Anna Bigham recognized the signs of her brother’s pending suicide. He withdrew from his friends, cut his arms, abused alcohol.
The former Marine lance corporal wouldn’t go outside during the day because he thought everyone could see what he did in the war.
Shortly before he killed himself, Bigham got a call from a neighbor saying her brother was in the street in his boxers, “playing war” with a machete.
Mills Palmer Bigham occasionally would check into the local Veterans Affairs hospital for help, but there was no 24-hour psychiatric counseling, and his sister couldn’t find the resources he needed.
“I felt helpless,” she said.
On Friday, Bigham was at Fort Gordon to give a presentation about her experience as a survivor of a suicide victim and about the peer counseling network she founded called Hidden Wounds. The Columbia-based nonprofit raises awareness about suicide among returning veterans and provides an outlet for them to express their feelings. Her second presentation, part of September’s National Suicide Prevention Month, is Monday.
One of the counselors is Steven Diaz, a former Marine who was critically injured by a roadside bomb in 2005 in Iraq.
Diaz recounted in an interview Friday how he heard the explosion, then woke up two weeks later in a hospital bed in Maryland.
Confusion gave way to panic when he couldn’t feel his rifle or his gear beside him, but he calmed down when he realized he was in a hospital.
Relief became guilt as Diaz thought about all the Marines still in danger and fighting without him. It was an emotion he would encounter frequently among other servicemen.
“(The guilt) is really hard on them,” Diaz said.
At night, he would listen to other patients cry or struggle to sleep. Diaz said he eventually had to have another Marine hold his hand so he could sleep.
That’s the opposite image of what a tough Marine is supposed to do, but it is critical for returning veterans to understand those feelings are normal, Diaz said.
The advantage held by Diaz and others with Hidden Wounds is that they’ve been to war and seen things that veterans don’t think they can share with friends and family. Bigham said her brother’s first kill in Iraq was a 12-year-old boy who threw a dud grenade; his second was a blind man who crossed the line he was guarding.
The mental anguish caused by those actions are part of the “invisible war at home” that Hidden Wounds aims to address.
Diaz said the “no man left behind” ethos should be just as relevant helping veterans at home as on the battlefield.
“There’s still a mental battlefield,” he said, “but there doesn’t have to be.”