by Marc Polymeropoulos
Here is a story about a warrior who was, in the words of his widow, “godlike, strong, resolute, the toughest man I ever knew.”
This warrior is not here any longer. Wednesday marked the four-year anniversary of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Bill” Mulder’s suicide. It was precisely 127 days after his retirement from the Navy that Bill killed himself.
Bill knew something was wrong. He had severe bouts of alcoholism, insomnia, anxiety, rage, combat fatigue, and fight-or-flight syndrome (not uncommon in my intelligence community world either). Bill was loved dearly by his family and teammates. Yet when it came to the end, he felt alone. As a CIA operations officer who worked closely with special operations units, I had heard about Bill’s death. But I did not know the details until I met his brother-in-law, William Negley, and then spoke with his widow — William’s sister, Sydney Negley Mulder. They graciously agreed to talk to me about Bill and how to tackle the scourge of mental health illness and veteran suicide.
We have asked for so much from our warriors over the last two decades. In return, we must ask ourselves, have we done enough, do we do enough, when they return from the battle?
Bill was born to be a warrior, and even at the early age of 7, he was leading his friends in playing “army” in the backyard. Bill’s formative years included growing up in the Texas Panhandle and then playing high school football in Iowa, where he was an All-American. He joined the Navy. By around 2004, Bill was a member of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group (also known as SEAL Team 6).
Bill loved the SEAL teams, the brotherhood, the camaraderie that comes with being a part of something so special. Bill’s traits, like so many of his SEAL brothers, included intellectual brilliance, a sense of invincibility, a certainty of mission, and a desire to sacrifice for the greater good. He operated in the shadows. But as his three Bronze Stars (with Valor devices) attest, he was a giant even in his very special community. Let me put it another way, Americans are alive today because of Bill.
Constant deployments took their toll. In 2014, Bill, like myself this past January, attended the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Traumatic Brain Injury program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. Bill gained the tools from the NICoE to try and heal, but several months after the program, he simply stopped using them. What is so remarkable about our warriors, the ability to endure unspeakable hardship in training and battle, often becomes counterproductive in trying to heal from wounds. One cannot “suck it up” when it comes to mental health. The unwritten but flawed code states that you are not supposed to take a knee when your brothers are still in the fight and the wounds you suffer from are invisible. And so, despite going to the NICoE, Bill eventually took his own life. It’s an almost unimaginable tragedy. But it’s also a tragedy that must serve as a wake-up call.
According to a 2020 Department of Veterans Affairs report, 17 veterans commit suicide every day. Let those numbers, those lost lives, sink in. In the end, Bill was not alone. What needs to be done to cut into this death toll?
In Sydney’s powerful words, the stigma of Bill’s seeking help for mental health issues was “raw, real, and relevant.” Sydney recalls that Bill specifically did not seek assistance for fear he would lose his role as an operator. He once told her, “You can’t make me get help, I’ll get s***-canned from the command.” That narrative must change. According to a former military mental health professional I’ve spoken to, this stigma occurs on a personal level when one feels embarrassment in seeking help. But it also occurs on a reputation level. In these Ivy Leagues of warfare, teammates tend to raise their eyebrows when a fellow member appears “weak.”
Sydney and her family are not ones to sit back, just as Bill would never shirk from a dangerous operation.
Her brother William, a former CIA officer who also saw among his colleagues the dangers when mental health challenges go unnoticed, has devoted his life to this cause. Three years before Bill’s death, William founded Sound Off, a not-for-profit company designed to help veterans gain access to mental health professionals. He did so after understanding the gap in mental health coverage and overall wellness training. Bill’s death caused William to redouble his efforts.
Sound Off is an application downloaded on a phone that allows an individual to seek mental health support anonymously. The anonymity factor is just absolutely key. A 2014 Rand Corporation study suggests that 47% of post-9/11 veterans who suffer from mental health challenges did not seek care. By engaging with a clinician or peer support group while maintaining anonymity, we can mitigate the deterrent concerns of cultural stigmatization or professional blowback.
William modestly states that Sound Off is not the silver bullet. He knows that there is no foolproof way to combat mental health challenges, some that lead to veteran suicides. Yet I think he is being modest. Sound Off is the quick reaction force that has arrived on scene. And in the last month, several special operations foundations have embraced the Sound Off concept. I was so impressed with Sound Off due to my own struggles with traumatic brain injury that I am actively working with William (in an unpaid capacity) on his outreach to the intelligence community.
There is a story of great hope here. Bill might be gone, but the deployment of Sound Off to help his old colleagues ultimately may be Bill Mulder’s finest and most lasting contribution to our national security. Let us hope and pray that William and Sydney find success in their noble campaign to honor Bill’s memory. Let us help those warriors still in need.
Marc Polymeropoulos is a former CIA senior operations officer. He retired in 2019 after a 26-year career serving in the Near East and South Asia. His book Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the CIA was published in June 2021 by Harper Collins.