The difference between life and death is a fine line

What is the difference the military spouse you know and the Air Force Spouse in Colorado Springs who took her own life last month, or the 123 military spouses lost to suicide in 2017?

Age? Education? Experience? While those demographics are worth noting, the despair plaguing military spouses does not discriminate between ranks.

More of us have faced the darkness than we’re willing to admit.

We are terrified by the silence about this crisis in our military communities and the lack of awareness among civilians.

Any given platform online offers the occasional article on military spouses: reunion photos are welcomed and celebrated.

But outside the military echo chamber, it’s difficult to find honest accounts of the chronic loneliness, isolation, and fatigue from never-ending ops tempo.

In many ways the dialogue is just beginning, but the difference between life and death requires uncomfortable conversations.

Choosing life over death begins by choosing love over apathy.

I love our military too much to remain silent in the front row, demurely deferring to those in uniform to talk about a problem I know more intimately than they do.

Despair is real.  We didn’t sign up for this life, but most of us have found a way to love it, despite the dark days.

I’ve been in a dark place several times as a military spouse:

  • The first time I learned there were – in fact – repercussions for my perceived behavior toward a senior officer’s spouse.
  • When I dared to speak up at a town hall meeting on base and my husband’s peer emailed him and suggested I should have raised those issues behind closed doors.
  • The days I sat in my house alone with undiagnosed postpartum depression, afraid to ask for help because more seasoned spouses told me my mental health could negatively impact my husband’s career. (This is NOT true – if you’ve been led to believe anything similar and you’re suffering in silence, talk to your medical provider immediately.)

Without exception, every time I stared into the darkness and wondered if everyone would be ok without me, my own experience with grief and death fiercely silenced those demons.

Although I never ventured very far down that road, I skirted the edges enough to recognize myself in every report of spouse suicide attempt that reaches my husband.

The difference between any military spouse lost to suicide and me is my choice to live.

Too many military spouses are silently teetering on the edge, fearing they’ll succumb, too.

That reality is buried in the statistics the Department of Defense just began collecting about military dependent suicide.

Suicide ripped holes in 186 military families in 2017 – 123 were spouses.

military spouse suicide rate in 2017

The difference between life and death are the stories not being told.

Because it’s never been reported, the magnitude of this crisis has remained hidden – by shame, by ignorance, by fear.

Perhaps because there aren’t resources available to truly address the crisis.

But programs did not save me.

Nor will research studies or Congressional reports save the hundreds of military spouses who feel alone in their despair.

People save people.

People make the difference between life and death.

So I am standing up in the middle of the town hall no one called and asking the questions some might prefer discussed behind closed doors.

What are we doing about this crisis?

(Not what are ‘they’ doing at the Pentagon or in Congress – though that question will come.)

What are you and I doing?

I’m speaking up and sharing my story.  Because if someone like me battled depression, feared speaking up, and felt all alone – how do you think our youngest enlisted spouses feel?

Your choice is simple – will you choose life or death for my friends and for me?

We are saved by family, friends, neighbors, co-workers who choose to reach out their hand and say, “You are not alone.  You are seen. You are loved.  Your life matters.”

Choosing life over death begins by choosing love over apathy.

We do not have time to stay on the sidelines waiting for reports or resources to address what experience has shown us:

Someone you know needs you.

Check in.  Do not assume we’re ok – assume we are lonely and wondering if it’s just us.

If we go radio silent, reach out and remind us we are loved.

Do not rely on 21stcentury technology to replace the power of human connection.

The lost art of the phone call might save a life.

Love makes the difference between life and death.

My people drew the fine line between life and death with outstretched hands even when they didn’t know how much I needed them.

Family called me. Friends and neighbors knocked on my door, showed up at my house, and chose to be present in my life.

They are all the proof you need to know every single one of us can make a difference in this crisis.

Build the kind of community – on and off our military installations – that will stand in the gap between life and death.

Be the family and friends and neighbors who will not stay silent.

Katye Riselli is an Air Force wife at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. She previously served as speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mrs. Laura Bush.