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Building Hope From Tragedy: The Naslund Story

“Yet we few pay such a heavy price in hopes that our
Efforts might keep children, now yet just little boys,
From having to decide their innocence and lust for life
may best be sacrificed”

-excerpt from “Once Again to Be a Little Boy” by Dillion Naslund

I read this poem over and over. Its twenty-three lines contain a message that’s chilling yet bright, sad but hopeful. It articulates the internal conflict between the pain of post-traumatic stress and the deeply felt honor of military service, speaking volumes about how we attempt to reconcile the weight of all that. But the story behind this poem and its author, infantry Sergeant Dillion Naslund, is one that’s haunting – and hopeful – as the poem itself.

It was written six months before he ended his own life.

Naslund1Dillion Naslund was a normal kid, says his mother, Lisa. He was an avid outdoorsman, gregarious, and action oriented. Being such a hard charger, it was little surprise to their family that when he decided to enlist in the military he chose the Army infantry. Dillion joined during high school and became a member of the Iowa National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division, The Red Bulls. The surprises came later. After deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, “we expected him to be different,” his mother said. “But there was no way to prepare for what would come.”

Naslund2Dillion changed after his second deployment. He was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks and was prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. He coped with alcohol. Although close with his family, he rarely talked about his experiences in combat. War had altered him dramatically. “So much was the opposite of what he was before.” In August 2012, alarm bells rang for the family when they learned that he was contemplating harming himself. They took him to the emergency room, and he was sent to a VA hospital for a time. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began treatment. But the “beast” that was PTSD, and the magnitude of the battle he and his family had to face, was “too much, too big,” and came on “too fast.” The battle ended in his suicide in December 2012.

The Naslunds did their best to recover, grieving deeply and privately. But they were shocked and overwhelmed all over again when they learned that 22 veterans committed suicide every day. That’s when Lisa and her husband, Jeff, decided that they “had to do something to make a difference.” And they have in many ways.

dilliontitlecardBy sharing their experience, it was their hope to prevent the type of tragedy they knew all too well. Family friend and film-maker Tom Zwemke offered to help by creating a documentary film featuring Dillion’s story. Then they began reaching out to other families, like Howard and Jean Somers of California, who also lost their son to suicide. A letter of condolence from one mother to another led to collaboration on Operation Engage America, an organization that holds events devoted to raising awareness about the issues facing American veterans and providing education about the means to address them. The Naslunds launched a website that helps families and veterans alike navigate the bevy of resources available for help with PTSD.

It was the beginning of filming for the documentary that led to another surprise, that of a poem that surfaced written by their son: “Once Again to Be a Little Boy.”

Lisa says Dillion had “zero interest” in writing. So they were skeptical when his fellow soldier, Shannon, brought them a worn piece of paper containing the poem. Shannon told the family that Dillion had written it over the course of a long, problematic night spent at his house. They were amazed at the depth of the message it contained and came to learn much about their son’s frame of mind and the shape of the beast with which he was grappling. The more they read and thought about it, they came to believe something else:

“That poem, and him writing it, gave us more time with him.”

The Naslunds have made it their mission to give others time – and hope – any way they can. Their son’s death served as a way for his fellow soldiers to open up about their problems, knowing they weren’t alone. All across the country, people have contacted the family directly for help. They’ve made an impact in a broader sense as well. The Naslunds have saved many, many more through their significant contribution to raising awareness about PTSD and the veteran suicide epidemic.

The overall message they wish to convey is to reach out, communicate, and remain hopeful. “PTSD is not a death sentence…there is hope. If one thing doesn’t work, try another.” Getting help “starts with a conversation,” one that the Naslunds are fostering among families across the country.

The family’s latest surprise? Although “never a writer,” their son will be a published poet in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 2 in May 2015.

 

(contributed by David P. Ervin)