“It’s okay to be a broke-dick,” by Javier Luna

“Don’t be a broke-dick.”

I heard this phrase a lot during my 4 years in the Marine Corps. In the military, we come up with a plethora of colorful and derogatory phrases to make the drudgery and bullshit more bearable. This one, in particular, is used to describe someone who spends a lot of time at the doctor’s office. No one likes a “broke-dick,” because they are useless and of less value to the team. In some ways, this makes a lot of sense. The military needs people who are in tip-top physical shape to get the job done in a fast and efficient manner, and if you’re breaking bones or getting into trouble, then you can’t do your job. However, this phrase also illuminates an epidemic in the military which is often ignored or laughed at: the reality of mental illness.

I was a broke-dick.

In using this term to describe myself, I don’t mean the times I ended up physically hurt. Those two times were of my own doing: the first time I punched a locker and ended up with a knuckle swollen to the size of a golf ball, and the second time I hurt my shoulder joint in a mountain biking accident. In describing myself as a broke-dick, I am talking about the depression that haunted me for years.

I have often tried to understand what caused my depression. I was never depressed in high-school. Maybe I was too weak for the military and let it get to my head. Maybe it was a result of the familial issues I was juggling when I started my military career. Maybe my sleeping disorder had morphed into something more insidious. Maybe it was all that and more. Whatever the explanation, depression was a reality that hung over my head every day.

At work, I masked my feelings by grabbing my toolbox and getting to work. The less time I had to talk to people, the less I needed to be vulnerable. I kept my mouth shut and worked my ass off.

I also went home thinking of ways to kill myself. I’m not proud of this fact, but that was my reality. At night when my friends were out partying and drinking, I secluded myself and dreamt about the future. I tried to convince myself, saying things like, “It will get better. Just keep going!” and “Maybe they’re right. If you just grin and bear it, you’ll be okay.” I told myself these things in a desperate attempt to drown out the suicidal ideations: drowning myself in my bathtub, wondering what I would feel if I swallowed the entire bottle of narcotics I had been prescribed after my wisdom tooth removal, and of course the time I drove five hours into the middle of nowhere and contemplated jumping off a cliff. You get the picture.

I never attempted suicide, but the thoughts were there and they were difficult to ignore. When I was elbow deep in helicopter flight controls trying to wrangle out a screw I had dropped, I was thinking about it. When I sat in church listening to the pastor talk about the wonders of God, I was thinking about it. When someone asked me how I was doing and I replied with a smile, “I’m doing great!” I was thinking about it.

There is a happy ending to this story, I promise. I finally managed to beat depression – sort of. It has a nasty habit of sneaking into life for brief but shitty moments. If you were to ask me what the secret is for overcoming depression, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m not of the mindset that there is a quick fix. Seeking professional advice and medical attention is always a smart move. There are many resources available for anyone with a mental illness, but I did not use these to my advantage as much as I should have. I wish I would have sought help sooner, but the culture of “manning up” made me feel secluded and uncertain how to tackle my problem without appearing weaker for struggling with depression. Some of the greatest influences, though, are the conversations I shared with my future wife.

When I was trapped in the darkest corners of my mind, I found someone to talk to who had experienced more heartbreak and turmoil in 20 years of life than anyone should have to live through in a lifetime. We shared stories, we listened, and we cried. What mattered was that we each had someone who would listen without passing judgment, or expecting a solution overnight. That was important. Neither of us found a remedy to our troubles right away, but when the going got tough we had each other.

The military is getting better about responding to the crisis of mental health, but it’s far from perfect. The suicide rate among veterans is astonishing: approximately 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to a Veteran’s Affairs report published in 2016. Unfortunately, there is a culture that if something is wrong with you, you’re a “broke-dick.” The mindset that people should just “man up” needs to disappear. When you’re struggling with a mental illness, support – or the lack thereof – can literally make or break you. Marines are supposed to be tough, mean motherfuckers, but guess what – even Marines have their weaknesses.

VA Suicide Prevention Program. “Facts about Veteran Suicide.” July 2016.

Click to access suicide_prevention_factsheet_new_va_stats_070616_1400.pdf

Javier Luna is a writer based in Boise, Idaho. His experiences in the military have greatly influenced his perspective and writing style, which ranges from dry and humorous to dark and reflective. He draws inspiration from the great outdoors, quirky encounters with strangers, and daily existential crises. Writing includes nonfictional musings about society, flash-fiction and short stories based in the horror genre and a fantasy novel which he is chipping away at. In his spare time, he runs a local writer’s club known as the Treasure Valley Wordsmiths. You can find more of his personal writing at www.javierwrites.com. Follow Javier on Twitter here.