Soldier Suicides

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

Like Andrew Velez, many soldiers resist seeking help because they are convinced they can take care of themselves and fear damaging their careers or looking weak. Chad Barrett, the Fort Carson soldier who overdosed in Mosul, wanted to continue his military career so badly that he fought to be deployed for the third time and won, The Denver Post reported, even after military doctors recommended he be discharged because of mental problems.

"The biggest thing we have to overcome is the element of 'machismo,' this attitude of 'I can do it on my own,'" says Lieutenant Colonel William Thurmond, who served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion and is now assigned to the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, headquartered in Dallas. "That and making sure we have leaders who are apt at recognizing the warning signals. That's what we owe our troops as leaders."

Colonel Diebold, of Tripler Army Medical Center, says that when he accompanied a suicide prevention team on visits to areas where soldiers had killed themselves, they found that strained relationships were a major factor in a number of cases. In many others, there were few apparent red flags, if any. "In a lot of the cases, the service member didn't disclose to his friends that things were going on," he says. "Hence the impetus to train service members to look out for signals like isolating themselves, not doing usual activities, giving things away."

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.

Yet often, family members who have lost soldiers to suicide say that in retrospect, there were few signs of what was to come, says Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokesperson for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a veterans' service nonprofit. One woman who came to the group for support said that looking back, she didn't see any clues that her husband — who'd recently returned from combat — would hang himself in their garage. "She told us, 'The man who did that wasn't the man I married,'" Neiberger-Miller says.

Even when soldiers' problems are noticeable, they don't necessarily get the help they need. Roy Velez told Details magazine that after his son ran through the house hallucinating gunfire and wielding an imaginary weapon, Roy asked an Army officer to evaluate Andrew's mental readiness. "The Army man met with Andrew for a while," Roy was quoted as saying. "Afterwards he told me, 'Sir, your son is a fine young soldier. What he's going through is perfectly normal. He'll be okay.'" The officer apparently also recommended to Fort Irwin authorities that Andrew undergo a professional psychological evaluation. The Army doesn't release mental health records or comment on individual cases, but Monica Velez says that Andrew's treatment at Fort Irwin consisted of a few sessions with a chaplain. Army policy doesn't mandate psychiatric evaluations or treatment. Generally, soldiers must request it, which many of them consider to be a career-ending move.

The Army's investigation into Andrew Velez's death, closed in 2007, wasn't available by press time. Yet Monica says she has seen a copy of it and that it makes clear that Andrew mentioned his marital problems to his superiors. They should have suspected, she says, that such personal stress, on top of the traumatic loss of his older brother and the 2004 flashback incident reported to Fort Irwin, put Andrew at risk for suicide.

After all, those are the kind of signs that officers like Colonel Diebold are trying to teach their troops to recognize in their brothers and sisters in arms.

Whatever new programs might be implemented to curb the rising suicide trend, they're too late for Andrew Velez. But Monica Velez doesn't want other families to suffer the same fate as hers, and so for a while, she made efforts to effect change. She'd attended some of the post-­deployment health assessments in Fort Hood after Freddy died, and she didn't think the sessions were particularly effective. They consisted of a one-time class which featured presentations by an Iraq veteran on PTSD and other problems, as well as video presentations. "They just sat there like statues," she says of the soldiers she observed, rarely sharing much about their experiences. When it came time for them to fill out a mental health questionnaire on a computer, she says, one soldier would pass it and then advise the rest on how to answer the questions without raising a red flag.

"I was just blown away that they were just going in there and blowing it off," Monica Velez says. "There should be more than just a one-time class." For months after Andrew's death was ruled a suicide, she pored over copies of the mental health questionnaires and suggested the Army build some sort of awareness Web site. But then it all became too much, the memories and the guilt and the questions, the endless questions about how it all might have turned out differently. She felt as if the colossal weight of her grief might crush her, and so she moved away from the places she associated with the incalculable loss of her brothers.

Now, in Austin, she's working two jobs and trying to forget. The past lives on, though, independent of geography or circumstance. She recently wound up dating an Iraq veteran who suffered from the same types of problems that plagued Andrew — anger, anxiety, paranoia and nightmares. And no matter where she goes, the reminders of her brothers are everywhere.

Sitting in an Austin bistro in August, Monica Velez gazed out the window toward the shopping center outside, her clear brown eyes brimming. "I went into Target just now and thought, 'Freddy would be in college now,'" she said, her voice breaking. "But he's not."

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