Steve Gambichler is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. He was an Army Aviation Officer and he served for 32 years from 1985 to 2018. Steve deployed for Operation Iraq Freedom 2003, invasion of Iraq, and then he deployed again in 2006 to Iraq.
Steve is father to two boys, ages 21 and 18. Steve’s 18-year-old just joined the US Air Force. He is 52 years old. He is a disabled vet who likes sushi and is a lover of scotch. He’s also a Toastmaster.
In this episode, Steve tells Michael about suicide in the military and how the military reacts to trauma.
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military's a reflection of their society. So you know when you have societal issues that drive people to commit suicide, it's reflected in the military
welcome friends to the fourth Season of Heart to Heart with Michael, a program for the brief community. Our purpose is to empower members of our community this season. We're looking at grief in its various forms, and we'll be looking at the role of trauma as it effects grief. Today's program is grief in the United States military here with us today to discuss. This is our guest, Steve Bechler. In 71 will learn who Steve is. The second segment. Steve will tell us about suicide in the military, and in the final segment, people tell us about how the military reacts to trauma. Steve again. Bechler is a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. He was an Army aviation officer, has served for 32 years from 1985 to 2018. Steve deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then he deployed again in 2006 to Iraq. Steve, his father to two boys aged 21 in 18 Steve's 18 year old just joined the U. S. Air force. He's 52 years old. He's a disabled vet who like sushi and is
a lover of Scotch. He is also a toastmaster. Steve, thank you for joining us today. Thank you. Let's start with you telling us about why you joined the military.
Well, in 1985 I was young, 18 year old, didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. And an opportunity presented itself to join the Army Reserve. And I jumped at it. And 32 years later I quit. So I don't know that I would have, like the Classic, you know, big, big thought reasons for joining the military. Think at that time I was just looking for something interesting to do. And being a medic in the Army sounded pretty cool.
So you've joined the military? You went in as a medic. How did you get into airplanes? How did that happen? That's a long way off.
Well, later on in my career, I was a young medic, and I ended up getting a chance to work in the back of medevac helicopters for a bit and that to be
honest. You know, the guys that
I were flying with were clean, and they got a really good view in the front seat of the aircraft. I was not clean and had a lousy view in the back of the aircraft, and they looked like they had a better job than I did. And so I was inspired to fly. My grandfather had flown in World War Two as well, so I thought, you know, flying was something I always been interested in, but I didn't really think it was a possibility. And then at that point, the Army gave me the opportunity to go be a pilot, so I jumped at it. I was really lucky. I think that's one of the things that most people don't really appreciate about military. It's, it's, you know, there's a lot of luck involved, and I had a chance to do something that I'd always wanted to do was a child. So I got commissioned in 1990 as an officer and then, you know, immediately went to flight school because of the first Gulf War and spent two years in flight school while my friends spent, you know, 100 days in Iraq.
I'm in the Air Force and I'm former effortless. And I never knew a pilot whose answer us, I want to fly because I got a better seat in the front.
You know, that is awesome.
I imagine I've never actually flown. I was lucky me. I was a filmmaker in the Air Force, but but I never actually flew. But I can imagine it's awesome. I've seen the pictures where I served. Service is mandatory, and when I was a kid in the U. S. Until 1971 or I think, 71 Tony's service was mandatory. What is it that makes that makes the military that attractive?
One of things, I think is that, you know, is a different way of life. You get a chance to do things that you might not normally get to Dio And, you know, for instance, you know, had I not join the military, I don't know that I would have been a e m t or Ah, a paramedic. I don't know. I definitely don't think I would have been a pilot. I didn't have the grades in school for it, and I just definitely wasn't in a position Thio to fund it myself. So, you know, becoming a military aviator was pretty much the way I was gonna be a pilot. And I know that a lot of kids, little kids doing for a lot of reasons, the United States, we have insane benefits. You know, when I listen to friends, writers, Children aren't in the military and haven't done the military, But they're complaining about not being able to pay for college or they're complaining about, you know, not knowing where their health care is gonna come from or, you know, or they just have no direction. I don't really know what they want to do besides Seo flip a
burger at a burger store.
