A brother remembers: ‘Michael was the kind of man . . .’
WASHINGTON, June 21, 2012 – As of June 1, there have been 140 suicides across the services in 2012, according to defense officials. This compares with 122 at this time last year, and 110 at this point in 2010.
One of this year’s victims was Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Michael Warren Harris, 22, who died this past Feb. 6. His brother, Ben Harris, got married last Saturday, but spoke at a joint Defense Department / Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference today instead of going on his honeymoon. Michael would have been a groomsman at his wedding, Harris said.
“There are times that I’m worried that somebody who doesn’t know Michael is going to judge him by the way that he died, or try to define his life [by] the manner of his death,” Harris said. “But you and I know that often, how somebody died has very little to do with the way that they lived.”
Michael was the kind of man who was a musician and an intellectual, Harris said.
“He received scholarships to participate for three summers in the Duke [University] Talent Identification Program in North Carolina,” Harris said. “He won Georgia’s Star Student award for having the highest SAT score for his school and for his county.”
Michael participated in the Georgia governor’s honors program, his brother said, and played the alto saxophone in Georgia’s all-state concert band for two years, winning awards for improvisational and classical music.
Michael was the kind of man who had to grow up fast, Harris said.
“We lost my dad when Michael was only 12,” he said. “We lost Michael’s big brother, Christopher –- my little brother – when Michael was only 16.”
Despite family tragedy, Michael was also quick-witted and quotable – “a walking Snapple top,” Harris said. “He was rich with laughter.”
“When my home was broken into in June of 2011, Michael graciously offered to surround the perimeter … with trenches and razor wire,” Harris said. “I failed to take him up on the offer.”
On the way home from a deployment to Afghanistan, Harris said, his brother posted to Facebook: “Now at Camp Leatherneck on my way home. Pluses include cafeterias, air-conditioned tents, and the ground not exploding. Ah, it really is the little things in life that matter.”
Michael was the kind of man who desperately wanted to serve his country, his brother said.
“He was a student at Emory University when he decided to put his education on hold and go serve our country in combat as a machine gunner in the United States Marine Corps,” Harris said. “There were just too many students at Emory, for Michael’s taste, who had a greater sense of entitlement than they did direction or sacrifice.”
Michael wanted to serve directly on the ground, on the front lines, Harris said. After his brother’s death, he added, he spoke to Michael’s fellow Marines, who said he always knew what had to be done, did the right thing at all times, never complained, and could with his jokes make a miserable day enjoyable. Michael’s commander called him “one hell of a combat Marine,” Harris said.
Michael was the kind of man you would not expect to kill himself, his brother said.
“He was tough. And one thing I want to make absolutely clear: Michael was not afraid of a second deployment,” Harris said. “In fact he looked forward to it – it was being in a peace zone that he couldn’t handle.”
That same spirit concerns him when he sees it in his brother’s fellow Marines, Harris said.
“I see Michael’s Marine brothers posting comments on Facebook sometimes about how ‘everything’s simpler back in Afghanistan. You know your brothers, you know the mission, and things are clear: at the end of the day, if you’re alive, it’s been a good one,’” he said.
Where those Marines struggle, Harris said, is when they come back to a peace zone, “when their bodies and their minds have been trained to survive in war zones.”
Michael knew post-traumatic stress is treatable, and when he felt he needed help, he asked for it, Harris said.
“Michael is the kind of man who trusted that the military that he chose to serve would honor his sacrifices and take care of him,” Harris said. “All of these men and women do. But he didn’t receive the support that he needed, and that he asked for.”
When Michael started feeling the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, he told his counselor he couldn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time and was irritable, “jacked up on adrenalin and anxiety,” Harris said.
Michael received medication, which helped for almost a month. Then he started experiencing depression and thoughts of suicide, Harris said. He switched to another medicine, with a similar result. Then he went back again.
Harris said his brother told his counselor, a nurse, “I really need your help. I’m feeling depressed, I’m having suicidal thoughts, and I’m drinking too much.”
The counselor told him since he admitted to drinking too much, he could not receive treatment through that program “because you’re having substance abuse issues.”
“This was a few weeks before Michael killed himself,” Harris said.
Harris said he put together some suggestions from active-duty Marines who served with his brother, and from his casualty-assistance officer and his grief counselor:
-- Look out for the early warning signs. “We’ve had multiple family losses; somebody should have taken note of that,” he said.
-- Monitor medication. The counseling office should have kept a closer watch on the medications prescribed for Michael, and should have followed up when he disengaged from counseling, Harris said.
-- Mandatory group counseling after deployment for at least 6 months.
-- Mandatory individual counseling, so those who need help can have the chance to discover they do.
-- Admission of alcohol use or substance abuse should be treated as the symptom of an illness, and treated, Harris said.
-- More education and cultural training encouraging service members to seek help.
-- Tactical debriefs after combat missions, so leaders can take note of what a service member has seen and experienced.
“Michael was the kind of man who would want his death to save the lives of his brothers in arms,” Harris said. “So that’s why I’m here today, to do the best I can to honor his legacy.”
Harris spoke during the three-day conference, which ends tomorrow and is being attended by hundreds of health professionals, leaders, service members and family members. The conference includes more than 60 sessions covering topics from combat exposure and suicidality to poor sleep as associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
The surviving family member panel session was organized by, and included members of, TAPS, the national nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. TAPS is available to families and significant others who have lost service members by any means: death in combat, natural causes or through suicide.
Kim Ruocco is a licensed social worker, holds a master’s degree in clinical social work, serves as the national director for postvention -- intervention after a suicide, including care for the bereaved --¬¬ programs for TAPS, and lost her husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, to suicide in 2005.
Ruocco moderated the panel and told the audience the survivors were not there to blame or point fingers, but to tell their stories and “illustrate for you where the cracks are” in care for service members at risk for suicide.
Many times, people recall an act of suicide by thinking of the final breakup or the final fight that happened before a death, Ruocco noted. “I think until we really start looking at what leads up to that final event, that tragic event, we’re really not going to be able to prevent suicides,” she said.
She urged those in the audience who work with people at risk of suicide to listen to the survivors, and to “take what you learn from them, take it back and use it in your work.”