Suicide rates among war veterans are making headlines, but interpreting the numbers can be difficult. In American society at large, suicide is far more common among older aged men – men who may have served in Vietnam, for instance. The figures tend to overlap, and organizing all the data in a precise manner – using age, income, military history, and other predisposing factors – has been challenging. Jon Downing endured violent combat in Iraq, and it can be tempting to simply attribute his death to post-traumatic stress, but it’s not that easy.
Unlike Jon, most soldiers don’t see combat overseas – never even fire their weapons. And yet they are deposited as statistics, all the same, just like Jon was. Aside from a routine obituary posted by his funeral home, a web search for Jonathan Michael Downing yields next to nothing. He certainly had close relationships though, and people who cared for him deeply. He had a wife, and kids, whom he loved. He had a support system. He had doctors, and therapists. His pastor visited him in jail, to no avail, during the final two days he was alive.
How Jon slipped through the cracks is a complicated story. It will involve a number of elements, including war, combat, brain injuries, depression, pharmaceutical drugs, and medical marijuana. “Jon saved my life in Iraq,” one of his teammates told me, “more than once.” By spreading his story, perhaps we’ll help him save a few more.
If we want to understand today’s veterans, the story of Jon Downing is a fine place to start. And to understand Jon, we’ll have to begin in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The year was 2005. The insurgency in Iraq was erupting. Jon had already been serving in the Army as a mechanic for seven years when he volunteered for the Special Forces program. In preparation, he collected and submitted a plethora of paperwork, adding his name to a long list of applicants.
After receiving his orders, he packed his rucksack for Camp Mackall, a sprawling freehold of dense forestation and wilderness deep inside central North Carolina. During assessment and selection, Special Forces candidates audition anonymously. Jon removed the name-tapes from his uniforms, replaced them with a three-digit roster number, then gave it his all.
Certain details remain secretive, but the selection process can be roughly broken down into three phases. Phase one tests personal strength and endurance. You must complete a fixed number of push-ups and sit-ups within two minutes, for example. You must be able to shuffle-run twelve miles, wearing a forty-five pound rucksack, under an allotted time. Failure in any individual event results instantly in disqualification.
Phase two incorporates more psychology. Jon knew that a two mile run, during phase one, would end after two miles. Events during phase two had no end in sight, and they typically induced muscle failure, by design. The goal was to gauge Jon’s willpower. Phase two culminates in land navigation. Under ideal conditions, orienteering with a map and compass can be extremely frustrating. Getting lost is normal, at which point exasperation can easily exceed fatigue. Virtually all will wonder: “Will I ever find these fucking coordinates?!”
Jon set out at midnight, carrying his weapon and his forty-five pound rucksack. The use of roads or flashlights is strictly prohibited. The terrain at Camp Mackall is famous for its venous web of narrow stream beds, known as “draws” – all of which are covered and encased by a tight mesh of vines and thorns. During land navigation, draws are unavoidable, and often impenetrable. Jon may have wondered whether anyone would ever find him.
Successful completion of phases one and two may require semi-reckless levels of self-confidence, and stubbornness, from a candidate. By adding teamwork to the equation, phase three evaluates the ability of those candidates to work cooperatively. They are divided into small groups, and assigned physically exhausting tasks to which there are no obvious solutions. How will the stronger candidates treat the weaker candidates, under these circumstances? Instructors watch closely.
Jon passed every test. He proceeded to the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg – a massive Army installation adjacent to Fayetteville – where he spent the next eighteen months training. Jon and his classmates would return to Camp Mackall intermittently for courses in wilderness survival and small-unit tactics. They would stay for weeks or months at a time. Compared to his “audition,” these trips involved less food, less sleep, more stress, and much heavier rucksacks. During his time back in Fayetteville, Jon learned a foreign language, became a weapons specialist, and met Vanessa, his future wife.
In a popularity contest between branches, the Army would lose. The Navy and the Air Force control the seas and the skies with unrivaled precision, and as infantrymen the Marines are famously disciplined and deadly. Even among Special Operations Forces, the exclusivity and raw, carnal fortitude of the Navy SEALs are unmatched.
Judged on appearances, it only gets worse: If you believe that Army commercials are exciting, or that lime-green digi-cam looks cool, you may need your head examined. And an Army recruiter is standing by right now, to set that up for you! That’s the reality, in a nutshell: Without low standards, the Army would not be able to fulfill its dirty, scrappy role as the logistical and mechanical spine of the American military. The Army simply needs bodies.
