MY NEXT BOOK – Year 10, Chapter 6…Soldiers Home From Afghanistan, and in Halftime
July 10, 2014
SOLDIERS HOME FROM AFGHANISTAN, AND IN HALFTIME
“We talk about the rate of suicide.”
— A general in the 80th Training Command when asked in a
staff meeting, “Sir, what do generals talk about most?”
Ken Koon-Major Koon-is a brigade chaplain for the U.S. Army’s 80th Training Brigade and squarely, purposefully in his second half. Hold that thought, because five years ago, following a series of home-front tragedies, Chaplain Koon was considering suicide when his commander in a new unit assigned him to train soldiers in suicide intervention.
In our Armed Forces, the suicide rate drops me to the nearest chair and then to my knees. From 2005 to 2011 more than 49,000 veterans killed themselves. As I write, reported suicides average one an hour, while another 5 to 25 percent go unreported. And then there’s the men and women alive but not really.
As Chaplain Koon studied, talked, read, and began to shape a suicide prevention course, his hope came back. Now he teaches that hope to men and women in the military, in churches, anywhere people hurt. In three years he’s taught more than 22,000 people the principles of spiritual resilience, and in all that time, in a unit of 600 soldiers, no suicides. Not one.
The Drug of War
The filmmaker who framed the gap between war and home-between service and suicide-was Kathleen Bigelow, who won the Academy Award (and beat out her ex-husband) for “The Hurt Locker.”
Her unvarnished look into a life in the war zone opens with a quotation from “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” a bestseller by New York Times war correspondent and journalist Chris Hedges. He writes, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
If war is a drug, so is purpose. Bigelow’s lead character is a maverick sergeant assigned to explosive ordnance disposal in the Iraq war. He disarms bombs. Cut the blue line instead of the red one and all life in close proximity is gone.
Cut to a “Hurt Locker” scene of the sergeant back in the US in a supermarket with 35 flavors of toothpaste and 200 brands of cereal. From a world of eating government issue and seeing friends blown up, now he’s with his child, whom he hardly knows, in a nondescript frozen foods aisle. And the question is, will he return to Iraq? And he does. Because away from risk and purpose and comradeship, what matters?
It’s why people go to the NFL. It’s why Tom Brady, now a multimillionaire with a beautiful wife, Hall of Fame status and every honor, still exposes himself to a 350-pound freight train that can take his head off. It’s why drivers run NASCAR and why affairs happen. Danger. Extremes. Shared Life, capital L. And how do you go back?
“You need to read this.”
Chaplain Koon is 50 years old now and he writes to me, “My second half kickoff has just begun.” He picked up the Halftime vocabulary when a friend handed him a copy of the book and inside 24 hours, he said, he’d inhaled the first 16 chapters. Now he had a word, a term for what he’d been through.
“When [the book] encouraged me to write my epitaph, I [knew it] without hesitation,” he wrote to me. “It has been my life mission since discovering it three years ago: ‘He built resilience in others, restoring the hope of the hopeless.'”
Now in the hope-restoration business, Koon witnesses the ravages of suicide, the issues of military personnel in crisis, and the trauma to the survivors left to deal with the loss. From all this he founded the AFM, Armed Forces Mission, to build resilience and restore hope, as he puts it, both through personal intervention of those at risk and by training caregivers, military and civilian.
Koon also began to hand men and women copies of Halftime, saying, “You need to read this.” The first box of 100 donated books quickly emptied, he said. Then a shipment of 300. Then 500.
“You’re sure it’s the right book?” I asked him. “Halftime is written to marketplace leaders.”
The soldiers get it, he assured me, because it gives the fog of post-war a name. It’s not despair. It’s not a descent to suicide. It’s Halftime.
What’s in a name? Hope. Permission to be confused.
When well-meaning people ask, “What are you doing these days?” (the cruelest question to a vet unable to get a job) there’s an answer: “I’m in halftime.” It’s true. They are. A person commits suicide when hope is run out. Halftime is a book of hope.
Chaplain Koon wrote me: “Through a series of events I no longer call tragic but divinely orchestrated, I entered halftime filled with hopelessness and despair. My halftime was a three-year journey from the top of the mountain to the valley of the shadow, and yes, death seemed to be a viable option.”
During the Halftime Institute we ask participants to identify their greatest pain, which can be a clear signpost leading to a person’s second half–in the way Koon’s own pain through halftime guides maybe thousands of our military men and women and their families out of the valley of death.