A Tale of a Short Life to Touch the Soul

Story of a Marine’s suicide, told through the eyes of his brother, should be required reading.

Suicide continues to thin the ranks of active duty troops and veterans, and was the focus of a top level Defense and Veterans Affairs conference last week during which leaders of both departments vowed to reduce the toll.

There were 140 suicides as of June 1 this year, up 15 percent from 122 in the same time period a year ago. Karen Parrish, a reporter for the Pentagon’s Armed Forces Press Service managed to tell the story behind these statistics with a powerful piece from last week’s conference that touched my soul.

Parrish remembers Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Michael Warren Harris, 22, who died Feb. 6, 2012, through the reflections of his brother Ben Harris, who canceled his honeymoon to attend the conference. Ben got to the heart of conundrum the living have when confronted with suicide.

“There are times that I’m worried that somebody who doesn’t know Michael is going to judge him by the way that he died, or try to define his life [by] the manner of his death,” Ben told the conference. “But you and I know that often, how somebody died has very little to do with the way that they lived.”.

He then went on to describe the rich life his brother lived -- an intellectual with a musical bent and a Marine machine gunner with a sense of humor. “Now at Camp Leatherneck on my way home. Pluses include cafeterias, air-conditioned tents, and the ground not exploding. Ah, it really is the little things in life that matter,” Michael posted on his way home from Afghanistan.

Michael was the kind of man you would not expect to kill himself, his brother said. “He was tough. And one thing I want to make absolutely clear: Michael was not afraid of a second deployment.” Faced with post-traumatic stress disorder, Michael knew it was treatable -- and sought treatment, Ben said.

Somehow “the system” failed Michael, with one medication switched out for another, while he continued to drink. His counseling was cut off due to substance abuse problems a few weeks before he killed himself.

“Michael was the kind of man who would want his death to save the lives of his brothers in arms,” said Harris, who attended the conference “to honor his legacy.”

That includes suggestions from the heart to counsel troops quickly in combat, not after they come home; handle alcohol and substance abuse as a treatable illness; and provide mandatory group and individual counseling for PTSD when they do return.

Parrish’s article on the Harris brothers should become mandatory reading for the entire chain of command.