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Marine battled back, yet fell to suicide

Farrell Gilliam was buried in Fresno Jan. 21, carried to his grave by Marine pallbearers and friends. (Courtesy Gilliam family.)

Farrell Gilliam was buried in Fresno Jan. 21, carried to his grave by Marine pallbearers and friends. (Courtesy Gilliam family.)

 

 

By Gretel C. Kovach MARCH 28, 2014

*GRAPHIC LANGUAGE

He rarely spoke of it. Not to his family or best buddies, fellow Marines or medical staff watching over him.

But Cpl. Farrell Gilliam had endured far more by the time he died this year at age 25 than most people could comprehend.

The Camp Pendleton infantryman survived three months of combat in 2010 with the “Darkhorse” 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Sangin, Afghanistan — one of the deadliest battlegrounds of the war.

Amid firefights and insurgents’ bombs, Gilliam saw limbs strewn across the ground. He loaded broken, bleeding bodies for medical evacuation, and grieved for the friends they could not save.

Gilliam’s tour ended early when his legs were blown off by an improvised explosive device, or IED. “Farrell’s Fight,” his struggle on the homefront that his big brother helped him chronicle online, included more than 30 surgeries and three years of rehabilitation.

It was a story of triumph over wounds that would have been fatal in earlier conflicts. A story that was coming to an end, but not how anyone who knew him expected.

 

Gilliam was months away from a medical discharge from the Marine Corps and a new life as civilian college student. Physically, he had one surgery left to remove hardware in an arm. Psychologically, he was suffering from invisible wounds he hid behind smiles and upbeat banter.

Or so his family discovered on Jan. 9, when Gilliam committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in his barracks room in San Antonio.

Gilliam finally succumbed to his battle wounds, said Sgt. James Finney, his former squad leader in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger — to him Gilliam was killed in action just like the other 25 from their battalion.

“It was an 8,000-mile sniper shot,” said Finney, 27, now an infantry instructor. “His passing was directly due to a situation because of his wounds received in Afghanistan. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

The suicide rate for active-duty troops spiked in 2012 to nearly one a day, a record during this era of warfare and twice as high as a decade before. At least 350 took their lives that year, more than the number of service members killed in combat. (Final numbers for 2012 and a year-end tally for 2013 are pending, a Pentagon official said.)

Last year, 45 Marines committed suicide and 234 tried to. It was by far the highest number of suicide attempts for the service since at least 2003.

Among veterans of all the armed forces, at least 22 commit suicide daily, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Gilliam’s death blindsided his family and friends. Amid their raw first waves of grief, anger and irrational guilt, they pray that sharing his story might inspire others to stop suffering silently. Or spur a family to intervene. Or close a gap in support or education.

“I want no family to have to go through the pain that we are going through. If there’s just one person who gets that help that saves them … then it’s worth it,” said Gilliam’s brother, Daniel Lorente, 30, of Palo Alto, who cared for him full time as his non-medical assistant early in his rehabilitation.

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam and his brother Daniel Lorente in a Palo Alto fire truck in 2011 on the way to Gilliams flying lesson with a cousin. Courtesy photo

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam and his brother Daniel Lorente in a Palo Alto fire truck in 2011 on the way to Gilliams flying lesson with a cousin. Courtesy photo

Combat

As a teenager, Gilliam scored high on tests but was uninterested in school. He was introspective and brash, a gun-lover who wanted more excitement than the Navy had offered his parents. He enlisted with the Marines at age 17 so he could serve his country and “blow s* up.”

“He just wanted to be a grunt,” said his mother, Lisa Gilliam of Fresno.

After a sea tour, Gilliam volunteered for combat. He deployed in October 2010 as an infantryman and designated marksman to Sangin, a Taliban stronghold in southwestern Afghanistan where U.S. Marines were taking over from British forces.

Four Marines died in a bomb strike on the first day. Gilliam served on the quick-reaction force, manning the Mark 19 grenade launcher or .50-caliber gun, pitching in with litter teams after roadside bomb attacks and shootouts.

When he called home Christmas Day, apologizing for upsetting his mother by missing the holiday for the first time, he sounded like a man fighting to survive.

“Is it bad?” Lorente asked. “Are you guys doing OK?”

“We are taking hits. S* is just rough right now,” Gilliam said. “We are doing everything we can.”

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam (right) on a 2010-2011 deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan.

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam (right) on a 2010-2011 deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan.

Gilliam shielded his mother from the worst so she wouldn’t worry. But Lisa Gilliam, a pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in surgery and trauma care, realized after that phone call that her son was going to need help.

“I could tell in his voice,” she said. It was exhausted. Haunted. “I knew he was not going to come home the same as he left.”

A week later, on Jan. 5, 2011, Farrell Gilliam stepped on an IED. The Marines were walking through a desert neighborhood of mud-walled compounds near their base, toward a distant radio tower.

Gilliam, a team leader, was at the back of the patrol. About 10 Marines had trod ahead, marking a narrow path as they went, before he triggered a pressure plate buried in the dirt.

Finney heard the explosion. He looked back and saw a cloud of dust. No one answered him on the radio but he could hear yelling. When he crested the hill, he saw Gilliam inside a bomb crater.

One of Gilliam’s grenades had detonated in the explosion, mangling his side. His feet were blasted away and his right arm broken.

Gilliam was the first from their squad of “Regulators” to be wounded. “I didn’t want to believe it, but at that point we’d kind of gotten used to guys getting hurt,” Finney said.

By then, 24 had been killed with the battalion. Gilliam and the Lima Company quick-reaction force had responded to 18 urgent casualty evacuations, most of them limb amputations.

Navy hospital corpsmen and Marines worked rapidly to stop Gilliam from bleeding to death. They cinched his legs with tourniquets, stuffed his guts back in his belly and injected him with morphine.

One Marine held down Gilliam’s thrashing body while another calmed him, assuring him he would be fine.

On the drive to Forward Operating Base Nolay, a corpsman jammed his fingers in Gilliam’s wounds to keep him awake. To keep him alive until the medevac flight crew finally put him to sleep.

Gilliam was terrified he would die on that helicopter, like a squad leader from his company, Sgt. Ian Tawney.

Lisa Gilliam heard her son speak of it only once. It was after he arrived on Jan. 9, 2011, at Bethesda, Md., and the National Naval Medical Center. He was in the intensive care unit, suffering terrible flashbacks.

