No one is an island
Many glowing, heartfelt tributes to Australian Army Capt. Paul McKay have appeared in this newspaper of late. We’re glad of that. It’s been the talk of the town for weeks, and we, too, were shaken by the fact that he came halfway around the planet to Scarface Mountain in Ray Brook, where he was found dead two weeks later. The coroner said he committed suicide by hypothermia – intentionally exposing himself to the elements on a cold New Year’s Eve night.
We want to join others in saying good things about Capt. McKay, but we are compelled to say this: If, as it appears, he committed suicide, he made a big mistake.
He may not have known it, but he was in the right place for healing from the psychological wounds of war. We look forward to a day when people like him will seek out the Adirondacks to cure their suicidal thoughts rather than to fulfill them.
He had too much to live for, too many opportunities for his life to get better. He may not have seen them, but they were all around him.
For instance, when he arrived in Saranac Lake, if he had told just one local resident – almost anyone, really – about his painful wartime experience, that person could have put him in touch with fellow veterans who would have understood and helped him. He could have been introduced to Casey Reardon, a village police sergeant and Afghanistan war vet who helped search for Capt. McKay, or to any member of the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.
Most helpful of all, we suspect, could have been Homeward Bound Adirondacks. For four years now, this Saranac Lake-based group has been growing specifically to give respite to recent war veterans, as well as to help them reintegrate into a civilian society that doesn’t understand them. Homeward Bound’s retreats and other programs have been slow in developing, but Capt. McKay certainly could have found a friend in the group’s new director, Col. Eric Olsen, a minister and combat veteran who recently retired as head chaplain of the New York Army National Guard – or with Program Coordinator Jordanna Mallach, another Afghanistan war vet. You can find out more about this important nonprofit group and donate to it at homewardboundadirondacks.org.
Many have speculated that the reason Capt. McKay came here was to seek peace. Psalm 55, which Lee Gaillard of Saranac Lake quoted in his Guest Commentary in Saturday’s paper, is so perfect in describing this urge that it’s worth repeating:
“Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
“And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest;
“‘Truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness.'”
That’s why many war veterans have come to the Adirondacks ever since the American Civil War. The Veterans’ Mountain Camp on Big Tupper Lake was built for World War I vets, similar to what Homeward Bound is trying to do now.
People here may have appreciated Capt. McKay’s pain better than he thought, and they probably would have tried to comfort him and convince him to hang in there. Not knowing that, however, he succumbed to the temptation of suicide.
It’s a reminder to all of us that, when things look most hopeless, there are opportunities all around us that we just can’t see. We’re blundering around in the dark, missing the light switch.
We wish Capt. McKay was around to hear us say all this. Since he’s not, the message is for others in circumstances similar to his.
At this moment, there are potentially suicidal people out there in our readership. To them we plead: Don’t despair. Killing yourself isn’t worth it, especially considering the pain you will cause in your family and friends and, as this incident shows, people you don’t even know.
Yes, find peace in the Adirondack wilderness, but stay alive. We need you.
Part of the reason Capt. McKay’s death resonates widely is that it’s a telling consequence of the horrible war our nation and his have been fighting in Afghanistan for the last 12-plus years. About 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Capt. McKay’s death personalizes that statistic for people here, even though we didn’t know him. Those Americans who rattle sabers for military intervention in Iran, Syria, North Korea and elsewhere need to know that this is a big part of what war does to our young men and women – and those are the survivors. War is destruction. There is very little that can justify it, and the cost of fixing the aftermath is incalculable.
Because this single death of a foreigner wounds us, it reminds us that humanity is interconnected more deeply than we usually realize. It recalls the words of English poet John Donne nearly 400 years ago, in his “Meditation XVII”:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”