You know, they it's interesting to me that you're looking to go. You know, there's this place where you walk into a room, you signed a piece of paper and they're gonna give you a four year degree if you ask for it and I'm gonna give it to you, you have to work for it. But they're gonna pay for the fund it. So we have a raft of benefits that go with having been in the volunteer military, which I think is probably part of the reason why we are able to front the military are. Then there's just the fact that it's, Ah, life, you know, you go in for that 1st 4 years, worked 3 to 4 years and you get a taste of it. Some people, when they've had that taste of it, they're like, Well, this is actually not bad. I like this, like the environment elect people I work with. I like the fact that there's a defined set of rules. I like the fact that I get to do things that normal people just read about in books. And so there's that that group of people and you know, the military's not a model if you have all sorts of different jobs in the military, so you know, people who go into the combat arms will be really attracted to the rough, hard life of being a soldier.
I told you, get over that. I had a friend in the U. S. And she was deciding to go to medical school and the Air Force contacted her and said, If you want to come with us, we'll pay for it. But then you got to stay with us for seven years. So she turned that down, which I can't believe she did. Ah, when I was in graduate school in New York, Mrs in the mid eighties. Um, I was very tempted because it's a very attractive offer. And I think personally, after having been in the military for this sort of times, I waas uh, it affects the way you work when you're not the military chain of command in the office, place becomes very important to you. And doing a job and being orderly and having things done properly come very important. There are a lot of benefits side benefits that you pick up in the army that people always are not always aware of.
No, absolutely. I mean, you get a cultural change, and I call it, you know, changing your perspective. If you've woken up in the morning and you're freezing cold and you know somebody's trying to shoot at you when you show up to the office that you're too later and you know the worst thing that's happened, you got a paper cut. You know, you're really definitely you look at that paper get a little differently. and I find that people who don't who didn't have that experience tend to get a little overly emotional about things. They're not being overly emotional, edged my frame of reference. I look at them and go, Yeah, you're not rub dirty, that you're fine.
Seriously, besides just getting a better seat on the plane, what makes you want to be a pilot? That is probably one of the most complicated things in the world that a person can do.
The best way to describe it is, you know, without being overly crass is that you can't really have more fun in your life. You get to you strapped into a piece of equipment, you take it off the ground and then fly across the ground at 120 miles an hour, close enough that you're flying around the trees and cattle, not over them. And you know, it's so if you like going fast, it's It's a fun thing to do. The sense of accomplishment really amazing, especially if you're flying for really. I'm flying. I'm flying solid profiles and missions and you're doing something interesting. One thing is really interesting is I've had somebody describe a room full of pilots is being in a room full of people with a D. D, primarily because it's the one thing that can keep our attention. You know, I really feel I don't have a deficit of alleged. I'm entirely too much and you're just not that interesting. So I'm going to have a hard time in large measure. That's you know
it's it's necessary because it's
an environment where
when things go wrong, you don't have time to be scared. You have to be ableto fly the airplane till it hits the ground
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Steve. When we were talking in our
pre interview, we talked about how suicide on the military is a really tough topic to talk about. Can you tell me about your experience in dealing with suicide of the military? How prevalent is it because I think we may think it's bigger than it is. Do you think there's something about being in the military that might push somebody towards suicide, or is it more a function of what they bring with them?
The one thing I'll say is that when people join the
military, no matter what military it is, they bring whatever their life had before to the military. And
so, unfortunately, I think there's a prevalence, especially with young people in our society, for people we call it, you know, taking a permanent solution to a temporary problem because I seem like the problems are insurmountable when they're really not. But unfortunately, one of the problems with being in the military is we have a tendency to have a culture of toughness, if you will, that you don't complain about your problems. You don't
talk about your challenges, you just live with them and, you know, make it work. And it's very difficult to be allowed inside yourself to go seek help and look for look for help
outside the monetary the military, when we first started the war in Iraq wasn't really well postured for taking care of people like that and, you know, going to seek metal Medic. Mental Health
Service is something you just didn't do it had negative are consequences to your career. Was Zoe's
the macho thing as well? Or is it really in
the rear? No, no, it was a macho thing that's absolutely much of thinking. And and then there was the implications for your career and pilots of pilots alone. They just don't go to the doctor, because when you go to the doctor, get grounded. There's nothing lower than a grounded pilots. So if you if you avail yourself of the service's, that's bad. It's taken a lot of changes in the military and noted military, adding, Mental health service is that weren't there before, as well as trying to just change that culture of not seeking out help. Even then, you still have problems with,
Let me ask you, Is that perceived as a possible trap by pilot? Because the military's in good faith offers the service absolutely camps taken the service. Are you hurt?
