Editor’s note: Suicide is an act often surrounded by confusion and heartbreak. It isn’t always clear why a person takes his/her own life, and the effect on the bereaved is usually a devastating and lasting one. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a group that raises awareness, funds research and provides help to those affected by suicide, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. — accounting for more than 44,000 deaths per year … that’s 121 every day.

On Saturday, Oct. 7, many Grantham University employees will participate in one of the hundreds of Out of Darkness Suicide Prevention Walks occurring nationwide throughout the year and organized by the foundation.

With September’s Suicide Prevention Month and the upcoming walk, we recalled an April blog post written by Christine Shelly, then Grantham’s chief marketing officer and executive vice president. It spoke to Shelly’s childhood memories and experiences surrounded by U.S. Marines … but it also addressed the tragedy of two suicides in her family. The piece is a reminder that shock and grief in the wake of devastation – with support from family, friends and community – can lead to healing, determination and resilience.

Growing up military has its own unique rhythms, tempo and traditions, and instills in kids a valuable and unique set of life skills.

Colonel Shelly

Not having one permanent home for more than five years can make for a lengthy response to the question, "Where are you from?" Living in different states and sometimes foreign countries makes, "I'm from all over" the simplest answer. As a military child, I never lived anywhere more than a year until after I was 10 years old. I learned early on, when you are new someplace, you’d better just go ahead and say “hi.” Friends don’t come to you. You go to them. And when you move all the time, you have to make a lot of new friends.

Dad was a Marine, Granddad was a Marine, uncles on both sides of the family were Marines, and one uncle served in the Army for a short period of time. Semper Fi is a way of life; loyalty matters.

Civilians talk a lot about finding your tribe, but for military kids, it isn’t about finding your tribe. Your tribe is all around you, and the loyalty is built in. They’re there for each other because they all know what it’s like. They’ve walked in each other’s shoes. Even today, my two best friends are military kids I met when I was 9 years old. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps – we were a “joint services” crew.

Early memories
I was born at Kirtland AFB in 1973. My earliest memories of military life include the year my dad was on an unaccompanied tour on Okinawa, Japan. We sent audio tapes back and forth every couple of months; I still have one of them. When mom and I spent the summer with family in Maine, I thought dad was ‘just over the mountain tops’ of Maine. I had no concept of the true geographical distance between Japan and central Maine.

Then mom and I spent a year with my dad on Okinawa when I was two years old. Memories of the public squat toilets, stuffing the toilet of our one bedroom military quarters with toilet paper until it overflowed, and Christmas overseas made extra special when my godfather visited from the states - come more easily with access to old family photo albums. The long trip home to the states a year later – 24 hours of travel time and racing through the outdoor terminal at the Honolulu airport so as not to miss our connecting flight home – comes in vague flashes. It was hot, dad was sweating and we just barely made it.

My grandfather
Late in his career, my grandfather, Kermit Henry Shelly, Sr., was commanding officer of 3rd Force Service Regiment, known today as 3rd Force Service Support Group, out of Camp Foster, Okinawa. When he was first stationed on Okinawa in 1967, he went directly from his tour in Vietnam and he was alone. My grandmother and their three children did not join him until later, so no one knew that while there, he and his Marines performed humanitarian work and developed strong relationships with the people on Hamahiga Island. This was work beyond what the military mission required.

My Granddad’s work on Hamahiga and his connection to the community there were unknown to my family until 2011 when we found an article about a memorial on the island erected in his honor shortly after his death in 1968. The power of the internet allowed me to find additional articles, published several years in a row in recognition of Irei no Hi1 , Okinawa Memorial Day. “The day to console the dead" is a public holiday observed in Japan's Okinawa Prefecture annually on June 23 to remember the lives lost during the Battle of Okinawa.

Sadly, my grandfather committed suicide in 1968. He did not leave a note or tell anyone of his plans, so we don’t know for sure why he took his own life. It is believed that he was deeply troubled by the loss of life among his troops as a result of the Vietnam War, but unfortunately, we cannot know for sure.

Kermit Henry Shelly, Sr.

Remembering "The Colonel"
In 2015, I was fortunate enough to return to Okinawa for a very special Irei No Hi, recognizing the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. I participated in a memorial service that takes place each year on June 22 or 23. Marines from Camp Courtney come over and help the residents clean up the island after the rainy season. They decorate the two memorials (one for my grandfather; one for the people of Hamahiga) with flowers, fruit, Japanese pastry and incense. Mr. Morine is the long time caretaker of the memorials. He brings a cheeseburger and a can of Budweiser to my grandfather’s memorial for the ceremony each year. Speaking through a translator, I was able to talk with Mr. Morine and the other elders still living on the island. Over and over, they told stories about my grandfather bringing diesel and electricity to the island, digging trenches where the rain had washed out the roads so that the kids could walk to school safely, and delivering supplies that could only be brought over by boat and helicopter before a bridge and roads were erected between mainland Okinawa and Hamahiga years later.

