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.
Monica Velez cleans a statue dedicated to her brother Freddy at Fort Hood, the home to his unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Freddy Velez was killed by sniper fire in Iraq in 2004 while defending wounded members of his squad.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Monica Velez cleans a statue dedicated to her brother Freddy at Fort Hood, the home to his unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Freddy Velez was killed by sniper fire in Iraq in 2004 while defending wounded members of his squad.
Roy Velez is comforted by a fellow mourner at a memorial service for his son Andrew at the Church of the Nazarene in Lubbock.
AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Staci Gray
Roy Velez is comforted by a fellow mourner at a memorial service for his son Andrew at the Church of the Nazarene in Lubbock.

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.

That's no surprise to Annie Joseph, the Dallas VA's suicide prevention coordinator. She was hired last summer to take calls made to the suicide hot line created by the VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). In its first year, the hot line received calls from more than 22,000 veterans. Joseph also tries to contact returning young vets who may be at risk. They're the most difficult ones to reach "They don't call back or follow up," she says. "They're young, and they're afraid they'll be ID'd and unable to get jobs."

The military faces a daunting question: How, when you've taught soldiers to kill and trained them to embody the ideals and mentality of powerful masculine icons, do you convince them to share their feelings and reach out for help?

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged the quandary in May when he announced that in an attempt to remove the stigma from mental health treatment, soldiers would no longer be asked on their security-clearance applications whether they'd sought counseling in the last seven years. Under the new policy, applicants who have been treated for combat-related problems can still get clearance.

Other Army efforts to reverse the alarming trend include increasing the numbers of mental health staff and chaplains, rolling out educational videos for troops and adding a new prevention program to basic training. The Army named the second week in September "Suicide Prevention Week" and is implementing unit-by-unit training throughout the month.

Perhaps the most troubling barrier facing such efforts is this: A 2004 study showed that soldiers and marines who screened positive for mental disorders were twice as likely as those who didn't to believe in the stigmas associated with treatment, says Alina Suris, associate professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center and a researcher at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The servicemen surveyed feared getting help would endanger their careers, cause them to be considered weak and decrease their units' confidence in their abilities.

That's precisely the mind-set that Army officials like Colonel C.J. Diebold, chief of psychiatry at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii and psychiatry consultant to the Army Surgeon General, are trying to change.

The new programs, he says, teach soldiers to deal with stress, ask for help and notice any changes in their peers' moods and behavior. "We're trying to educate them that it's not a sign of weakness," he says. "It's okay to feel stressed. You won't be considered a bad person or a bad ­soldier."
_____________________

Andrew Velez looked up to his siblings, and like them, he intended to make good on their father's efforts to give his children a better life. Roy Velez, a police officer from a poor Lubbock family, worked multiple jobs to support them after his wife left. According to Monica Velez, one day in the late '80s her mother dropped the kids off in a parking lot, called their father to come pick them up and then took off. Monica was seven, Freddy five and Andrew three.

From that day on, Monica watched over her brothers while her father was at work. The family moved in with Roy's parents, who lived in a modest home surrounded by cotton fields. The Velez kids would spend hours outside, swimming in the irrigation ditches and fishing for worms, playing GI Joe and pretending to be Transformers. There was an old, burned-out car frame on the edge of the property, and the three of them liked to climb inside and pretend to drive away.

Monica Velez was determined to make sure they all did well in school and had the chance to get out of town after high school, so she helped the boys with their homework and attended their football and basketball games and wrestling matches.

At the end of middle school, she and Andrew raised money to send Freddy — who was known as the sweet boy with the wide grin, unlike Andrew and Monica, who were fiery and mercurial — to the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, a well-known Latino leadership conference. The siblings fashioned a portfolio with Freddy's photograph and a summary of his plans, which included medical school, and carried it around the neighborhood knocking on doors. Monica Velez made some phone calls, too, and one resulted in a local businessman sponsoring Freddy's trip.

After she graduated from high school and started to take college classes, Monica helped Freddy with applications and essays for scholarships. "He was always concerned about stressing my father out with money," she says. He planned to take a year off, work for an ambulance company and go to college.

Then one Friday night, they were at Monica's apartment when Freddy made an announcement. He had enlisted in the Army and would leave after graduation.

"I threw a really big tantrum," Monica Velez says. "It was too far away for me to take care of him." But Freddy said it would be okay. This was how he would take care of their family.