Yes, you can be. And unfortunately and so and it's it's a Catch 22 it's not. That sounds bad when you look at the Army that way. But the reality is that you don't want someone in the cockpit who have. You have a question of whether or not they're gonna be able capable to do the job. However, that sets him up in a situation where if they have a problem, they really have a hard time going to seek out help. So and
they really might not be capable of doing the job. Absolutely tremendous expense to the Air
Force. So getting getting you that that is that is a a challenge. That's a problem. And I don't have a good answer for what I really don't. I know that, you know, trying to find a way to allow people to talk about their challenges, talk about their problems in a safe environment. You know, we it's easy to put lip service to that, but then you're talking with human beings. But on both sides of the both sides of the equation, the leadership of the organization, plus the individual in the organization so and then you know, in the in the two cases that I personally experienced, you know, one individual had had challenges for his entire life, and he had taken every class we'd ever given about not doing, not committing suicide, no itself. And he still decided to commit suicide. And then the other individual had something major happened in his life, and that was his exit. And in both cases, you know, again we had many, many, many sitting in a room with a bunch of people listening to tell you about not commit suicide because you have family problems. So the military,
has done as best they can in terms of trying to, uh, mitigate, you know, suicide, the military. But I think, too, that the military is a reflection of their society. So, you know, when you have societal issues that drive people to commit suicide, it's reflected in the military. And it's a small, insular community. It's terrible. There's no no way of quantifying tragedy. You know, when one person commit suicide or 10 people commit suicide, it's it's a tragedy.
You said that you know, people bring what they are to the military. Ah, and if somebody it might be suicidal before he gets there, then it's no wonder that you know he'll still be suicidal. He's there. Does the Army have anything to do with being the trigger.
It really depends on what their what they do when they're there. I mean, if you get sent into combat, it will put a hole additional set of baggage if you brought baggage with you. So if you walked in with three suitcases, you could walk out with no more than dozen pretty quickly. And they're all big and I are together. You have guilt over, you know, surviving the experience you have or make mistakes. It's it's, you know, definitely one of those things that that can add to your problems. But life experiences do that. And the big challenge I see is that you trying to work with people who have mental illness being ableto understand there where they're coming from, make sure making sure that they get the help that they need. And that's that's huge. Telling somebody it's okay to seek out help making it okay,
Yeah, but I think with the problem here is on the one hand, you have the military that says it's OK to seek out help will give you that help. But there are other decision makers along the way who are not part of that mental health system in the military who say, Oh, mental health ex.
Yeah, absolutely. But that's that's a societal issue. I mean, we talk about, you know, one of the big stories here is that they're been veterans who commit suicide in the in the parking lot of the V A. And you know, the big bureaucracy that is the Veterans Administration is at best, uh, you know, there's not I have not met anybody that he who does not care. But I've met a ton of people who are overwhelmed because they've had to care too much. And they spend all their time caring and they see nothing but tragedy every day and eventually they just get numb to it. And I think that, uh, you know, we've come a long way in the decade plus of fighting this conflict we're in now to helping people who have gone through that experience with their challenge is much better than we did for during the Vietnam War. But I think that, uh, you know, at the end of the day it's it's more of a personal thing. And if you have some of your life is a veteran, somebody who's struggling with their experiences. The best you could do is be understanding and make sure they know it's okay to get help. They know it's okay to seek out people like themselves who can talk about how to experience how to survive the experience.
When you come into the army, there are certain things that you have to buy into. This is what I'm expected to be. This is what a soldier is. This is how life will be until I leave. What are some of those things that you have to get into? One of the some of those believes that you have to adopt immediately.
I think one of the biggest challenges most people when they first come in the military struggle with it's the idea that the whole is more important than the part and your part. So, you know, I look people all the time and smile and say, Hey, you know what? You don't matter And if you don't think you matter and you think the person next to you matters more than you do that everybody's gonna be taken care of because the person excuse will be doing the exact same thing and I know special. I
would think that's basic to being in the
army. I mean, that's when you were. They call it a uniform to make everybody on the same.