Those who are still alive were just children in 1967, but they told stories about “The Colonel” as if it was yesterday. My grandfather would have been 96 in July of 2015 when I visited Okinawa. Because I never knew him, it was emotional and incredibly meaningful to hear the personal stories and to walk where he walked nearly 45 years prior. I am incredibly proud of my grandfather’s service to his country as a United States Marine. I am proud of his commitment to the Okinawan community and its people. I am told that he was not a boastful or arrogant man, and I can only imagine the reason he didn’t talk about Hamahiga, was not because it wasn’t important or meaningful, but rather because he made the contributions he made and established friendly relationships with the local people because he truly cared for them. Perhaps he didn’t want recognition or fanfare about the work. I wish I could ask him myself.

Cincinnati, 1979

A large circle of family support
My own father also took his own life while on active duty. At the age of 37, tragically, my father killed my mother and then killed himself. I was only 7 years old at the time and was an only child. Fortunately, I was surrounded by aunts and uncles, cousins and friends who loved me very much and who were all ready and willing to take care of me. Ultimately, my father's oldest sister, her husband (another Marine) and their only son adopted me into their family and raised me as their own. And life as a military kid continued.

I was able to spend a great deal of time with my grandmother (Kermit Sr.'s wife) from the time I was 9 years old until she died when I was 22. If she was any reflection of my grandfather and the life they had together prior to his death, it is a testament to the compassionate and full-of-life character he was. I'm told he had a wonderful sense of humor and was always cutting up. My grandmother (Pearl Shelly) had a zest for life and could light up a room with her smile and laughter.

I didn’t learn about my grandfather’s suicide until I was 20 years old. It was shocking. I couldn't believe that my own father, after losing his father at the age of 25, could make a decision that would leave his young only child without her parents or the possibility of ever having siblings. I grieved the loss of my parents all over again when I learned about my grandfather’s suicide. It was a difficult time for me as a young adult. But I was surrounded by family and friends who helped me get through it. It truly does take a village to raise a child and I have been blessed my entire life with a very large extended family that has always been there for me.

Shared experiences: It’s about the presence
There are other telltale signs or experiences military kids share: We are used to singing the National Anthem everywhere, even in the movie theatre after the previews. Calling everyone by their last names seems normal. “Ma’am” and “sir” come easily. Chores are mandatory. If you aren’t 15 minutes early, you’re late. Being late isn’t acceptable. You have immediate respect for anyone in uniform. I always look twice when a young troop is in an airport terminal — not because of the enormous rucksack, but wondering if they're heading home, to an overseas deployment, or to a combat zone.

With the possibility and reality of multiple deployments, whether long and short, we learn to never focus on the absence, but instead, focus on the upcoming presence. Civilians and military kids have completely different experiences when it comes to separations. In the civilian world, a five-day business trip can feel like forever. For military kids, “long” is when a parent misses your birthday – twice. Or worse, mom or dad is deployed to an undisclosed location and communication is limited. But even the longest trips? You can turn those into something good. Military kids don’t focus on the 200 days ahead. You muddle through and then, at the end, focus on the last 30 until your family will be whole again. It’s not about the absence. It’s about the presence you can’t wait to have back.

Resilience: A difference-maker
If I had to describe what growing up as a military kid taught me in one word, it would likely be RESILIENCE. My own experience, the deep respect I have for our troops and, in particular, their families, are daily reminders of the importance of resilience and why I have chosen to be part of Grantham University for the last 17 years. As a 100% online university, our “serving those who serve” motto is central to the mission and the work we do every single day. Our military men and women, veterans, and their families need us – and we need them. Their success is our success.

To that end we create programs and services to meet not only our military students’ needs, but also their financial and even emotional needs – because RESILIENCE can be the difference-maker when it comes to success. One program we offer is geared specifically toward helping military students continue taking courses without having to sit out when their Tuition Assistance is depleted. It’s called the Commander Everett Alvarez Resilience Scholarship, and provides qualifying service members up to $1,000 annually toward their Grantham degree. The scholarship’s namesake, Commander Alvarez, is a distinguished Naval officer who was the first American aviator shot down over North Vietnam, and spent eight and a half years as a Vietnam Prisoner of War (POW). He personifies determination and persistence in achieving success, and in the midst of life’s most difficult situations, believes in the fundamental principles he learned in the military: You don’t give up. You stand true to your mission. Be resilient.

Thinking back over my life as a young girl “growing up military,” I am thankful for the values, determination and resilience I learned from my experiences and from those around me. There is nothing more true than the statement, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” I am proud to say that when born into a Marine family, you are military for life.

Growing Up MilitaryChristine Shelly has spent nearly 20 years working in higher education. She currently serves as Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President for Grantham University. Ms. Shelly is passionate about changing lives – about making college education accessible and affordable, and preparing students and graduates for success.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okinawa_Memorial_Day

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