A rifleman in Vietnam, retired U.S. Marine John Musgrave told a frightening story Thursday of war and his suicidal struggles after returning home.
Musgrave, of Baldwin City, Kan., spoke to First Army soldiers and civilians at the Rock Island Arsenal as part of an U.S. Army-wide stand-down for suicide prevention. The daylong event included small group discussions, a terrain walk to different stations to learn about resources, and testimonials such as Musgrave’s.
In Vietnam for nearly a year and fighting as a teenager with more experience than anyone else in his unit, Musgrave, now with gray hair and a gray beard, told his story about the ambush that sent him home and left him tormented.
He described the battle as “so intimate and intense no grenades were thrown.” Musgrave was shot early in the firefight, wounded in the jaw and the chest. Two Marines were killed trying to move him to safety.
Returned to the U.S., he spent a year recovering from his wounds before being medically discharged, a move he fought because of the way soldiers were being treated in the late 1960s.
“I was treated more like a Nazi than a warrior,” he said.
Musgrave went to college and began drinking. In his dark moments, he would pull out his service sidearm. His survivor’s guilt had taken hold.
“After a night of drinking, I would ask myself, ‘Is tonight the night?’ ” he said. “I had convinced myself suicide was a positive act.”
He warned the First Army audience that no one can relate to someone who has reached that point. Someone filled with suicidal thoughts is in self-isolation.
“They are in a different mindset than you are,” he said. “You have to view their world through their perspective.
“They are begging for you to care, but they are waiting to be let down.”
He finally had an epiphany. By killing himself, he realized, he would dishonor the dead by throwing his life away.
“I had two men die for me,” he said. “They purchased my future by their sacrifice.”
He also knew he had to help people, counseling and speaking to groups such as the First Army about his experience.
The stand-down was ordered late this summer because of the Army’s high number of suicides this year. The Army has confirmed 120 suicides by active-duty soldiers as of Sept. 25 and are investigating 67 others as possible suicides.
Army chaplain Col. Kevin Wilkerson has served on the Department of Defense suicide risk reduction committee. He said “an authentic, caring hand laid on” can make a difference. Soldiers, however, have to be aware of services available to them and know that if they see someone who is struggling, they need to help.
“Suicide is very personal,” he said. “It only takes one person to make a difference.
“People prevent suicide. We all make a difference.”
The Army also has to show it is OK to seek help, the chaplain said, rather than making soldiers worry about how it affects their career.
With all the available programs, because a struggle with suicide is so personal, a blanket approach isn’t effective, Wilkerson said, pointing to Musgrave.
“It was a thought that broke through for him,” he said.
The next two years will see a flood of soldiers seeking mental health services, Wilkerson predicted, as the Army transitions from a war army, leaving Afghanistan, to a peacetime Army.
“A large part of our challenge is right here in a garrison environment here at home,” Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, First Army commander, said.