“What are you afraid of?” a chaplain asked.

Gilliam recounted every detail. His voice was hoarse from the breathing tube that had just been removed. He was crying.

“I remember putting one of my guys on the medevac. They took off and he died later,” his mother recalled him saying.

Then one day they put him on the helicopter, too. And Gilliam was afraid. So afraid.

“That I was going to die later, too,” he said.

REHAB

Both legs had to be amputated above the knee because of debris rammed into his flesh, trauma from the explosion and infection. Gilliam also lost half of his abdominal muscles, a section of arm bone and portions of his testicles.

On the upside, his brain and face were intact, he kept both arms, and with help from hormone treatment, he could expect to father a child normally.

When Lisa Gilliam’s husband, from whom she was long separated, called saying their son was badly wounded and may not live, she screamed into the phone as if he were dead.

Gilliam’s family members thought he was protected in the war zone by his training and armored Humvees.

“I didn’t know what an IED was. I had to look it up,” Lisa Gilliam said. “What the hell are they out there doing looking for IEDs? I thought they were shooting guns behind bunkers like you see in the World War II movies.”

Her daughter Sarah, 22, just didn’t understand. “I thought she was trying to tell me he was dead. I couldn’t comprehend: he’s lost his legs but he’s alive?” How could that be?

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, pins on Cpl. Farrell Gilliams Purple Heart medal while the young Marine is in the Intensive Care Unit at Bethesda, Maryland Jan. 28, 2011.Courtesy photo

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, pins on Cpl. Farrell Gilliams Purple Heart medal while the young Marine is in the Intensive Care Unit at Bethesda, Maryland Jan. 28, 2011.Courtesy photo

The first year of recovery was rough for Gilliam. He was overcome by bouts of anger, fear, depression and frustration, even as he fantasized about returning to combat.

“I remember him saying, ‘We need to hurry up and get me better so I can go back.’ I was like, ‘You are going to kill Mom if you go back!’” his brother Lorente said.

Gilliam responded: “What? This time around if I step on an IED, I’ll just get new (prosthetic) sticks and I’ll be fine!”

Medications clouded his mind and made him vomit regularly for five months straight. He flushed them after one surgery, then had to order more to cope with the pain.

illiam sometimes slipped into what his mother called “black moods.” He would sit, unresponsive, for hours or even days at a time.

“He would just, like, check out. He would be fine and then it would be like turning off a light switch and he would just be somewhere else. You couldn’t reach him. You couldn’t talk to him,” she recalled.

In time, those dark spells grew shorter and less frequent.

These were normal struggles for a young man coming to terms with half his body blown away, according to his father, Mike Gilliam, a civilian defense worker from Ridgecrest, Calif. Family and fellow Marines tried to help him adjust.

“His first sergeant told him, ‘You ain’t got that much to be angry about.’ He knew it. He just had to get over it and get some perspective. And he was,” Mike Gilliam said.

“You’ve got lots of guys out there who lost both their arms and one leg and they just lay in their bed twitching. Or they get their brain rattled and they don’t think straight anymore. They lose their jaw.

“Good grief, he came out pretty good. The politicians, they loved to pose with him. He was a photogenic case,” he said. A handsome young man with dark almond eyes and a mischievous grin whose bedside visitors included the president and the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Gilliam got over his “attitude problem,” his father said, and tried to recover as quickly as possible. Soon he was zipping around corners of the VA Palo Alto on one wheel of his chair, a move immortalized as a “Farrell turn” at the hospital where Gilliam’s portrait still hangs.

“Every time I saw him, he was in good spirits,” said Finney the former squad leader. Even while coming out of physical therapy, which can be tiring and painful. “He always acted like he was going to beat it.”

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam is reunited with his unit for the first time in May 2011 at Camp Pendleton, at a memorial ceremony for 25 killed in action serving in Sangin, Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Courtesy photo

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam is reunited with his unit for the first time in May 2011 at Camp Pendleton, at a memorial ceremony for 25 killed in action serving in Sangin, Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Courtesy photo

 

TEXAS

In October 2011, Gilliam transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, home to one of the nation’s top rehabilitation programs for the more than 1,500 Iraq or Afghanistan war veterans with an amputated limb.

He would be far from family in California, but they thought the Center for the Intrepid — with its surf tank and other amenities — offered him the best long-term chance of recovery.

Gilliam moved into the wounded warrior barracks at Fort Sam Houston, among its detachment of about two dozen Marines and equal number of staff members.

On Jan. 5, 2012, he celebrated the first anniversary of his “Alive Day,” when Marine amputees mark the moment they cheated death in combat, and toast those who weren’t so lucky. Gilliam wrote on his Facebook page: “One year ago today I got blown the f* up, but I’m here on the river walk in San Antonio getting hammered with my buddies.

“SUCK IT TALIBAN, YOU LOSE,” he wrote.

More than 500 people hit “like” on the post. After a long string of supportive comments, including jabs at Taliban living in caves, Gilliam wrote: “this just made my day.”

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam with his grandmother, Theresa Stavens, brother Daniel Lorente, and mother Lisa Gilliam in Bethesda, Maryland March 2011 on Gilliams first outing from the hospital. Courtesy photo

Cpl. Farrell Gilliam with his grandmother, Theresa Stavens, brother Daniel Lorente, and mother Lisa Gilliam in Bethesda, Maryland March 2011 on Gilliams first outing from the hospital. Courtesy photo

During visits home last year for the holidays, he seemed to be thriving. Independent again, full of life and plans for the future. And more outgoing than before he was wounded.

Gilliam had reconciled himself to a wheelchair because his missing abdominal muscles made it difficult to use prosthetic legs. But he didn’t let that confine him.

He bought a big truck with hand controls and drove it to New Mexico to see a friend. Cruising with his sisters, he would dance in the driver’s seat to anything from Angels & Airwaves rock to classical music.

Gilliam ate only organic food, worked out diligently and adopted the Paleo Diet. On Thanksgiving, he propped his cookbook on the counter and mixed up pumpkin muffins with almond flour.

“I was in awe,” his brother Lorente said. “Whatever they are doing in San Antonio has changed my brother into this young man who was going to be able to take over the world if he wanted to.”

There was a nice young lady in the picture. A part-time job waiting for him and studies toward an English major at Arizona State University, for which he had already started online classes.