You know what you think about You come from United States. So this is a society where the individual reigns supreme and everybody worries about themselves, and everybody's worried about how they feel and how and, you know, getting theirs. And suddenly you find yourself thrust into environment, where you're in a room with 40 other people and you're all supposed to take care of each other. And that's a large Turk. Let that's a large chunk of basic training is teaching you to be that way.
I'm not a big military guy, and and I don't think that's a secret. But I think one of the best things about Ah, a draft about a conscripted military is that everybody has to learn that lesson
your life, depending on the person next to you and if you know and their life depended on you, and that's why I tend to tell people that you know he come home and you're closer to them than you are your own family because your family can't understand.
When you're dealing with the person next to you as an equal, it's because your family's is your own left arm in your right arm, and that person commits suicide. What happens to the body? What happens to the rest of you? A CZ there Survivor's guilt. And I know
in in my case, no, you're angry because you look at somebody and go. Hey, look, dude, you had my phone number rank. Why don't you call me? Why didn't you reach out to me? Why did you decide to do this without talking to me? Because we're all there. Not a one of us wouldn't have talked to you. And I knew in the one case I have spent the preceding Friday with the individual and he had, you know, he and I had gone and done something together, and he never indicated there is an issue. And he knew literally a week later I was carrying him to his grave. And I'm thinking to myself, do I had better things to be doing on my Wednesday. Why the hell did you do this? So you know, it's it's it's hard, and you know, I've dealt with people who didn't commit suicide. You had major problems and could have gone that way. And they did pick up a phone and call me and or call somebody else. And in my case, I was awakened, you know, two in the
morning at a
V a hospital with somebody who thought they were feeling better because they were getting sober. And I looked at them and said, Dude, you haven't slept well in a month and you don't, you know, sleep without drinking. And, you know, when was the last time you felt okay? He finally looked at me, said, Yeah, I probably need to stay here. I'm like, Yeah, you probably need to stay here. It's difficult to get people to reach into those unpleasant places and talk about them, But there's such a wide network of people who would
be more than happy to stay up all night
if necessary to help a friend.
I was five hours old lying at my first surgery.
The only advice I could really give someone like
that is to be there
for your family.
This is life, and you have to live it or you sit in a corner and cry.
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You are listening to heart to heart with Michael. If you have a question or comment that you would like addressed on our program, please send an email to Michael even at Michael at heart to heart with michael dot com. Now back toe heart to heart with Michael
Steve, you talked to us in the pre interview about how the military reacts to trauma. You mentioned a time when you were overseas and a lot of people were killed. Tell us about how the army reacts to battles that they've lost him or
just doing what we do. You have a tendency of losing people. I knew even before we went to the war in 2000 and three. And before 9 11 I had right. I think I'd lost two or three friends by that point. Just accidents in my profession. So, you know, agree for something we're used to. You know, we have the chaplain corps in the Army who, you know, they come to you and from a faith based perspective and can talk to you about your experiences and hey, but now, after the duration of the time that we've been in the military or we've been at war again, we have mental health. Service is on the installation. You go talk to. We have what we call resiliency centers where they have folks that are just sitting around waiting, have a cup of coffee with you and let you better explain Talk about how you feel and it's ah, you know. And then we have ceremonies When we lost a bunch of friends of ours at one time, you know, you have a memorial service, you know, at the unit, and then you have memorial service is back home and, you know, then you go through the funerals. I know in my case, I'm in three funerals for over a year because you buried, They buried each individual in the buried that the have a communal grave in Arlington for the rest. And so it's, you know, you have all these opportunities that you mean we do with the normal things that people do and you lose a person in your life. You go through the funeral experience too, get closure and try to move on. I know in my case, you know, in most of our think most people's cases, they stay with you forever. It's not like this. People ever go away. You just learn to live with it and learn to cope. But unfortunately, especially the profession of arms, you can lose a lot of people a lot of your friends at one time. So there's also the things that happened, like Survivor guilt, trying to figure out why it was them and not you. And, you know, if you go back and look at the lot of the literature for people have written about this because it's happened so often, you, minister, it's pretty common.
