Soldier Suicides

Surviving our War on Terror calls for more than an ability to dodge bullets and IEDs

They buried the first brother the day before Thanksgiving. As mourners trickled out of Lubbock's Resthaven Memorial Park in the gray chill, Andrew Velez stayed behind. He stood among the gravestones and watched his brother's coffin laid low in the winter ground.

Cutting a sharp figure in his Army uniform, his dark eyes and soft-featured baby face set hard and unreadable, he asked his sister to remove some ribbons from his lapels. Then he knelt above his brother's grave, bowed his head, extended his arm and dropped the tokens into the hole.

For as long as Andrew could remember, he and his brother and sister had been inseparable; now they were only two. Army Specialist Jose Alfredo "Freddy" Velez, 23, had died a war hero in Iraq during the November 2004 occupation of Fallujah, felled by a bullet to the back of the neck while shielding his buddies with machine gun fire as they scrambled for cover in an insurgent stronghold.

Army Specialist Jose Alfredo "Freddy" Velez...
Army Specialist Jose Alfredo "Freddy" Velez...
...and Army Pfc. Andrew Velez became the first brothers to die in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — Freddy in combat in Iraq, Andrew by his own hand after his elder brother's death.
...and Army Pfc. Andrew Velez became the first brothers to die in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — Freddy in combat in Iraq, Andrew by his own hand after his elder brother's death.

Andrew gazed into the grave for a long moment and then turned to his sister. "Stop crying," he told her, resolute. "I'm going to make everything better."

Though the youngest, Andrew had always been scrappy and defiant, quick to confront anyone who threatened his family. Once he made up his mind, he couldn't be swayed. After the funeral, he refused to skip the rest of his combat tour, an option the Army offers sole surviving sons to shield them from danger. He would return to the Middle East with his unit, even if it meant re-enlisting — even if it meant hiding the storms of fear and paranoia that sent him flying into a rage one moment and left him quivering on the floor the next.

His sister didn't know about that at the cemetery. She hadn't heard him describe the violent nightmares and flashbacks, the memories that blasted into his thoughts and held him hostage from peace, sleep and those he loved. There were bright, blossoming balls of flame and falling bodies, thunderous shelling and the metallic taste of terror. Yet the worst image was deadly calm: Freddy's lifeless face as it came into view in the body bag. It was the mental snapshot he couldn't shake, and probably the one that sent him back into battle.

His sister couldn't understand why he was so determined to return to the war that had claimed their brother, but she didn't try to stop him. His impulse to go back was visceral; it existed in some parallel universe of honor and valor, redemption and penance, bravado and glory.

Eighteen months after his older brother was killed, four months after he arrived in Afghanistan still tormented by grief and just hours after mounting marital discord drove his wife to request a divorce, Andrew Velez placed the barrel of his brother's M249 in his mouth and squeezed the trigger.

When Andrew Velez shot himself in an office at Camp Sharona, Afghanistan, on July 25, 2006, he and Freddy became the first brothers to die in America's War on Terror, and Andrew joined the growing ranks of soldiers killed to die not in combat but by ­suicide.

The year before, Colonel Ted Westhusing, a Dallas-born father of three and full West Point professor who volunteered to go to Iraq, shut himself in his Baghdad trailer, penned a letter criticizing his commanders and saying he couldn't support "a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuses and liars," and shot himself in the head. Almost a year after Andrew's death, 25-year-old Army recruiter Nils Aron Andersson shot himself to death in a Houston parking garage within hours after his wedding. Andersson, one of three Houston recruiters to kill themselves since 2000, had served two tours in Iraq. The grim tales are appearing under headlines across the country: Jeff Lucey, a 23-year-old Marine reservist, hanged himself with a garden hose in his parents' Massachusetts cellar; Derek Henderson, 27, leaped off a bridge into the Ohio River after three Mideast tours with the Marines; and Fort Carson, Colorado, soldier Chad Barrett overdosed on pills in Mosul during his third tour in Iraq. He'd been cleared to deploy again after attempting suicide once and being prescribed antidepressants.

A series of recent reports reveal that record numbers of active-duty troops are committing suicide, raising concerns about the military's ability to adequately screen, diagnose and treat soldiers with mental health problems.

An Army report released in May showed that at least 115 soldiers killed themselves in 2007, the highest rate since the Army began keeping records in 1980. One of the officials presenting the study cited extended and multiple deployments, frequent exposure to "horrifying" experiences and easy access to loaded weapons.

This year's suicide tally among active-duty troops — 62 confirmed and 31 other deaths still under investigation — is on pace to surpass last year's and push the rate of suicides per 100,000 service members above that of the civilian population for the first time ever, Army officials announced in early September.

The reports follow the controversy that enveloped the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year when the agency was caught deliberately hiding high suicide rates among veterans. An e-mail to colleagues from Ira Katz, the VA's head of mental health, began "Shh!" and estimated the unreleased number of suicide attempts at 1,000 per month. "Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" he wrote. That was after the agency told CBS there were just 790 suicide attempts in all of 2007. After a three-month investigation, the network reported "a hidden epidemic" of suicides among veterans, especially the youngest ones who have served most recently.

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