Gilliam loved reading — especially Kipling, Wordsworth and Emerson — a pastime he shared with his good friend James McCain. The two were going to be roommates after Gilliam left the Corps.

Gilliam had served with the U.S. senator’s son, a 25-year-old Marine veteran, before deploying to Afghanistan. When they reconnected after Gilliam was wounded, McCain was impressed to find “practically the only other person on the planet” who knew about the philosophy of naturalism.

He was “a really deep young guy I really enjoyed talking to,” McCain said. They spoke almost every day.

“The sweetest guy I ever met really. There wasn’t an angry bone in his body. When I would get pissed off, I would end up calling him. ‘Jim, we’ll be alright,’ he would say. That taught me a lot about life,” McCain said.

Gilliam never mentioned wanting to kill himself, not even in jest, McCain said. But he remembers the one time his friend revealed the burden of his wounds.

They were drinking beers one afternoon about six months ago. Gilliam was on the couch when McCain got in his chair to wheel over some refills. “Man, this is the best beer-getting chair!” McCain joked.

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome when you don’t have to be stuck in it the rest of your life,” Gilliam said.

McCain and Gilliam celebrated New Year’s with friends in Arizona. After exchanging a pile of books, Gilliam left on Jan. 3 for Texas. “‘Alright man, see you soon,’ he said. And that was it,” McCain said.

“He seemed fine. His normal self.”

TRIGGER

Gilliam told his sister Sarah that he had a great time in Arizona and didn’t want to return to San Antonio. “He didn’t want to sit in his room and wonder when he would see everybody again. It just went downhill from there,” she said.

He sat alone in the barracks drinking a bottle of Scotch, ignoring his sister’s protests.

“It was an overwhelming sense of isolation, from everybody and everything,” Sarah said.

A couple days later, on Jan. 5, on what he now called his “Survival Day,” Gilliam wrote a long post on Facebook. He ruminated over each moment of the IED attack and thanked everyone by name who helped him.

“Three years ago today I won (or lost) a game of hide and seek with an IED in Afghanistan,” he wrote.

“Doc Brown, Doc Gojar, Gutierrez, Griff, and Finney, and countless other surgeons, doctors, nurses and corpsmen helped keep my name off the KIA list.

“Every morning I wake up and realize that I am actually alive, I think about all of you,” he said.

He mentioned his hope that stem cell technology could give him a new pair of legs, then wrote: “I love you guys. I think about you every day and will continue to do so until I can no longer think due to Alzheimer’s, dementia, or death. Thank you.”

On Jan. 9, three years to the day after he returned to the United States from Afghanistan, Gilliam sent a mass text to his closest relatives and friends.

“I love you. Far more than you know,” it said.

Responses filled all of their phone screens: I love you too, brother; Love ya, Gilly …

Sarah was worried. “How ya doing by the way?” she texted.

No response.

“Seriously though are you ok?”

No response.

“IF YOU REALLY LOVED ME YOU WOULDN’T MAKE ME WORRY.”

An hour after that, a barracks resident heard the gunshot.

The family of Camp Pendleton Marine Cpl. Farrell Gilliam, from left, sister Erin Gilliam, brother Daniel Lorente, mother Lisa Gilliam, and sister Sarah Gilliam, at Seaport Village in San Diego on Saturday. Cpl. Gilliam, who was terribly wounded in Afghanistan, recently took his own life. Marines and relatives don't consider it suicide and is petitioning to have his name on a stone memorial with the other 25 members of the battalion killed in action. Hayne Palmour IV

The family of Camp Pendleton Marine Cpl. Farrell Gilliam, from left, sister Erin Gilliam, brother Daniel Lorente, mother Lisa Gilliam, and sister Sarah Gilliam, at Seaport Village in San Diego on Saturday. Cpl. Gilliam, who was terribly wounded in Afghanistan, recently took his own life. Marines and relatives don’t consider it suicide and is petitioning to have his name on a stone memorial with the other 25 members of the battalion killed in action. Hayne Palmour IV

AFTERMATH

Lisa Gilliam saw two Marines at her door and thought they were gathering donations.

They said her son had passed, but she couldn’t believe it. She screamed: “How do you know? How do you know!”

Gilliam didn’t appear to suffer from depression, PTSD or suicidal tendencies. He quit all medications several months earlier, as far as his family knew.

“The universal reaction was, ‘Where did this come from?’” his father said. “No one was under the impression that he was going through any kind of battle in this regard.”

To this day, he can’t accept it. Maybe a brain lesion or seizure was to blame, he wonders, though naval investigators ruled the shooting a suicide.

Lisa Gilliam was disturbed to learn that her son hadn’t received psychological treatment for two years.

He didn’t seem to need it, she agreed. As in the civilian world, the military can’t force personnel into psychological care unless they appear in danger of hurting someone, she was told.

“He put on a great face in the day. But I think nights, alone in the barracks there at San Antonio, were probably hell for him. The Marine Corps and the military in general, they need to look at these different stages. They can’t say just because they aren’t showing signs, that there’s nothing going on upstairs,” she said.

When the troops return home, “the war is not over for them. It rages for them in their heads and their hearts. Farrell’s physical was the least of his problems, apparently. We didn’t think so, but look at where we are at now.

“That’s what PTSD is. It’s like a tumor that you can’t see. If it’s not treated, it’s going to kill you.”

As a family, they have so many questions about Gilliam and other combat veterans.

Why bother to heal their bodies if you can’t heal their minds? Why do wounded Marines have single rooms instead of being forced to buddy up? Why couldn’t Gilliam live with a Jack Russell therapy dog like he wanted? Why is it so easy to sneak a gun into the barracks?

And the most important question of all. The one they know can never be answered: Why did he leave them?

As the Corps grapples with fallout from 13 years of combat, it encourages Marines to look out for each other and for signs of distress. Many are reluctant to ask for help because of the stigma against psychological care, a fear of appearing weak and mistrust of medical providers who haven’t seen combat.

“We are a stubborn breed,” said Capt. Ryan Powell, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment.

PETITION

After Gilliam died, Marines who served with him in Sangin started talking about the battalion’s 26th KIA.

Mark Soto, the father of a “Darkhorse” Marine who struggled with suicidal impulses but got help, started a petition. It asks the Corps and Defense Department to add Gilliam’s name to the memorial stone at Camp Pendleton for the 5th Marine Regiment war dead.