The summer of 2000, Freddy Velez called his sister from basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He'd decided to join the infantry, he said. What is that? Monica asked. "It means I'll get to blow stuff up," he told her. "Shoot a .50 cal."

Monica went online and researched the infantry, but she still wanted more information. She visited a local recruiting battalion.

"My mistake was bringing Andrew with me," she says. "In my head I replay it over and over again — seeing him sitting at the other desk, talking to the recruiter. I just thought he was bullshitting, shooting the breeze..."

Andrew Velez, then a junior with high grades, had recently found out that his girlfriend Veronica was pregnant. Monica offered to help him find work or let the teenage couple live with her, but he said it was his responsibility and his alone. "I don't want you to save me," he told her. He and Veronica moved in with Veronica's parents and prepared to become parents themselves. Andrew worked odd jobs, detailing cars and hustling at the basketball courts for extra cash.

By 2002, when Freddy Velez was preparing to deploy to Iraq, Andrew and Veronica were caring for their second child. He'd dropped out of high school, earned his GED and found himself struggling even more to pay bills and provide for the kids. Freddy, whom he'd always admired, had decided the military was a good option, so why not follow suit? He told his sister that he had to join the Army to take care of his family.

"I was devastated," Monica Velez says. "I didn't know what I was going to do without them, and I knew that if something happened to them there was nothing I could do."

Freddy tried to assuage her fears in a letter from Iraq, explaining the benefits of the Army and why he and his brother had "made the best choices."

Andrew Velez was stationed at Fort Irwin, California. He deployed to Kuwait with the 699th Maintenance Company in early 2004. As a mechanic, he outfitted humvees and trucks for combat in Iraq. He told his family of making dangerous forays into insurgent territory, encountering firefights and risking IED explosions to deliver supplies or repair tanks and four-by-fours damaged by roadside bombs. Meanwhile, Freddy, a weapons specialist who deployed to Iraq in 2004 with Fort Hood's 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, cleared houses and apprehended rebels wearing sneakers and wielding homemade bombs and rocket launchers. The brothers asked after each other through the Army grapevine, carrying letters to pass to soldiers in the other's unit and trying to arrange meetings if they were passing through the same area. On several trips into Baghdad and Mosul, Andrew looked for his older brother but couldn't find him. They hadn't seen each other in nearly a year.

On Halloween 2004, Andrew Velez was home in Lubbock on leave when his brother called from Iraq. Freddy was supposed to be home too, but the Army had canceled his leave. He stayed on the phone with Monica for longer than usual. "Thank you for taking care of me, watching over Nickie (his wife). And remember, I'll always be with you," he told her. Then he recited the Bible verse from Isaiah that the three of them had made their mantra. "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles..."

When they hung up, Monica Velez started to cry. Andrew told her not to, that it only made it harder for Freddy. A few days later, on November 2, she got a letter from Freddy saying his unit was going to Fallujah. The full-scale invasion would be the joint U.S.-Iraqi forces' bloodiest fight since the war began, a determined effort to root out the rebel followers of Al Qaeda kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Already, Operation Phantom Fury was lifting off, the focus of global headlines and continuous cable news updates. Columns of tanks and humvees snaked into the city's outskirts bearing more than 10,000 soldiers and marines who braced for some of the most brutal combat since Vietnam.

Monica Velez watched the news and prayed; Andrew returned to Kuwait. On November 13, Freddy and his unit were five days into their siege of Fallujah, taking fire from buildings, homes and mosques, detaining insurgents and clearing weapons caches. As he and his eight-man squad worked their way through Shuhada, an area in the southwestern part of the city known as the Martyrs' neighborhood, they came upon a suspicious-looking house. As soon as the first American ventured inside, they were besieged by a storm of bullets and grenades. Three soldiers took shrapnel and lay bleeding, and the others dragged their wounded comrades along as they tried to escape and take cover.

To protect the men, Freddy stood squarely, shouldered his M249 automatic and fired streams of bullets into the house. He likely never saw the sniper poised in the building behind him. Bullets ripped into the back of his neck above his Kevlar vest and exited his chest. The other members of his unit — five of whom were wounded in the firefight — would later credit Freddy with saving their lives. After his death, Jose Alfredo "Freddy" Velez was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.

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.

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."

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."

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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