Soldier Suicides

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

Monica Velez awoke at 3 a.m. to a call from Freddy's wife, Nickie. A friend who volunteered at Fort Hood's casualty assistance office had told her that Freddy's unit had sustained a casualty. Monica drove to her brother and sister-in-law's house on the base, and a little while later there was a knock on the door. The following hours were a blur of grief and disbelief. Then Andrew called. The Army had sent him to Baghdad to identify Freddy's body.

"There was just a lot of screaming and crying. I couldn't understand much of what he said," Monica recalls. Someone from Fort Irwin, where Andrew Velez's unit was based, explained to her and her father that Andrew would escort his brother's body home to Lubbock and arrange the funeral. "I never understood what it was for Andrew to bring Freddy's body home. There was nothing I could say; I just let him scream." One thing she gathered in those conversations was his rage at the way the corpse was being handled, tossed around like a duffel bag in a plane full of dead bodies.

Once he returned to Lubbock and began organizing the funeral and practicing with the color guard, Andrew Velez didn't talk much. If someone mentioned his brother's death, he'd change the subject. According to an account from his father in The Dallas Morning News (Roy Velez declined to comment for this story), Andrew would say, "Fred's okay, Dad. Be a man." The rare times he said more, he seemed to be convinced that if he had been there with Freddy that day in Shuhada, his brother would somehow have survived.

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.

After the funeral, Monica Velez noticed changes in her little brother. He was anxious and short-tempered, always in a hurry and on edge. Someone bumped him at a club one night and he looked like he wanted to fight. Then he started laughing, as if to say, "'I could kill you in a split second and it's not worth it.' He seemed aggressive and frustrated," Monica says. "If someone didn't answer him fast enough or do something fast enough, he'd get upset."

While at his father's house in Lubbock, and later at Fort Irwin, Andrew often had trouble sleeping. It was too quiet, he'd tell his sister. He had nightmares. There was the one about unzipping his brother's body bag, and another in which he would be at home with his wife and then walk out the front door and immediately be transported back to Iraq.

At one point in Lubbock over the holidays, he went sprinting around the house clutching an imaginary rifle, yelling for his family to take cover and shouting, "I don't wanna die! I don't wanna die!"

Back at Fort Irwin, Andrew Velez would call Monica, who studied psychology and worked as a counselor, to share that he and Veronica were having marital problems. They had three children now, Jasmine, Jordan and Jacob. Sometimes, Monica would answer the phone to hear Veronica's voice (Andrew's wife couldn't be reached for comment).

"She would call crying and say, 'Andrew's having a hard time,'" Monica says. "I told her to take a deep breath and asked where the kids were. I would hear him in the background, yelling and throwing things around." Andrew would just be sitting on the couch or eating dinner and suddenly find himself in a flashback. "I'd ask her what he was doing," Monica says, "and she'd say, 'He's on the ground yelling "Incoming!"'"

Monica talked to her brother about post-traumatic stress disorder and suggested he see a chaplain or counselor. "He didn't want anyone to know," she says. "He worried he wouldn't get promoted or the guys would think he was crazy." She recommended finding a therapist off the base, but he refused. "There's nothing they can do," he would say.

In March 2006, Andrew Velez deployed with his unit to Afghanistan. In his calls and e-mails home, he told of missions in the mountains and Taliban fighters. He also mentioned the nightmares, the one about his brother's body and a new one, in which Veronica and the kids died in a house fire. His marital problems had worsened. Monica was concerned that he wasn't sleeping enough. "He grew more distant in Afghanistan," she says. "I could tell he was fighting something that I couldn't really understand."

Then the calls stopped. One Saturday in July, Monica Velez visited Veronica and the kids, and her sister-in-law announced that she wanted a divorce.

"I knew he'd take it hard," Monica says. "I wanted to call the Red Cross and have them put him on suicide watch, but I decided to wait. I thought he'd never talk to me again."

The following Tuesday her father called.

"Andrew's gone," he said.

Monica was silent, dumbstruck.

"Who did it?" she asked.

"Nobody did it. You remember the gun Freddy used to carry? Andrew put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger."
_____________________

Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan — some 300,000 people — report symptoms of PTSD or major depression, yet only half of them have sought treatment, according to a RAND Corporation study released in April. Of the troops who did get help, only around 50 percent received what the researchers deemed "minimally adequate treatment."

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