It quickly gained more than 1,000 supporters.

Jim Binion, whose stepson Sgt. Matthew Abbate was killed in Sangin, encouraged readers of his “Hella Sick Clothing” blog on Facebook to sign the petition.

When some objected to Gilliam being counted among the KIA, Binion replied: “Farrell woke up to pain every day, and PTSD like you can only think of in nightmares, and one night the demons got him.

“If you have a problem with us pushing for Farrell, feel free to leave the page. But I know what Matt expected from me. He would not leave a brother behind.”

Finney, the former squad leader, said Gilliam deserves respect for being one of the few Americans who volunteered to be a Marine grunt. On top of that, “he goes to a combat zone and receives a Purple Heart. It makes him 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent.”

Then he quoted from Henry V. The same words Gilliam used on Memorial Day 2012 when he beseeched the public to “remember our fallen, so they will not die.”

“Our 25, the giants of our generation, who fell in battle against the mighty Taliban, in the far off lands of a place called Afghanistan. A place the rest of us will never leave.”

Then from Shakespeare: “He which hath no stomach to this fight let him depart. But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers! For he today that sheds his blood with me shall always be my brother.”

McCain said he doesn’t understand why one of the strongest people he ever met wanted to end his own life. “We never will,” he said. “He’s just gone and I will always love him.”

Lisa Gilliam is proud of her son, but angry too. “He overcame so much. He was wounded to a horrible degree and yet he, he got through it. He did everything they asked him to do.”

So many surgeries, they stopped counting. All of his physical therapy. Learning to respond gracefully when children pointed and stared.

To kill himself, “sorry for my French, but it’s a big f* you to everybody, to everybody that had a part in his care and helping him come so far,” his mother said.

The family is strong and will persevere, but “it’s devastating,” his brother Lorente said, starting to weep. “It was such a battle on the homefront. It was a battle for us as a family for so long. I hate to see my Mom have to suffer, and my sisters …”

Sarah is angry too, they all are. “But maybe that’s the whole problem — he fought for so long and he just couldn’t anymore,” she said. “It’s easy to think you did this to me. But it wasn’t about any of us. It was about what he was going through.”

Then there’s the guilt. “We wish we could take the pain away. We wish we could have done more,” said his sister Erin, 20.

 

While in treatment during the summer of 2011 at the VA Palo Alto Polytrauma Center, Cpl. Farrell Gilliam stayed up all night building a Lego toy that he donated to a childrens program. Courtesy photo

While in treatment during the summer of 2011 at the VA Palo Alto Polytrauma Center, Cpl. Farrell Gilliam stayed up all night building a Lego toy that he donated to a childrens program. Courtesy photo

Now they mourn him, each in his own way.

Gilliam had a generous and gentle heart, his relatives said. When Sarah needed a kidney transplant in December, he argued with his mother that he should be the one to donate since he was younger.

When Erin admired a $1,500 special edition set of Harry Potter books, he gave them to her at Christmas. “He was very insightful. He took the time to know people,” Erin said.

Gilliam’s father had returned to work immediately after Gilliam was wounded. He didn’t know what else to do. No one knew what to say to him then, and they know even less now.

“You see your son in a box, you find out what you believe,” Mike Gilliam said. For him, it’s the resurrection. “I anticipate seeing him again. … He got a head start on the rest of us. But we will see him.”

What to feel is more difficult.

“Everybody around me is screaming their heads off. I’ve got nothing. I’m just kind of dealing with the situation. I am kind of waiting until the lights are out and everybody is tucked into bed and there is nobody around.

“A parenting thing you know, you deal with the problems after nobody else is around,” he said.

A son dies young, before his father — Mike Gilliam expects he will be dealing with it for years.

“What he was going to be. I miss that” most of all, he said. “What he was gonna be …”

FINAL REST

Strangers and friends. Medical staff from both coasts. Marines who fought with him in Afghanistan. Hundreds and hundreds across the country paid their respects after Gilliam died.

“They came from all over,” his brother Lorente said. “It was really moving how many people’s lives he touched. It was absolutely humbling.”

It started in San Antonio at the airport.

“We have the privilege and the honor today to be escorting a fallen warrior home to his final resting place,” the announcer said. Everyone in the terminal froze and fell silent.

Gilliam was loaded into the cargo hold of the plane under the scrutiny of his staff sergeant. The Marine escorted his body, standing vigil beside him every moment, until he was buried.

When the plane landed in San Jose, firefighters shot two arcs of water over the aircraft in salute. Police stopped Friday afternoon traffic to make way for the hearse and more than 100 Patriot Guard motorcycle riders.

On the drive to Fresno, every overpass was crowded with people. Firefighters standing at attention atop their trucks. A Marine honor guard. Sheriff’s deputies. Forestry workers.

Finney, Gilliam’s former squad leader, was among the Marine pallbearers who carried his coffin draped in red, white and blue.

After a volley of rifle fire in salute and the playing of taps, the Gilliams released a flock of white doves at Beth Israel Cemetery in Fresno, where he was buried Jan. 21 with full military honors.

Gilliam’s sisters tattooed his final text message prominently on their bodies. When she feels sad, Erin Gilliam rubs the flesh of her inner bicep where her brother’s words are inked. Sarah Gilliam has the words on her wrist.

“If anything good comes out of this,” Sarah said, “I just want it to be that somebody gets help that nobody thought they needed.”

Farrell Gilliam in 2008, on a sea tour with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

Farrell Gilliam in 2008, on a sea tour with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

gretel.kovach@utsandiego.com; (619) 293-1293; Twitter @gckovach; Facebook: U-T Military

 

 

 

 

 

Iraq war vet introduces military suicide bill

By Ashley Fantz, CNN

The first Iraq war combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate introduced legislation on Thursday aimed at reducing the number of military veterans who commit suicide. No matter the cost of the measures urged in the sweeping bill, “that is the cost of war,” Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana told CNN.

Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide.

To Walsh, that is more than a number. From 2004 to 2005, he commanded an infantry battalion of the Montana National Guard in Iraq. When the unit returned home, one of Walsh’s soldiers committed suicide.

When Walsh became adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, a few more guardsmen died by suicide.

