday of 12 people in a bar in California by former Hawaii Marine and Afghanistan veteran Ian David Long -- who eventually killed himself -- again put into sharp relief questions about combat and stress.

The personal experiences offered by Koetting, who runs a security business in Las Vegas and made it a point to hire veterans, dovetailed with an earlier suicide prevention and resilience program at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

Substance abuse, suicide

Studies show the military still faces an uphill battle:

  • On average, about 20 current or former service members commit suicide each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The rate of suicide in 2016 was 1.5 times higher among veterans compared with nonveteran adults. Hawaii had 11 veteran suicide deaths in 2016.
  • From 2005 to 2016 veteran and nonveteran adult suicide rates increased 25.9 percent and 20.6 percent, respectively.
  • The suicide rate for veterans ages 18 to 34 increased "substantially," according to the VA, from 40.4 deaths per 100,000 population in 2015 to 45 suicides per 100,000 in 2016.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that young adults in the military are more likely than their civilian counterparts to engage in heavy drinking, and alcohol misuse frequently occurs "among a substantial proportion" of combat veterans.
  • A 2012 Institute of Medicine report recommended that the Defense Department acknowledge that substance use and misuse among military personnel and their dependents "constitute a public health crisis."

Personal experience

Koetting, who was in the ranks from 2006 to 2016, offered his own take on some of the risk factors facing Marines.

"I thought that all the guys -- whether they died through suicide, combat, overdose, reckless life decisions like riding motorcycles too fast, drunk driving, any number of those things -- I kind of put them all in the same category," he said. "We like being Marines. We like chewing dirt. We like shooting stuff. It's a gun club, right?"

He said a brother-in-law, a fellow Marine, was wounded at the same time he was and developed a dependency on opiate-based narcotics. He subsequently became a heroin addict, Koetting said.

The Marine overdosed at one point in base housing. He got out of the Corps, overdosed and died in Los Angeles.

"I was like, how does this guy leave (the hospital) with a bag full of pills, just like me, and how does he not get the help he needs when everything is out there? How does someone not see this and force him into it?" Koetting said. "Reality was, he was a stud sergeant. People weren't looking for him. Nobody wanted to believe he had a giant monkey on his back."

While Koetting, a Las Vegas resident, has faced his own challenges with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, he said he always loved being a Marine.

"Loved wearing that uniform," he said. "Absolutely loved it. Hated it at times, too. But I had more good days than bad."

Life-changing injury

One of those bad days occurred in Marjah, southern Afghanistan. Koetting had taken a knee on the side of the road. A heavy route- clearing vehicle passed, triggering a very close and large roadside bomb.

When he came to he realized he was still standing and was still carrying his rifle -- despite a fractured skull, eye damage and severe injuries to his arm.

His arm was reconstructed "with a bunch of plates," and surgery restored his vision. Along the way he received a Purple Heart from President Barack Obama.

After recovering he became a reconnaissance Marine, but after the 10-year mark, and facing ongoing problems from the bomb blast, he took medical retirement.

He eventually became CEO and co-founder of Invictus International, which offers contract security, and Invictus Experience, an immersive adventure that was picked up as a 2018 Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog "fantasy gift" for $315,000.
"Fulfill your fantasy of becoming a secret agent. With the Invictus Experience you'll find yourself jumping out of planes, racing super cars and whatever else is required to complete the mission. Do you accept?" the retailer tweeted.

Koetting said he still relies on military friends for advice, and he said younger Marines have to rely on one another.

"Take care of each other, right?" he said. "You've just got to have genuine concern for each other, and talk to each other and know when something's wrong and encourage each other to get help."

Many of the Marines in the audience for Koetting's talk came into the service when major combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were over, but as small or large actions elsewhere remain possible, if not likely.

Capt. Gerard Marin, 37, of the 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay had previously deployed to Afghanistan and said it was important for younger Marines to hear from Koetting.

"We have a culture -- and that culture is war-fighting," he said. "That culture is preparing to go and do things that are very difficult. So having that understanding for the young Marines is very, very important."

Getting help

The VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, headquartered in Honolulu, said every VA facility has a suicide prevention coordinator responsible for providing training and education to community partners and internal staff.

"In addition to providing care coordination and direct mental health services to veterans at elevated risk for suicide, the suicide prevention team triages consults from the veterans crisis line," the VA said.

Anyone concerned about a veteran is encouraged to contact the veterans crisis line.

  • Call 800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1 to be connected.
  • The Pacific health care system said it also has same-day walk-ins for mental health at all locations Monday through Friday.
  • For more information, go to hawaii.va.gov.

 

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