We are told that some 22 active duty and military veterans commit suicide every day. Only they understand the burdens left with them from their war experiences. There are many contributing factors. One of these burdens has become known as “survivor’s guilt”. It can take many forms.
You cannot forget comrades injured or killed during the horror and trauma of battle. In the aftermath, you may wonder whether you did all you could have done to save a member of your unit. You may have miraculously survived while others did not. You may wonder, “Why not me?” These thoughts, unless compartmentalized, dealt with spir-itually or otherwise controlled, can push an individual to desperation. Only those who experience these things can fully understand the pain and guilt involved.
I heard recently the story of rock musician Weyland Jennings, who gave up his seat on an airplane that was taken by another musician. The plane crashed and took the lives of all on board, including the famous Buddy Holly. It was said that situation contributed to Jennings having survivor guilt and a drug and drinking problem for much of the remainder of his life.
I can relate somewhat to the Jennings situation as well as the guilt experienced by many veterans.
From 1965 until 1968, I was assigned to the CINCPAC Airborne Command Post located in Hawaii. We were involved with command and control of nuclear weapons. Each “battle staff” was composed of members of the different military services. Our duty station was aboard an EC 135 Air Force refueling tanker converted to electronics.
Some of the staff members were Army, Navy and Marine Corps pilots. For them the assignment was considered “ground duty,” however, they were required to fly as pilots a certain number of hours each month to maintain their proficiency.
Due to the sensitive nature of the assignment and the requirements of the “Human Reliability” program, our social life was mostly within the organization.
One of my closest friends was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot named Yakushi. We were both logistics officers on different battle staffs. Yakushi and his wife were both born in the United States to Japanese immigrant parents.
On one beautiful Oahu Sunday, Lt. Commander Tim Linnehan and his wife invited several couples and their kids to have Sunday lunch at their house in the pineapple fields overlooking Pearl Harbor.
I had been talking to Yakushi about accompanying him on one of his helicopter training flights to the Big Island where the volcano was erupting. With sightseeing included it would take most of a day.
After a nice lunch with the Linnehans, Tim announced that he had to leave and get in 2 hours of flying time in a 2-seat jet in order to maintain his proficiency. “Anybody want to go along for the ride?” Tim asked.
My camera was in the car. It was a perfect time for me to visit the volcano, make pictures and be back in two hours, rather than a four-hour ride in a vibrating Marine helicopter.
“I’ll go with you Tim,” was my answer. I rounded up my camera and sunglasses and casually informed LaVerle of my plans.
“You can’t do that,” she said. “What do you mean?” I asked. She must be joking, I thought. She has never told me what I could or couldn’t do, especially in the presence of others. “You are not going,” she said emphatically. “You promised the boys you would take them to the park this afternoon. You must keep your promise.”
I informed Tim I could not go because of a promise to the kids. He asked if anyone would like to take my place and Yakushi volunteered. They departed shortly.
Half an hour later the phone rang. Tim’s wife answered. She returned to the room in tears. “ It was the tower calling. They said the plane exploded less than a mile off the runway. They recovered Yakushi’s body. Tim went down with the plane.
For me, it was a miracle from God who used a caring wife to save my life. To the Yakushi family, it was devastating. The loss of a husband and father … and it was because of me. If I had gone he would be alive.
Every time Yakushi’s widow saw me the tears flowed from her eyes. I knew what she was thinking. Hardly a day passes that I don’t recall that incident, thank God and remember the sadness on the face of my dead friends wife.