“Far too often, we’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone,” Walsh said. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives. It is our duty to come together for real solutions for our heroes,” Walsh told CNN on Thursday.

The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act is collaboration between Walsh and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Founded in 2004, IAVA is the first and largest organization for new veterans and their families, with 270,000 members nationwide.

The next step for Walsh is to get a co-sponsor for the bill. He said he’s already received bipartisan support behind the scenes.

The veterans organization is working on getting a similar bill in the House, said IAVA political director Kate O’Gorman.

What’s in the bill?

Among the bill’s key objectives is to give veterans more time to receive mental health treatment.

Currently, when a service member separates from active duty — whether they are transitioning to being a veteran or becoming a Reservist or a member of the National Guard — they have five years to receive care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, O’Gorman said. Sometimes it can take longer than five years for service members and veterans to realize they’re experiencing the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress and other mental injuries.

About 25% of IAVA’s members, O’Gorman said, have experienced a delayed onset of PTSD after getting out of the service.

Many times, five years is just not long enough for veterans who are dealing with the stigma of mental health issues. It can take many years to emotionally come to grips with the diagnosis alone, and then it takes time to find and receive the right care.

To address that, Walsh’s bill would extend the time to receive mental health treatment from five years to 15 years.

The legislation also seeks to improve the quality of mental health care providers by making their jobs more competitive with the private sector, O’Gorman said. Right now there are more than 1,000 open jobs at the VA for mental health care jobs, including psychiatric nurses, physician assistants and psychiatrists, among others, she said.

The bill will introduce a pilot initiative that would allow a student to have their loans repaid if they work for the VA, O’Gorman said.
It also calls for annual reviews of care programs within the Defense Department and the VA to ensure resources are being used effectively to help service members and vets struggling with mental health issues.

Further, the legislation points out that the VA and the Defense Department use two different computer systems and mandates that those systems be amended so that they speak to each other more seamlessly.

The legislation would also try to streamline the way the Pentagon and the VA prescribe medication. Currently, they use different drug prescription protocols, Walsh and military experts told CNN, and that can create a difficult situation.

For example, a service member overcomes the hurdle of admitting they need care, seeks help from a DOD doctor and, after several tries, gets on a drug that works for him or her.

When that warrior become a veteran, they go to a VA doctor only to be told that the drug the DOD doctor gave them is not available under VA protocols.

The bill was introduced the same week that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America held its annual Storm the Hill initiative. Teams comprised of four veterans whoses live have been rocked by a fellow warrior’s suicide met with lawmakers in Washington. The veterans shared their stories, and implored those in power to do something substantial to address the problem.

Dollar costs and mental costs

It’s unclear how much it would cost to do everything the bill lays out, according to Andrea Helling, Walsh’s spokeswoman. Walsh is waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to provide a figure, she said.

But the senator stressed that it will cost far more in years to come if changes are not made soon to improve mental health care.

The legislation comes at a time of fierce belt tightening in the armed forces. In February, the Pentagon said it would reduce the size of the Army to pre-Word War II numbers, retire the a popular A-10 “Warhog” attack jet and reduce some benefits for warriors.

“This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in February.

“There are difficult decisions ahead,” he said. “That is the reality we’re living with.”

Downsizing due to modernization and budget constraints began under Hagel’s predecessor, Robert Gates.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are the longest continuous battles the United States has fought.

The Iraq war lasted from 2003 to 2010 and Afghanistan has been raging since soon after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. President Barack Obama has said that the United States could withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

More than 2 million Americans have served in combat in those two wars. Researchers estimate that as many as 300,000 service members may meet criteria for PTSD and between 200,000 and 300,000 have suffered a traumatic brain injury from mild to severe, according to Dr. Stephen Cozza with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress.

The nonprofit think-tank RAND Corporation estimates a third of veterans likely have TBI, PTSD or depression, which puts the overall number affected at around 600,000.
A large body of research indicates PTSD is associated with increased likelihood of suicidal behavior.

Beyond the bill

A large body of research indicates PTSD is associated with increased likelihood of suicidal behavior.

Walsh was sworn into the U.S. Senate in January after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock named Walsh, his lieutenant governor, to serve the remainder of Sen. Max Baucus’ term after he became U.S. ambassador to China. Walsh is running for election in November.

Walsh’s legislation, IAVA’s O’Gorman told CNN, has bipartisan support. And the goal is to get it passed by Memorial Day, far before an election is a concern.

Walsh said lawmakers must also address suicides amongst military family members, too.

The Pentagon is currently not tracking the number of suicides among relatives. CNN recently explored the topic and spoke to dozens of relatives who said they had contemplated or attempted killing themselves.

Warrior suicides and military family member suicides are “connected,” Walsh said.

Speaking about a warrior under his command who had been deployed three times whose wife was left to care for triplets, Walsh said he understood that families have been under extreme stress for years.

The relatives have made “enormous sacrifices,” he said.

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/27/politics/military-suicide-legislation/index.html?c=&page=>

Ending it all by their own hand: Corps probes Marine suicides

Sgt. Martin Scahill and his wife Genevieve Scahill are pictured in this family photograph. (Courtesy of Genevieve Scahill)

Sgt. Martin Scahill and his wife Genevieve Scahill are pictured in this family photograph. (Courtesy of Genevieve Scahill)

By: Brett Kelman and Drew Schmenner
The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun

As the sun rose over the sleepy desert town of Yucca Valley, Sgt. Martin Francis Scahill stood in his backyard, a black 12-gauge shotgun pressed against his chin, a single shell in the chamber.

After contemplating suicide for months, Scahill pulled the trigger. His body fell backwards onto the ground, the shotgun landing between his legs.

It was 6:30 a.m., April 5, 2010, the day after Easter Sunday. Blood seeped into the sand.

Forty-five minutes later, two deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department rang the doorbell at the Scahill home, waking his wife, who was asleep on the couch. Together, they found the body in the backyard. Scahill’s belongings were scattered around his bedroom.

A laptop was left open, lingering on an image of his infant daughter, Emma. A gun box was open with a revolver inside, unloaded. A box of shotgun shells sat on a nightstand, one shell missing. A notepad rested on the bed, covered with messages his wife scribbled during an argument the night before.

“I loved you.”

“I want to separate.”