In combat, of course, popularity contests are an afterthought. Titles and labels mean nothing to a SEAL team medic, for instance, when CH-47 Chinook helicopters arrive carrying Army flight surgeons. Titles and labels also mean nothing to Army Rangers when Air Force pilots in A-10 Warthogs descend below the cloud cover, and switch to guns. In this sense, the military is just like real life: Petty rivalries are a symptom of inactivity, and extreme posturing or pageantry may serve as covers for insecurity, or something worse.
As the largest branch, the Army does possess some advantages. Any massive organization will have access to massive pools of talent. As proof, consider the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, or perhaps the “Night Stalkers” of the 160th’s rotary air wing. You might also consider the Army’s elite Delta Force, but good luck with that – unlike SEALs, alumni tend not to write baby books, become life coaches, or run for office. (And here we are, right back at petty rivalries. That was quick.) For now, let’s consider the Green Berets.
Since the Vietnam War, America’s Special Operations Forces have evolved and expanded rapidly. In movies and media, the phrase “special forces team” has become synonymous with “professional hit squad,” but Green Berets are prepared to do more than fight. They deploy in “Alpha Teams,” which usually consist of twelve to fourteen soldiers, each soldier owning a specific skill set. Alpha Teams are trained to penetrate into hostile territory, and remain embedded for months. Through air power and sea power, wars are easy to start, but without smart troops on the ground, they are hard to win.
Alpha Teams specialize in what military strategists refer to as “force-multiplication.” While Green Berets are well trained in violence, violence is Plan B. Building rapport is Plan A. Green Berets don’t succeed as vigilantes, marauding through towns and villages. They learn foreign languages, and attempt to catalyze organic changes by forming alliances with indigenous forces. Operation Enduring Freedom, for example, was launched very quietly by a small number of Green Berets who, alongside Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, rode into battle against the Taliban on horseback. Through their success, the Army Special Forces Alpha Team became a model against which similar units in the Navy and the Marine Corps are now being measured.
Americans demand small footprints and big results from their military. In October, four American soldiers – two of whom were Green Berets – died when their unit was ambushed in Niger. At the time, there were certainly many American service-members who were unaware that Green Berets were even operating in Niger. There were also certainly many American civilians who were unaware that there was a country called Niger. Sometimes, The Pentagon prefers to keep it that way.
To describe the United States as an empire would be no exaggeration, and yet as citizens, we express little interest in foreign policy. An abiding faith in America’s role as a benevolent superpower helps keep us docile. For benign hegemony to work, the correct mixture of hard and soft power is required. Alpha Teams embody this principle. Discovering the perfect balance between violence and restraint may take a nation centuries. The Army taught Jon Downing in about a year and a half.
Throughout the Qualification Course, PTSD is something people rarely discuss. The training is thrilling and intense, and – during wartime especially – levels of pressure and anticipation run very high. Most soldiers, in this phase of their careers, would rather hide an injury or an illness than talk about it. When he graduated, Jon probably felt invincible.
But similar to graduations in many other settings, graduating from the Qualification Course can also be a humbling experience. One moment, you feel on top of the world, and the next, you’re pond scum again. Jon purchased and fitted his new beret. He bought his Special Forces “tab,” a tiny patch made of thread and velcro that, to students like Jon, had become equivalent to the Holy Grail. Once all the ceremonies were over, Jon packed his bags again and drove to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home to the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group. When he joined his new battalion, Jon had to start over in many ways.
It was now 2006. The American casualty rate in Iraq was near its peak. Jon met his new team at the airport, as they were returning home from a short deployment. Jon was on the flight line, in aviator sunglasses, looking cocky as hell. “Who the fuck is this guy?”, one of Jon’s future teammates thought to himself, after spotting Jon on the tarmac.
Jon approached his Team Sergeant, as soon as he was off the plane. “I’m your new Bravo,” Jon announced.
“You’re who?,” his Team Sergeant responded.
“I’m Jon. I’m on your team.”
“No you’re not,” said his Team Sergeant. “Get the fuck out of here.”
Jon’s friends and family have fond memories of that day. They still laugh, when they describe the scene. Jon may have felt differently about it at the time.
But he stuck around. Alpha Teams in 5th Group were deploying in and out of the Middle East at a rapid clip, and soon enough, Jon’s team was preparing to leave again. Jon was headed to Iraq.