On Veterans Day, I Think of My Friend Chris

Chris Atencio in Iraq in 2009, representing his favorite bar back home. Photo courtesy the author

Today is Veteran’s Day, and that means I’m thinking more than usual about my old friend Chris Atencio. I met him in 2000, and we became friends after he moved next door to me. He had traveled the world, lived and surfed everywhere it seemed, but he’d grown up in Newport Beach, which he considered home.

He joined the U.S. Army about a year after 9/11; though known to most everyone he knew as a free spirit, Atencio also craved structure and purpose in his life, and joining the service offered both. He did a tour of duty in the Iraq war, rose to the rank of captain, then got an honorable discharge in the summer of 2013.

Six months later he killed himself. He was 42 years old.

A few months after his death, I wrote what I could about his time in the service, struggles with PTSD and his death. It’s not as complete as I would have liked, but these things never are.

“Hoping we can hang out sometime,” Atencio emailed a friend just a few weeks before he died. “I’m at the VA next Tues[day] and Wed[nesday]. Home has sucked. Transition has been hell.”

It’s been nearly six years since Atencio died, and the army is still struggling with transition. When he died, veterans were killing themselves at a rate of about 22 per day. Today the Defense Department says that number is closer to 17, though that’s apparently due to a change in the way they calculate the rate. At the same time, the suicide rate for active duty military personnel has been climbing in recent years. The year 2018 saw 325 active duty suicides–the highest on record since the Defense Department began tracking the rate in 2001.

Last week, the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey of American veterans on transition–what happens when a servicemember leaves the military and rejoins civilian life. Their findings were striking–especially for post-9/11 vets like Atencio.

“About half of post-9/11 veterans (47%) say it was very or somewhat difficult for them to readjust to civilian life after their military service,” states the survey results. “About a third of veterans (35%) say they had trouble paying their bills in their first few years after leaving the military, and roughly three-in-ten (28%) say they received unemployment compensation. One-in-five say they struggled with alcohol or substance abuse. Veterans who say they have suffered from PTSD are much more likely to report experiencing these things than those who did not.”

About a year after my story on Atencio came out, the war correspondent Sebastian Junger published this Vanity Fair piece on the PTSD veterans (and himself) were dealing with. His thesis was largely anthropological–American society was too focused on individualism, and thus too alienating, which made life difficult for returning vets who had grown accustomed to living in tight-knit groups that depended on mutual respect and support:

“You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society—that we are an anti-human society,” anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz warned when I tried this theory out on her. Abramowitz was in Ivory Coast during the start of the civil war there in 2002 and experienced, firsthand, the extremely close bonds created by hardship and danger. “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is about an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”

Even now, nearly six years after his death, I still get emails from people who knew Atencio. This isn’t unusual, given the fact that Atencio made friends with so many people around the world throughout his life. It’s nearly always the same story, too: they randomly think of him, wonder whatever happened to him, type his name into a Google search box and then find my 2014 story on his death. Some served with Atencio in the army; others knew him from years prior to his service, and have no idea he ever joined up. A couple of them have even become my friends, which is a very strange thing for me to think about because it’s highly unlikely I would have ever met them had Atencio not taken his own life.

The most recent person to reach out was a man named David in Copenhagen. He emailed me two months ago.

“I was showing my eldest daughter some Wedge footage on YouTube last night and I told her I’d met this guy Chris, on Hossegor Beach in Southwest France in the last summer of ’92 or ’93,” David said in his email. “We became friends… We stayed in touch for years… I was deeply shocked to read of his suicide after quitting the military. I also can’t quite believe he even enlisted. He was such a free spirit, I didn’t think he was military material.”

Though Atencio struggled throughout his years in uniform with “toxic” officers–bad commanders who were more interested in punching tickets and filling out their resume than really thinking about why we spent so many years fighting in the Middle East with such terrible results–and blamed his early discharge on them, he also loved the army. He loved being an intelligence officer in Iraq; he thrived in situations where he got to use his considerable language skills to gather information and build relationships.

But Atencio also went to Iraq relatively late in the war, long after the military had given up trying to “win” and was now just focused on keeping U.S. casualties low. None of his superiors in Iraq, he told me not long after his discharge, had wanted his memos or briefings on the need to pay attention to local culture and history.

At the same time, Atencio loved being around intelligent, skilled professionals who had traveled the world as he had. He spoke highly of meeting tremendous people in the service, and of learning all he could from them. About a year after Atencio died, one of his former NCOs (non-commissioned officers) emailed me. He had served with Atencio in Japan at the end of his career, and had taken his death hard. He said he was “ashamed” at how he had seen “warning signs” of Atencio’s depression, but hadn’t said or done anything because he assumed he would work it all out. I wrote him back, thanking him for his letter and saying that in hindsight, we all saw signs of trouble, but had largely done nothing because we all thought Chris would just keep on being Chris.

The sergeant also recalled Atencio’s farewell ceremony, where he had formally relinquished command. He said Atencio had told the other officers there that the most important lesson he learned in the army was to listen to his NCOs–his sergeants, whose experience and skills made them the backbone of any military unit–and not presume that they know everything simply because they were officers. That was true leadership, the sergeant wrote, and it really touched him and the others.

Atencio had spent his career–maybe even his life—looking for exactly that kind of leadership, and it pains me now to think that he never saw it in himself.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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