Scahill, 25, was a man desperate for help he could not find. Alcohol abuse had strained his marriage and threatened his job, but he continued to drink, bragging about downing 18 beers or a half-gallon of whiskey every night. Scahill’s family had a history of suicide, but when he threatened to take his own life he was never taken seriously.

Five weeks after Scahill shot himself, a military investigation of his suicide would contradict itself, reporting that the Marine’s death was both unsurprising and yet impossible to foresee.

The investigation report, which was partially redacted by the military, said Scahill did not demonstrate any suicidal warning signs before his death, and that any indications of his intentions were either “too subtle” or “masked by his morose sense of humor.”

However, the same report said that Scahill’s suicide did not come as a shock to his immediate family. To them, suicide was “not a matter of if, but when,” the report said.

Scahill is one of at least 16 service members — 15 Marines, and one sailor — who committed suicide from 2007 to 2012 while at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. That tally does not include one Marine from the Combat Center who killed himself while deployed to Iraq in 2008.

The military has not yet released base-specific suicide data from 2013. A Combat Center spokesman said he could not confirm how many Marines had killed themselves at the base last year because he could not speak for the multiple battalions that operate at the base.

Even with incomplete statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Marines in this desert, with a death toll surpassed only by vehicle deaths, according to a yearlong investigation by The Desert Sun. The dual crises of crashes and suicide are compounded by alcohol abuse, and together, speed, depression and booze make the peaceful deserts of Southern California as dangerous as a war zone.

Since 2007, there have been 60 combat deaths of Twentynine Palms service members. During the same time period, at least 64 Marines and sailors have died non-hostile deaths while either stationed or training at the Twentynine Palms base.

The Desert Sun investigation found that, although Marines at Twentynine Palms are no more likely to take their own lives than Marines at other bases, they are twice as likely to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of their suicide. About half of the Marines who killed themselves while at the Twentynine Palms Combat Center had used alcohol, according to a review of reports from police, coroners and the military. Throughout the entire Marine Corps, only about one-quarter of suicides are confirmed to be alcohol-related.

From 2007 to 2012, both the Twentynine Palms Combat Center and the Marine Corps as a whole averaged an annual suicide rate of 19 deaths per 100,000 troops. According to the American Association of Suicidology, the overall U.S. suicide rate is about 12 deaths per 100,000 people. This rate doesn’t statistically compare to the Marine Corps because 95 percent of Marines are men, who are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. The Marine Corps argues that if the civilian suicide rate is adjusted for Marine demographics, it would equal 22 deaths per 100,000.

Pvt. Kythe Yund is pictured with his wife, Stephanie, in this family photo. (Courtesy of Karin Varner)

Pvt. Kythe Yund is pictured with his wife, Stephanie, in this family photo. (Courtesy of Karin Varner)

A growing crisis

The military first recognized its suicide crisis in the mid- to late 1990s, when each military branch launched its own prevention programs. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Defense created the Suicide Prevention and Risk Reduction Committee, which formalized how suicides and suicide attempts were reported.

Despite the creation of prevention programs, the rate of military suicide rose over the next decade, climbing from 10.3 suicides per 100,000 military members in 2001 to 18.03 suicides per 100,000 military members in 2011.

In 2010, suicide supplanted transportation accidents as the leading cause of non-combat death in the military, according to a 2012 Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center report.

In 2012, military suicides reached a record 351, surpassing the number of troops who died in Afghanistan that year. Forty-eight of those deaths were Marines.

Another 45 Marines killed themselves in 2013.

Both former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have said that military suicides are among the most frustrating problems they’ve encountered. Panetta said in 2012 that military suicides were on the rise “despite increased efforts and attention” from both the defense department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Last year, Hagel stressed that suicide prevention programs are so critical that they should be immune to wide-sweeping military budget cuts.

The Marine Corps operates a host of initiatives as part of its suicide prevention program, and base services include counselors, medical personnel and a 24-hour suicide helpline. In 2009, the Marines started annual suicide prevention training for non-commissioned officers, called “Never Leave a Marine Behind.” In 2011, the training expanded to include all Marines. In 2012, a new order required every battalion and squadron to appoint a suicide prevention officer.

But the existing efforts aren’t enough, according to the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Task Force, a group of experts that spent two years studying suicide in the military. In 2010, a task force report found suicide prevention efforts were hampered by a troubling lack of communication on military bases. Commanders, clinicians and counselors weren’t talking about Marines who were at risk of suicide, and when they did talk, their conversations were stymied by medical privacy laws, which were often “misunderstood and over-interpreted,” the report said.

A year after the task force report was released, the Marine Corps launched its Force Preservation Council program on every base, encouraging battalion leaders and social support officials to share information about Marines who may be suicidal. In Twentynine Palms, the councils meet monthly.

“If there are Marines who are facing challenges in their lives, there are people that may have pockets of information,” said Lt. Col. Michael A. Bowers, commanding officer of the base’s headquarters battalion. “We want to make sure that everyone does have that information … and there are no gaps in what we know.”

One year after the council formed, the Marine Corps expanded its reach, launching a mandatory mentoring program at all bases, including in Twentynine Palms. Under this program, each Marine is required to meet monthly with a mentor — like a platoon commander or sergeant — to discuss life in the Marine Corps. Mentors use these meetings to look for six signs of trouble: disciplinary problems, relationship turmoil, substance abuse, money problems, mental health and social withdrawal.

If a mentor decides that one of his Marines is struggling, he can send the case up the chain of command, where battalion commanders use the council to connect with support services. Bowers believes the program is effective if Marines know the aim of the council and mentors is preventive, not punitive.

“They know they’re not going to the principal’s office to get scolded,” he said. “They actually know there are a lot of professional people caring about them and trying to get them back on track.”

The Marine Corps launched an in-depth study of suicide victims after the task force in 2010 said the military makes an admirable effort to record deaths, but not enough to understand suicide. Currently, suicide data is compiled into the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER), but the report offers only a superficial understanding of the suicide crisis.

“It’s inadequate on a whole bunch of levels,” said Dr. Alan Berman, a member of the suicide prevention task force. “Most profoundly, methodologically, (the DoDSER) relies on a single interview, oftentimes with somebody who didn’t observe the decedent in the days prior to death.”

Berman is executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, the organization hired to examine how Marines who committed suicide acted during their final days and weeks. They hope to discover a common “trajectory toward death” and early warning signs that could save others, Berman said.

