Two folded flags on the mantle. Two sons lost to the war. Two young men dead, not at the hands of the enemy, but rather their own. Two soldiers who could have, and should have, been saved.
Shellshock, battle fatigue, combat stress reaction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); we’ve recognized it for decades, centuries even, but we’ve never done much to help our fighting men and women returned from battle and struggling with the after-war that continues in their minds.
We pay lip service; we slap ‘support our troops’ stickers on our bumpers and say ‘thank you for your service’ to the veterans we know. But what do we really do to help these warriors adjust when they come home; too little and, often, too late.
When brothers Stephen and Alan Colley left their home in Santa Clarita for basic training their family was proud. The sons of a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain the Colley brothers grew up with patriotism in their veins; patriotism that led them to enlist themselves when they reached 18. Never did they, their family or their community imagine the devastating toll that decision would take.
Both served in Iraq during the initial invasion of 2003 and both suffered as a part of the ever-growing cohort of post-9/11 veterans affected by PTSD. Specialist James Colley reached out to the Army for help. He told them he was suffering, struggling and unable to cope with the war that continued to rage on inside him even as he left the battlefields of Iraq for the safety of Fort Hood.
Though supportive, the Army offered no intervention, no real solution, no way out. The next day, on May 16, 2007 Spc. Colley took his own life at the young age of 22 years. Ten years later his brother, Major Alan Colley, ended his battle against the same demons that overtook his younger brother and, on September 7 of last year he too took his own life.
The Colley brothers are a tragic example of the struggles our brave men and women go through after combat has taken its toll. But more than that, they are a horrific indicator of the lack of services and policies in place to help them adjust, cope, thrive and survive. We must do more to help these brave men and women who laid it all on the line for our safety and freedom. We must find new and innovative ways to prevent this senseless and preventable loss of life. We must stem the tide of increasing veteran suicide rates that now see over 20 veterans each day end their own lives. We can and we must do more.
On January 9, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to provide more benefits and mental health resources to service members transitioning to civilian life in an effort to reduce veteran suicide. This is an important step but make no mistake, it must only be a first step.
As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs I continue to seek ways to improve the quality of life and availability of resources for our veteran community. If you or a loved one is a veteran impacted by PTSD and in need of assistance please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
[Also published in the SCV Beacon Saturday, February 24.]