Before Veterans Day, he posted a 1,116 word message, his longest yet.
Then, in a green T-shirt with an American flag emblazoned across his chest, the 31-year-old walked to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shot himself.
Statistics tell us at least 16 other members of the military community also took their lives that Monday night and every night — the average daily toll — leading up to Veterans Day, when the nation thanks veterans for their service with a free 10-piece order of boneless chicken wings or a free doughnut.
At 7:09 p.m., minutes after he posted the note, his friends began responding:
“Kenny, you are loved. Do not do this!!”
“Hey, you are not alone!! Rob is trying to call you now.”
“Santi for the love of god don’t do this.”
“Call his unit.”
“Call the cops!”
“Command post is tracking.”
But by then, two nurses visiting the memorial at night were trying to give him CPR. A medevac helicopter flew in minutes later, landing next to the Reflecting Pool to take Santiago to the hospital. He was pronounced dead hours later, 1 a.m. on Tuesday Nov. 9, police said.
Naveed Shah reposted a video of that helicopter landing when he saw it on social media.
It made Shah, an Army veteran and political director of the veteran’s group Common Defense, furious.
“In the past decade that I have spent in veterans advocacy, much has been done about the veterans suicide epidemic with few results,” Shah said. “Santiago’s death in this hallowed place, at this time of reverence for veterans, perhaps should provide pause for government officials and elected leaders in Washington to consider the impact 20 years of wars have had on our armed forces.”
And when we tell them to go get help, help is hard to find. There’s a “severe occupational staffing shortage” in more than half of the psychiatric facilities veterans are sent to, according to the September Inspector General’s report on the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The struggle to get treatment has always been there for veterans. Take an equally public suicide eight years ago across the National Mall, at the other end of the cross that makes America’s most iconic space. Vietnam War veteran John Constantino saluted the white dome of the Capitol and immolated himself. At the time, his family attorney said it was the result of “a long battle with mental illness.”
Constantino’s death was public, laden with symbolism, just like Santiago’s.
“Nobody ever knows who is struggling or [waging] wars the eye cannot see. What does chronic depression even look like?” Santiago wrote in his note, which he double-posted on Instagram and Facebook, along with a slide show of him as a baby, with family, in Bali, at games, at work. “At times I think my close friends just tolerate me. Moreover, I feel truly alone. I always have. For a long time (years) I’ve known I would take my own life.”
His friends told me they wish he could’ve shared this when he was alive.
“In the military, he had to always have this front, he had to always appear strong,” said Sarah Kanellas, one of his childhood friends from Lowell, Mass. Her partner is in the military, and she knows that no matter what military officials say, there’s a stigma.
“You know how in basic training they break them down so they can build them back up? I get it, I know why they have to do that,” Kanellas said. “But they need to make mental health part of the building back up.”
Military bigwigs say they’re doing this. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin often says “mental health is health.”
And this week in his Veterans Day statement, Austin said: “We are working so hard to provide the best medical and mental health care possible for those whose military service has concluded. We must prove capable of treating the wounds we see, as well as the ones we cannot see.”
But that message hasn’t trickled down to the troops.
Santiago had a high-level security clearance in his new role as an Air Force flight attendant for the nation’s biggest VIPs, stationed at Joint Base Andrews, where he was president of a base council and mentor to many.
“He was so driven, so hard-working,” said Edisson Naranjo-Mejia, 31, one of Santiago’s closest friends. “But he always had this shell. And he had it for three reasons.”
He was male, in the military and Latino, which are three cultures that look down on vulnerability, Naranjo-Mejia said.
“He always wondered: ‘Will they take my security clearance away? If I talk to someone, will I lose my career?’ ” he said.
Naranjo-Mejia said he decided to make fighting that fear, breaking the stigma, broadcasting Santiago’s struggle and forcing conversations part of his friend’s legacy.
“Why would Kenny put a suicide note on social media? Why would he kill himself in the most public area in the country?”
He decided that Santiago did it that way to say what he couldn’t say when he was alive.
“It’s okay for a man to cry,” Naranjo-Mejia said. “It’s okay for a man to be depressed.”
It’s primarily a culture problem, said Navy veteran Grant Khanbalinov, whose motto is “It’s okay to not be okay.”
“In the service we are supposed to be fighters and suck it up, and embrace the suck,” Khanbalinov said. He didn’t know Santiago, but in his own struggles in the Navy and in his advocacy work today, he knew many like him. “If we seek help we are scrutinized for it, people start to talk, you’re looked down upon.”
Kanellas, the childhood friend, wondered if the military could treat mental health like physical health. Could counseling sessions be as mandatory as weigh-ins?
“When they join, service members write a blank check to the United States government payable with their lives,” said Shah, of Common Defense. “Offering them anything less in return for their years of service and sacrifice is unpatriotic.”
In his final post, Santiago worried about his legacy.
“On my way out, I can’t help to wonder if I ever made a difference in the world,” he wrote.
That’s up to us.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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