The organization has begun psychological autopsies of Marines who died of suicide from 2010 to 2012. The results of the study should be out in May or June, Berman said.

Tragic end to the spiral

One of the Marines in the study is Pvt. Kythe K. Yund, a Twentynine Palms Marine who shot himself in Joshua Tree on June 17, 2011, the day before his 22nd birthday. Researchers from the American Association of Suicidology interviewed Yund’s mother, Karin Varner, for 90 minutes, starting the examination with Yund’s childhood.

“If it helps save another parent from losing their child,” Varner said, “I will do whatever it takes to even just help one family not have to go through it.”

Yund was a quiet child whose parents divorced when he was 3. There was a history of suicide on his father’s side of the family, and when Yund was in high school, he attempted to kill himself by overdosing on painkillers at his father’s home in Washington, his mother said.

This suicide attempt should have disqualified Yund from military enlistment, so it is unclear how he managed to join the Marines. A recent Harvard University study suggests that recruitment screening is far from perfect. About half of Army soldiers who attempt suicide while in the service admit to prior attempts before they enlisted, the study said.

Yund enlisted in the Marines Corps in November 2007, then was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Twentynine Palms as a rifleman. While deployed to Iraq in 2009, Yund witnessed one of his friends die from a gunshot to the head. He returned home early from Iraq because his wife, Stephanie, almost died after giving birth to their daughter, Kyndel.

Stephanie lapsed into a coma and suffered short-term memory loss after gaining consciousness.

Back home, Yund drank heavily and abused drugs. He was punished for using cocaine, demoted from lance corporal to private. Unnerved by Yund’s behavior, his wife returned to her home in Illinois with Kyndel. The couple eventually started divorce proceedings.

On the day Yund killed himself, he was scheduled to meet with his superiors about another disciplinary matter, which could have led to another demotion. Varner believes the shame of another punishment, and the embarrassment it may have caused his wife and daughter, triggered her son’s suicide.

On a Friday about 5:42 a.m., Yund shot himself with a 12-gauge shotgun in his bedroom.

His roommates told police that Yund had spent the night before at home, drinking a little, but did not seem upset. At the time of his death, Yund’s blood-alcohol content was .03.

Varner spoke to her son for the last time five days beforehand. He called her on the phone, sounding more relaxed and hopeful. He was leaving the Marine Corps in about a month, and was anxious to move to Illinois to try to reconcile with his wife.

Yund also asked his mother to research counseling options in Illinois. He wanted help, but had avoided counseling in the Marine Corps after his fellow Marines mocked him.

“Some of the other mothers I’ve talked to have gone through the same thing with their child,” Varner said. “They would go ask for help through the Army, Marine Corps, whatever, and their child would be ostracized later because of it, so that’s why a lot of them didn’t go seek help.”

This refrain is common for family members of suicide victims, said Kim Ruocco, manager of suicide outreach for the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors (TAPS), a Virginia group that helps the family members of deceased military members.

If the military truly wants to combat suicide within its ranks, it must destigmatize counseling and prioritize the importance of mental health, Ruocco said.

“If you were sprayed by poisonous gas, you wouldn’t expect to just suck it up,” Ruocco said. “If you broke your leg … you wouldn’t expect to just keep going until it was infected. You’d get immediate, comprehensive care and get back on the battlefield. That’s the way we’ve got to start thinking about behavioral health.”

Ruocco said it is especially hard to reach out to Marines, a proud group tied close to the rough and tough identity of the Marine Corps. She speaks from experience — her husband, Maj. John Ruocco, an accomplished Marine helicopter pilot, killed himself in 2005.

John Ruocco had battled depression since the mid-1990s, when two helicopters collided during a training exercise, killing several of his friends. A memorial service was held for the fallen men, but within Ruocco’s squadron, discussion of the crash was taboo. He suffered in silence for a decade, eventually hanging himself in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in San Diego County.

“When it happened to me, when my husband died by suicide, I remember saying: ‘I didn’t even see it coming,’ ” Ruocco said. “But then as I got over the shock and the grief, and I looked back, I thought ‘Wow there were many times within his life span and his career where he had trauma or loss. … We should have gotten help way back when. I think pretty much every survivor I’ve talked to says that.”

A rattled mind

After five months together, Cpl. Richard McShan and his girlfriend were struggling with trust. It was the evening of March 29, 2009, and they had each had a few drinks at a bowling alley in Twentynine Palms. Sometime after midnight, when they returned to her apartment on Bagley Street, she caught him snooping through her text messages.

McShan apologized, but she demanded he leave. The Marine went outside to load his clothes into his car, prepared to leave, at least for the night.

“You can’t forgive me, can you?” McShan asked.

“Not right now,” his girlfriend said.

Furious, she stormed back inside, leaving the Marine alone in the driveway, standing between their cars.

Seconds later, she heard the gunshots.

McShan had pressed a 40-caliber handgun against the right-rear of his skull, squeezing the trigger twice. He fell backwards, somehow still alive, the gun clattering onto the ground near his feet.

An ambulance rushed McShan to the Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree, where he was hooked to a ventilator. Two hours later, as the sun rose, a helicopter flew the comatose Marine to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. Doctors there said McShan had no hope of recovery.

Two days later, at the request of his family, medical staff turned off McShan’s ventilator, letting him slip away. He was pronounced dead at 2 a.m. on April 1, 2009.

McShan, 23, the son of a 20-year Army veteran, was born in Germany but grew up in Colorado Springs, playing trumpet and football at his high school. He joined the Marine Corps shortly after graduation, Sept. 11, 2005. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, deploying once each to Iraq and Afghanistan.

McShan came back from those deployments haunted by nightmares, his girlfriend told authorities. She also said that McShan had told her he had attempted to shoot himself once before, but was saved when the gun misfired.

But to Paul McShan, the father of yet another dead Marine, this suicide didn’t compute. His son Ricky had been a happy young man, brimming with competitive spirit, who loved being a Marine.

There had to be more to this story, the grieving father thought.

“I started digging and digging and digging, trying to find out why,” Paul McShan said. “We discovered that he had at least four concussions and one where he was blown out the top of a Humvee. His shoulder was dislocated and he was knocked out for three or four minutes. So my conclusion after all that digging was that his brain short-circuited.”

