The Human Cost of War: My Own Failure and Our Military’s Mental Health Crisis

Our military culture and expectations justifiably require unrelenting standards and there is very little space for human vulnerability, especially in SOF and those in leadership roles. Without changes to our culture and a new approach to mental health, help will remain out of reach for many. I know, because I suffered in the dark and I could no longer maintain the warrior, leader and family expectations. I hope my story can add to our understanding and help service-members faced with the same issues make better choices and live a better life.

Col. Owen Ray (Ret), Former Special Forces Officer

COL Owen Ray is a recently retired Army Special Forces Officer who led airborne and Special Operations forces for nearly 25 years with multiple deployments in support of Operations Inherent Resolve, Freedom’s Sentinel, Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan and Philippines, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Joint Task Force – INDOPACOM. COL Ray’s last assignment was as the Chief of Staff for I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – As I watched our abrupt departure from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and marked the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, I felt anger and grief. For many veterans of the last 20 years, it is hard to reconcile the sacrifices without the benefit of victory or even progress. For those who have spent their entire career and most of their adult life at war, the personal cost in terms of mental, physical, and family health is neither well understood nor adequately addressed. 

The recent recognition of the military and veteran suicide crisis by the White House and Department of Defense is a welcome start but we need to change how we approach the problem. Recent CDC suicide statistics showed a 3% decline in the overall US suicide rate in 2020, however military rates continue to rise. The 2021 Department of Defense report on suicides reflects a 41% increase in active-duty suicide rates between 2015 and 2020, killing 580 service members in 2020 alone. Most alarming is a recent assessment by Thomas Howard Suitt with Brown University’s “Costs of War” project, that notes since 9/11, we have lost 7,057 to combat but likely an estimated 30,177 to suicide. The crisis is likely to get worse as the wars close and servicemembers struggle to transition to an unknown and sometimes alien civilian life. Too many continue to suffer in silence, compromised by decades in conflict, failing home fronts, hopelessness, guilt and shame that can accompany a warrior life.

The Fall

On December 26, 2020, I stood on my balcony with a pistol to my head, intending to end my life as police surrounded my house. I had a mental and emotional breakdown that would traumatize my entire family, let my friends, teammates and command down and bring dishonor to myself.

I was married with three wonderful kids, a well-respected member of our small suburban community and a highly successful Special Forces Officer of nearly 25 years. My career was marked with resounding achievement and success – early promotions, selected to command at every tactical level in Special Forces, a graduate degree from Harvard and selected to serve as the Military Aide to President Obama – carrying the nuclear football for more than two years.

Behind the public façade I so ardently protected was a dumpster fire of mental, emotional and physical deterioration and a family struggling. I was suffering complete mental exhaustion from the cumulative impact of untreated mental and physical health issues, operational and career stress across a career in SOF, including eight deployments. I was consumed by the war within and completely unaware of my own deterioration.

In the aftermath of that horrible night, I was devastated, confused and struggled to understand what, why and how this happened. I was criminally charged (and still face trial), vilified by the media and lost my freedom, my career, and worst of all, my family. Months later, and after extensive inpatient treatment, I was diagnosed with severe and chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression, Insomnia, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

I struggled through the years, compensating as so many of us do, by compartmentalizing emotions and numbing with alcohol. Work, mission and deployments provided focus, familiarity, comfort and, ultimately success. Home, however, was unfamiliar. I no longer fit in nor had a role, and seemingly always felt failure. My downward spiral accelerated after returning from an extremely difficult deployment directing the fight against ISIS in 2018. I came home different and the life I returned to changed.

This was the second long deployment in two years after spending a tough year in Afghanistan and my marriage was irreparably damaged. Over the next two years, I would deploy two more times and lost four more Soldiers as well as numerous friends and teammates. I became increasingly depressed, negative, guilt ridden, angry and suicidal. My family suffered equally as they endured this difficult life, my worsening health and my inability to connect emotionally. This is a tragic situation but unfortunately not uncommon.

The Human Cost of the Forever War

I joined Army Special Forces right after 9/11 as a team leader and like many of us, started losing friends and teammates early in the war. Then came regular unit memorials and losses of my own in command. Not just from combat but also from cancer, suicide, and training accidents. Trips to Dover Air Force Base to receive remains, consoling and caring for spouses and children, and attending funerals, took a toll.

Losses extended beyond close friends and included our partner nation forces, civilian casualties and the moral injury that comes from devastating campaigns. As a Green Beret, we train, live and fight alongside our foreign partners, which we watched from a distance as they were abandoned, hunted down and killed if they were not lucky enough to get out of Afghanistan in the final days. These high costs without clear benefit will undoubtedly impact this generation’s veterans and fan the flames of an existing mental health crisis.

PTSD, depression, TBI, chronic pain and physical injury, relationship issues from long absences and substance abuse are hallmark results of enduring wars. Fueled by a culture of unrelenting standards and perfection as well as an overall lack of awareness of mental, emotional and spiritual health, we face continued risks of human deterioration and failure.

A tragic example is the loss of an exceptional Army Officer and friend, COL Scott Green who took his life this past June. A beloved and accomplished leader within Ranger and Airborne forces as well as a husband and father, it was a devastating loss that left many shaken and asking “why”. Accomplishments and career success do not prevent mental compromise. Unless you walked in Scott’s boots, it is hard to understand what he was carrying but I know it became too much and he felt he had nowhere to turn. There are others like Scott out there right now.  As a military and society, we owe them more.

Doing the Same yet Expecting Different Results – Time to Change

As a society, we react to mental health, shifting our finite resources from one crisis to another. We put vast resources toward physical health yet resilience classes or a mental health awareness month are shallow offerings toward proactive mental health. With all my education and training, I could not understand or recognize my own deterioration – I did not have the tools, nor would I have admitted I had a problem. I now routinely visit the behavioral health clinic, which I never stepped foot in throughout my 25 years of service until I hit the wall. The stigma is still there. I feel shame in the room.  There is no eye contact, no talking, no leadership when it’s needed. This is in stark contrast to the physical therapy clinic where focusing on rehabilitating an injury is just a part of getting healthy and improving performance.

The military’s purpose remains to fight and win our nation’s wars but investing in mental health will not lead to reducing combat effectiveness or standards. Personal responsibility and making better choices are the key to making a difference in this crisis but we need to improve mental health awareness and foster a climate and culture where our servicemembers feel they can ask for help.

Reducing shame and hopelessness are critical in this effort to save lives, and we cannot continue to provide a false choice between health and mission or career. This starts with leader vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion. We all are susceptible to relationship issues, substance abuse problems, mental health needs.  It’s time to drop the judgement and show up for someone. A friend showed up for me in my darkest hour and saved my life. Mental health is health and should be prioritized across the military, and if needed, directed by Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act.

We have lost too many of this nation’s best to this conflict and we’re losing more everyday here at home.  We stand to lose many more as the wars close and service members transition to civilian life.

I am now reconciling my life and my accountability but also my responsibility to recover and live better for my family and friends. For some time, I felt I was on a collision course but powerless to stop it. With help and a lot of work, I am learning to walk a better path, but it came at too high of a cost. 

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