How much of this do you think is a function of because it's a volunteer army and soldiers have to go around so many times?
Yeah, that that's definitely the one thing that's different for our experience now is that we have been doing this for a long time that you're now in the generation of people who I mean, I'm in the second generation, you know, having my son join the military. Now the war's not over. We're still we're still there. If you look at the news today, they're still storming the gates of the Baghdad Embassy. And so, you know, this has been a generational experience, sir. First generational experience with the all volunteer military, nobody who who's there, You know, I was compelled everybody who's there, raise their right hand and repeat after everybody else. Now their motivations may have been across the board, but the bottom line is nobody was compelled. Yeah,
but I mean, in Vietnam, you knew you could see the end of the tunnel was four years down the line and you were going home here. The end of the tunnel is retirement.
This is hard to explain to people who don't understand this. But there is an attraction to doing us, especially what you've done it once. You want to go back. I mean, even now I'm retired. But I would go back and r B because there is a real nous to it, A reality to it, that this place I'm in now doesn't even begin to touch. And everything you do matters, everything that you're experiencing, that moment is more intense. And that is insanely difficult to explain to people more. I only did two trips. I know people who have done five and six trips in their
quiet. That's what you hear
about and and they volunteer. It's not like they're told they volunteered to go. They want to be there.
In a way. I really do understand that because it is almost like being in a bubble, but it's a complete way of life. It's all there. Everything you need or everything you want is in front of you in a way that you can access it.
Like I said, it just seems more real. And you come here and you know, they're You're worried about whether or not the person you're sitting. You see you're on the ground, you're flying over shooting at you here. You worry about whether or not your lot hasn't a foam on it. And it's really harsh to say that people listen to you. Go, man, you're just, you know how arrogant I'm like. No, really. Seriously, you don't get it until you've done until you've lived that experience
that speaks to the difference between army culture and American culture as a whole. Oh, I don't blame the people who worry about the lattice of that's their life. Right? Um, your life. My life might be different because of experiences in the military, but how did we bridge that gap? How do we convince Americans as a whole that we do these things so that they can worry about the body
when I sit there? And I look at people, especially who have never had to leave the country. We've never had. Not just traveling, going to nice places, but going to some of the worst places on the planet and explain to them you have no idea why this is better because you've never left the walls of Magic Kingdom here. You're still living in the Magic Kingdom. You do understand that your life is practical cause you've never experienced anything else. I remember when I was in Queens, I was walking from between buildings and I saw about four gentlemen in a hole digging with shovels something that we would use industrial equipment here to do. And it was 115 degrees outside. They're all dressed in, you know, long pants and long shirts and cafes, and they're sweating. They're dying. And so I went in to go get some water and bring bottles of water out to him because, you know, spoken about form and more to the point I was trained, learned was practicing Arabic, which I speak very badly, and I started talking to them and they're all Palestinians. And they're on American military base in the middle of Kuwait, digging a hole in 170 degree heat because that's the best opportunity they had. And so when you come back from those kinds of experiences and you're standing by and someone in the line of Starbucks in their burden berating the barista because he failed toe foam their lot enough, it's difficult not to
grant. You are trying to
just do something really mean to that. You're
like, Let's not be mean, but I served in the Israeli military and you served in the American military and and I think that the fundamental difference the people that we are serving is that in Israel, people's homes and families literally, really are on the line. Yeah, in America, people don't feel the closeness of the war. They say what happens over in Iraq happens over in Iraq and I don't really care. It doesn't really affect me. Where is in some countries like here? It's very much a part of your life, and that will always be a problem as long as America is really, really, really big and can keep the things that hurt us really, really very far away, which is a good thing, except that people then lose their perspective and I think that's what we're at. Steve, Thank
you so much for joining us on. Hart. To Hart. Thank you. That concludes this episode of heart to heart with Michael. I want to thank Steve Can Bechler for sharing his stories, his
experiences and so much more with us. Please join us at the beginning of the month for a brand new podcast and I will talk with you soon. Until then, please remember, moving forward is not living away.
Thank you again for joining us. We hope you have gained strength from listening to our program. Heart to heart with Michael can be heard every Thursday at noon Eastern time. We'll talk again next time when we'll share more stories.