This Veteran Had Been in the Line of Fire for Years—But a Game of Golf Saved His Life

After four deployments to Iraq, this veteran nearly ended it all. What stopped him? The most ordinary diversion imaginable.

october-2017-AOL_LWL_Playing-Golf_US171099-Matthew-Cohen-for-Reader's-DigestMatthew Cohen for Reader's Digest

He told me he’d once contemplated suicide. He wasn’t one to open up about himself like that. He could tell a great joke and loved talking about hunting, but forget about anything more personal than that. He’d been a student of mine the year before, and after he’d finished the veteran reintegration class I teach at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, we kept in touch. We’re about the same age, and he and I both have young kids, so I saw him more as a peer than as a student.

He’d thought about suicide after getting home from his fourth deployment to Iraq—the last one. He had been over there so many times 
that sometimes he struggled with 
the dates. He’d been part of the American invasion force in March 2003 and ended up in Mosul, and 
he remembered the Sunni uprising and its violent aftermath. He’s proud of a lot of what he did, but he feels guilty sometimes, too, about some of what he did and saw. Unless he has had a drink or two, he doesn’t talk about that stuff.

One night, he and I were sitting in one of those quintessential northern 
Wisconsin taverns—dartboards to our right, pool table to our left—catching up. The walls were covered in vintage beer signs and neon lights. A row of slot machines pinged and rang behind us. Behind the bar were three tiers of bottles filled with clear or brown liquors, illuminated by yellow lights. There was a basketball game on TV, but I can’t remember who was playing. It was a weeknight, snowy and cold outside. A few seats down from us sat a pair of older gentlemen, maybe my grandfather’s age. They didn’t talk much. I saw faded tattoos on the loose skin of their forearms.

Two or three beers in, my friend and I got to talking about the class of mine he’d taken. He had been a great student—one of my best, in fact. He was a little older than the rest, and he had a reserved wisdom his fellow students respected immensely. One of his classmates had gone through 
a rough patch recently and had finally gone 
to see a counselor at the vet center up in Wausau.

october-2017-AOL_LWL_Playing-Golf_US171099-Matthew-Cohen-for-Reader's-DigestMatthew Cohen for Reader's Digest

“Was he suicidal?” I asked.

“Yeah, pretty sure 
he was,” he said. The counselor had given 
my drinking buddy’s suicidal friend locks for his guns and asked that he pass the keys on to someone for safekeeping.

That’s when my friend confided that he’d contemplated killing himself too.

“I was home,” he began, “sitting 
on the couch, drinking, watching TV. I don’t remember what I was thinking about exactly, but I do remember feeling this tension and having this realization wash over me that if I just did it, if I just killed myself, that every­thing would be better, that I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.”

I said nothing, sipped my beer, 
put it back down on the bar. He turned his head and stared at the wall behind the bar.

“But you didn’t do it,” I finally said.

“Nope.”

He blinked. Shook off the gaze 
and took a long pull from his beer, finishing it off.

“How come?” I asked.

He raised his hand and gestured to the bartender that he’d have another. I turned and motioned the same, then returned my gaze to him.

“That’s the funny thing,” he said. “So I’m sitting there. Drunk. And I’ve got my nine millimeter and I’ve made up my mind: I’m going to do it. I’m going to pull the trigger.”

He paused. ­Chuckled. Then he took a swig of his fresh beer.

october-2017-AOL_LWL_Playing-Golf_US171099-Matthew-Cohen-for-Reader's-DigestMatthew Cohen for Reader's Digest

“But then I remembered that I was supposed to play golf with my dad the next day,” he said. So he took the magazine out, ejected the round that was in the chamber, put the pistol in a drawer, and went to bed.

In the end, it doesn’t matter why he didn’t shoot himself that day, though maybe there’s a lesson in it: He felt a responsibility to his father and the golf date they had scheduled for the next day.

I didn’t ask why he didn’t kill ­himself after golf—the next day or the day after. Maybe I should have.

My guess is that he just kept reminding himself that there 
were people who needed him. Maybe that’s all any of us 
can do—­remember 
that we’re needed and 
remind others that they’re needed too.

There’s a saying 
in the military that he shared once during class: “If it’s stupid but works, it’s not stupid.”

At first glance, a golf date with Dad might seem like a stupid reason not to end it all, but it worked.

It’s not stupid.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Popular Videos