I’m a veteran who was suicidal. Not having access to a gun saved me.
By TOP WASHINGTON | Special to The Washington Post | Published: September 18, 2020
I wouldn’t be here today if I’d had access to a gun when I was suicidal.
The roots of my struggle with suicide probably go back to June 14, 2008, when I found out that my son, Marine Sgt. Michael Washington — who had followed me into the Marine Corps, just as I had followed my own dad — had been killed in combat in Afghanistan.
I didn’t know how to cope with the news, or even how to feel the loss, so I focused on trying to keep it together. That urge to “stay strong” was partly a generational thing but also a product of the cultures that had molded me. I’d been a Marine for 23 years, including four tours overseas, and a firefighter for even longer. Most of my mentors in those professions didn’t talk about their feelings; they drank instead — and they were pretty good at it. I very much followed their example.
From there, my marriage began to fall apart, my post-traumatic stress began to flare with devastating thunderclaps of emotion and — when the pain became too much — I began thinking about killing myself.
At first, that meant riding my motorcycle through red lights at intersections, hoping my death would look like an accident. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone else, and I didn’t want another first responder to have to pick me up off the street, so after months of suicidal thoughts, I found myself on a bridge. I walked to the edge and closed my eyes. I readied myself, waiting for a final feeling that would push me forward. But then I thought about my son and felt him pulling me back from the edge, saying, “Don’t do this, Dad. This is not how it ends.”
That was all I needed to go home and never come back. And before long, I opened up to others about my struggles, starting down a path that eventually helped me get better.
I am writing this during National Suicide Prevention Month because I’ve learned over the past few years how fortunate I was to not have a gun at my lowest moments. Gun suicide is particularly dangerous for veterans such as me, who often refuse to talk about our feelings right up until those feelings overcome us. Seventy percent of veterans who die by suicide do so with a gun; the rate is 50% among non-veterans. Between 2005 and 2017, more than 53,000 veterans died by gun suicide — more than 13 times the number of service members who were killed in action during the U.S. engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined.
Access to a gun in moments of crisis is so dangerous because suicide is, as they say, opportunistic, meaning that it would have been all too easy for me, during my dark days, to have one too many drinks and end my life quickly. Alcohol and guns are a dangerous, often lethal combination. Having access to a firearm also triples someone’s risk of death by suicide, and gun suicides are nearly always fatal while non-firearm suicide attempts are not.
I’m living proof of those statistics: I was able to walk away from the bridge that night, but I wouldn’t have been able to walk away from a bullet.
Don’t get me wrong: I used weapons overseas, and I unequivocally support the right to bear arms. But it is crucial, especially for veterans, to find ways to talk about mental health solutions and, at the same time, to limit easy access to firearms in moments of crisis. One key preventive measure is extreme-risk laws, which empower family members and law enforcement officials who are worried that someone poses a risk to himself or herself to ask a judge to temporarily remove that person’s gun or guns before warning signs escalate into tragedies.
States that have already introduced these laws have seen lifesaving results, including a 14% reduction in firearm suicide in Connecticut and a 7.5% reduction in Indiana. Passing a similar law at the federal level would save thousands of lives — of veterans and non-veterans alike.
Seven years have passed since that night on the bridge, and I’m grateful every day that I didn’t jump. If I had, I never would have remarried, enjoyed my grandchildren or decided to retire from firefighting, as I will soon, to become a full-time therapist. But it’s important to remember that I have this second chance only because my son saved me that night, and because I didn’t have access to a gun when death seemed more bearable than life. Others deserve that second chance, too.
Top Washington is a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s Veterans Advisory Council.