When Stephanie Lembo made a video to memorialize her military husband and raise awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she never expected it to go viral.
Lembo made the recording in her kitchen on World Suicide Prevention Day, 15 minutes before she had to wait by the bus stop to pick up her kids from school. When she returned home, her sister called to say the video had already gained 3,000 views and had been shared hundreds of times. That was two weeks ago. Now, the video has been viewed over 21 million times.
In her viral video, Lembo outlined how her husband came home from a particularly grueling weeklong training during which he only got about five hours of sleep. When his erratic behavior prompted Stephanie to tell her husband to ask for help, his response was that he would lose his security clearance if he did.
Five hours after that conversation, Stephanie’s husband committed suicide.
Stephanie’s story has resonated with thousands of other military families and spouses who have been affected by suicide.
A veteran suicide epidemic
In 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a shocking study that concluded an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That statistic paints a broad and horrifying picture of veteran suicide rates because, while it’s often used in connection with veterans of the Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq), the average age of suicides, according to the study, is 60 — much older than most OEF and OIF vets.
Perhaps more surprising is a 2014 study that suggests the cumulative number of OEF and OIF veterans committing suicide is at least one per day. The study also found that a quarter of the national suicides recorded in 2010 was exclusively made up of veterans. In that period, suicide rates among veterans were roughly 50 percent higher than in the civilian population.
While it’s difficult to gain an accurate depiction of all veteran suicides, it’s clear that veterans are at higher risk of suicide than the general population at large. Take, for example, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, whose story was recently chronicled in an article in the New York Times. After returning home from their 2008 deployment to the embattled Helmand Province in Afghanistan, the 2/7 experienced a higher suicide rate than any other battalion, losing at least 13 members to suicide.
I reached out to Veterans Affairs for comment, and in response, they sent me statistics from a study conducted in April by the Defense Centers of Excellence that concluded veteran suicides aren’t associated with deployment. This study determined that approximately 77 percent of the veterans who took their own lives between 2001 and 2009 had never been deployed to a war zone.
PTSD is not exclusively combat-related, however, so while it may not apply to the battle-hardened 2/7 Marines, this statistic holds true with Stephanie Lembo’s husband.
Reflecting on love and loss
Anthony Lembo was a man with a passion for life and a lot to live for.
“He was such a go-getter,” Stephanie mused, “A great father, a great provider, my best friend, you know, just the basics of what you want in your significant other.”
“My husband was an amazing person, he accomplished more in life in 27 years than many people do in a lifetime. He couldn’t defeat failure, because that’s what he was taught. He could not defeat it.”
Stephanie described her husband as an active and intelligent man, and an avid reader who was involved in politics. Anthony would often go spear fishing with sharks, set out on a 20-mile bike ride on a whim and had built himself a “real estate empire” of seven homes by the age of 27.
“He would jump out of airplanes every day, that was his job. He climbed the highest mountain in Germany, he was an outgoing guy.”
Petty Officer First Class Anthony Lembo was a member of the Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC, pronounced “Swick”). The SWCC are a special ops force that carries out operations alongside the Navy SEALs.
In her video, Stephanie holds up signs detailing how, in the hours before her husband took his own life, Anthony seemed like a completely different person than the man she knew and loved.
“That weekend he came home was like riding a roller coaster, it was amazing and then very scary.” Stephanie expressed in the video.
Picking up the pieces
Stephanie lost her husband at age 24. She struggled with the suicide of Anthony day in and day out for years, constantly questioning and asking herself, like so many loved ones of suicides do, “What could I have done?”
After much thought, soul-searching and research, Stephanie concluded that there needs to be some form of training or counseling in place for spouses and family members of military vets to teach them exactly what PTSD is, how to spot the signs and how to respond to someone who may be at risk of suicide.
Military training and suicide prevention does exist for military personnel, but as Stephanie tragically discovered, some people would rather lose their lives than their position in the military.
Stephanie also believes the questionnaires used by the military to determine psychological soundness are inadequate determinants of suicidal tendencies since they rely on subject response.
“They take a test. They take a checkbox test where you read something and you check ‘are you okay, are you feeling sad’ and everybody knows how to take those tests to avoid getting in trouble.”
So Stephanie is raising awareness of the existing holes in the veteran safety net.
Turning pain into action
In her research, Stephanie discovered Active Heroes, an organization whose mission is to end veteran suicide. Active Heroes is currently building a retreat where vets can go and unwind in a quiet, stress-free environment.
The organization is also an advocate for the use of therapy dogs for victims of PTSD. It also raises awareness of PTSD and military suicides through various efforts like their Carry the Fallen annual ruck march during which volunteers walk for three, six, or nine hours carrying a weight that represents the burden of PTSD carried by many vets after returning home.
I spoke with Stephanie as she was preparing to board a flight to St. Louis, from where she would then fly on to Kentucky to visit the Active Heroes retreat.
“My plan is to do the counseling. They do not have counseling,” Lembo laughs, “But they will. Give me a year and it’s gonna happen.”
Finding help when they need it
“My kids are amazing,” Stephanie confided, “I am so excited to look forward to their future because of who they are, and for them to do it without a dad…It’s been hard. It’s been very hard to see my kids start school without their dad. It’s been hard to see them get good grades and I can’t experience it with my husband.”
Though the statistics for veteran suicides may not bring us perfect understanding of what is a very complex matter, the issue of veteran suicide prevention is one worth fighting for, and numerous initiatives have been undertaken by multiple organizations and government entities to begin addressing it.
In February of 2015, President Obama signed into law the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which makes it easier for veterans to access mental health resources. Hunt himself was a member of the 2/7 Marines and an active suicide prevention advocate who tragically took his own life in October 2014.
Marine-Captain-turned-comedian Danny O’Malley started the March in Your Silkies event which takes 22 kilograms of gear along a 22-kilometer march in recognition of the 22 veterans a day who take their own lives. The marines run in the very revealing standard-issue running shorts known as “silkies” which are very short and, as the name implies, silky.
It may be too soon to tell what efforts have been effective, but it’s certain that no problem was ever solved that was never addressed. In the meantime, Stephanie is doing her part to put an end to the tragedy that changed her life.
“I don’t want to ever see somebody like me again,” Stephanie imparted to me, “I don’t ever want to see another military wife go through what I went through. Imagine how many other military wives are feeling the way I am, and I’m just fed up with it. I need to prepare our world so they know what PTSD is. My job as a mother and as a widow and as a civilian is to make awareness. It doesn’t weaken our soldiers at all, they’re amazing but they’re also human, they need to know that if they’re feeling this way they can talk to someone about it and not lose their job.”