Greg Washington, a West Point graduate with a Joint Service Commendation Medal, was at his low point.
Wracked with grief and guilt over the loss of his friends, 2nd Lt. Emily Perez and Capt. Scott Pace, as well as problems assimilating to real life after the military, Washington was in his darkest place. He had graduated from West Point with Perez and Pace in 2005 — The class known as “The Class of 9/11.”
Washington seems confident and convicted as he talks about his friends, but there’s a note of heartache that reverberates in his voice.
“They’re my reason why as to why I’m doing this. I want to make sure their memory lives forever,” he said. “I say that a person dies twice, once in the physical form and once the last time their name is spoken.”
Though the solution would hit him in the very near future, their came a moment when suicide seemed to be an answer.
“So for me, not being able to keep my word in saying, ‘I’ll be there to have your back’ was really weighing on me. Depression had set in, I mean I couldn’t even see myself in the mirror, all I could see were my ghosts,” he said.
Suddenly, his phone rang. It was his young teenage cousin, calling to ask if he wanted to go to Wal-Mart with her and her mom. He said he doesn’t know what might have happened if she hadn’t called just when she did.
That all led to what he’s doing now. The Fayetteville, North Carolina native started in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and is walking 1800 miles around the country to bring awareness to military suicide. The walk will end, fittingly, at West Point in September.
Twenty-two warfighters a day commit suicide, Washington said, and right now the number is higher than the number of American military men and women killed in Vietnam.
Washington left the Army as a Captain.
“I was almost one of those 22. If I am dealing with so much as a leader coming out of the military, I can only imagine what other military people are going through,” Washington said. “I’m going to start this journey so others can start this journey of healing.”
That journey will encompass 25 stops, connecting communities to resources for mental health. It’s not just for the military communities, either, it’s anyone who may be fighting with traumas and the emotional breakage that comes with them. It’s about breaking the stigmas when it comes to getting help. The message is for everyone fighting battles others may not be able to see.
“You’re important, you deserve to be here. Suicide is not the answer,” Washington said. “If you ever need a sign because you don’t know what to do, this is that sign, right here. Come connect with my tribe or community, and let’s learn to grow together. You need to know you don’t have to do this alone.”
The legacy of 2nd Lt. Perez and Capt. Pace is intact. As long as Washington continues his journey — not just the one on foot, but the one he has begun with A Walk To Honor, the documentary “A Journey To Heal,” and House of Man — their names will continue to be said.
Washington recounted a story to the Military Times about his last time together with his friends.
“I always remember one of the last moments that we had together, outside of graduation,” Washington told Times reporter Devon Suits. “We just had one of our ceremonies where we picked our [officer] branch.
“I remember us coming back and [giving] a toast to our future,” he added. “It was just the three of us, and I didn’t know that would be one of the last moments we would have together. I was so amazed and so grateful to have battle buddies and friends like them.”
Perez was deployed to Iraq in December as a Medical Service Corps officer. She was killed when an IED exploded near her Humvee. The 23-year-old was the first female graduate of West Point killed in the Iraq War. Aged 23, she was the first female graduate of West Point to die in the Iraq War, and the first West Point graduate of the “Class of 9/11” to die in combat. She was also the first Black female officer to die in combat.
Capt. Scott Pace died at age 33 in Afghanistan when the helicopter he was flying was hit by enemy fire and crashed. He was troop commander of the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
“Even just this walk in general, I’m like that wounded healer, right?” he said. “I’ve been down that road and I had to start my own journey to heal and that’s what this is. With each step I gain more confidence in my purpose and in why I’m here.”
Washington stresses the need to have “Battle Buddies” — people you can call when you need to talk something out or just know that someone is there who has your back. It’s also important to be that way for others, he said.
“I travel this way but once, any good that I can do, let me do it, because I may not travel this way again,” he said, paraphrasing his favorite quote. “Just being able to say ‘Hello, hey are you ok? Checking on a battle buddy, that can go a long way.'”
To learn more about “A Walk to Honor” or to donate, visit Washington’s website.