This theory is backed up by a growing body of evidence. In recent years, scientists have discovered a strong link between concussions and suicide, a possible explanation for the disconcertingly high suicide rate in the military.

In 2013, a study released by the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah said that military personnel were significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts if they had suffered at least one traumatic brain injury. The study surveyed 161 service members, many of whom had been injured in Iraq.

Of the service members who had not suffered brain injuries, zero percent reported suicidal thoughts, the study said. Of those who suffered one, 7 percent reported suicidal thoughts. Of those who suffered more than one brain injury, 22 percent reported suicidal thoughts.

“Up to now, no one has been able to say if multiple (traumatic brain injuries), which are common among combat veterans, are associated with higher suicide risk or not,” said Craig J. Bryan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah, who led the study. “This study suggests they are …”

Researchers believe that concussions and brain injury increase the likelihood of suicide through a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or “CTE.” Symptoms of CTE include irritability, memory loss, dementia and suicidal tendencies.

In 2012, a study from the Boston University found evidence of CTE in the brains of four military veterans, each with a history of traumatic brain disorder. Three of the veterans had been exposed to explosions during deployment. The fourth, a 28-year-old with post traumatic stress disorder, had suffered four concussions caused by a bicycle accident, a football collision, a military incident and a vehicle accident. Two years after his last concussion, the veteran committed suicide by shooting himself.

According to the study, the veterans’ brains were indistinguishable from those of many professional football players, a group that has been studied more extensively, showing a strong link between head injuries, CTE and suicide. The Boston researchers have found CTE in the brains of dozens of football players, both at the college and professional levels, including some that have killed themselves.

Brain injuries also double the odds that military service members will develop post traumatic stress disorder, which further increases the risk of suicide. A new study, published in December, examined 1,648 Marines and sailors that had recently returned from deployment. About half of them were stationed in Twentynine Palms, said Dr. Dewleen Baker, a psychiatrist at a Veterans Affairs center in San Diego who co-authored the study.

Baker said the study has established a strong link between brain injuries and PTSD, but researchers still don’t understand how one causes the other. It is possible that both brain injuries and PTSD spring from similar traumatic events, like bomb blasts, but also possible that concussive injuries make it more difficult for the brain to recover from emotional hardship, Baker said.

Either way, links to PTSD and CTE have uncovered the true long-term danger of brain injuries, a field of study that was once ignored. High-tech imaging can be used to visualize brain injuries better than ever before, and with the right tools, researchers can even “see” PTSD, a once-hidden condition now revealed as over-activity of the amygdala, a portion of the brain that deals with excitement and fear.

Today, brain injuries stand on a precipice where other conditions have stood before, ready and waiting to be better understood, Baker said.

“My analogy is that in the ’40s and ’50s, we didn’t really understand heart attacks,” Baker said. “Nobody understood the details, and so there was a lot of treatment that didn’t happen when someone had a heart attack. They would put people in a room and have them rest and hope they got better. But when we began to research and image the heart, and find ways to test the heart, we found many ways to fix and prevent the damage. And now we are in the early stage of this kind of understanding in regard to head injuries.”

Alcohol abuse in the ranks

Of the 15 Marines who killed themselves while at Twentynine Palms from 2007 to 2012, seven, or 46 percent, had alcohol in their system. That’s nearly double the percentage reported throughout the Marine Corps, according to a four-year average compiled from DoDSER statistics.

As suicide rates have climbed in the military, so has drinking. From 1998 to 2008, the share of service members who were binge drinkers increased from 35 to 47 percent, and the number of heavy drinkers rose from 15 to 20 percent, according to a 2012 report from the Institute of Medicine, a nongovernmental agency under the National Academy of Sciences. Binge drinking and heavy drinking were more prevalent in the Marine Corps than other military branches.

In December 2012, the Marine Corps launched a random alcohol screening program, becoming the first military branch to do so. The rules were also the strictest: Twice a year, Marines must be given Breathalyzer tests while on duty, and they can be referred to substance abuse counseling at even the slightest hint of alcohol. Commanders can send a Marine to counseling if they have a blood-alcohol content of .01 — which could be triggered by a single beer. If the Marine has a blood alcohol content of .04, their fitness for duty can be challenged.

Since October, more than 1,000 Marines from the Twentynine Palms Combat Center’s headquarters battalion have been screened for alcohol while on duty. Only one was sent to substance abuse counseling after testing positive, said Capt. Justin Smith, a base spokesman. Smith said he could not release results for the other battalions at the base.

If an alcohol screening program like this had existed just two years earlier, it might have saved Sgt. Scahill, the Marine who shot himself in his backyard in Yucca Valley.

At the time of his death, Scahill had a blood alcohol content of .08. It is unclear if he drank that morning or was still drunk from the night before, but neither would have been out of character for Scahill, whose long battle with alcohol predated his job and his marriage.

Back in 2007, after returning from his second deployment to Iraq, Scahill confessed to drinking 18 beers a night during a post-deployment health assessment. Scahill repeated this admission to medical personnel at least four more times over the next year, according to a military investigation.

Although Scahill had reported “excessive drinking,” he was never required to go to substance abuse counseling. Because he had not been involved in an “alcohol-related incident” during his service, he was never obligated to get help for his problem, according to the investigation.

Scahill’s drinking continued after he married his wife in November 2008, immediately after returning from his third deployment to Iraq. In 2009, Scahill joined the tank battalion at Twentynine Palms, where his alcohol abuse was no secret. According to interviews with fellow Marines, included in the military investigation, Scahill would drink excessively during his off-duty hours, drinking exclusively for the purpose of getting blackout drunk. He frequently came to work hung over or smelling of alcohol, and showed up for work drunk at least twice, according to the report. His fellow Marines hid his abuse from his superiors, trying to protect his career while ultimately enabling his addiction.

Scahill’s drinking was a problem at home, too. On the day before his suicide, Scahill got in a drunken argument with his wife, Genevieve, who accused him of texting an ex-girlfriend. By the evening, Scahill was so drunk that his wife refused to allow him to hold their 11-month old daughter. Furious, Genevieve slept on the couch.

Early the following morning, she woke up her husband, sending him to physical training at the Marine base. Before he left, she told him she was tired of his drinking and wanted to go to her mother’s house in Los Angeles. It was an empty threat.

Scahill left for training but returned soon after, insisting that physical training had been canceled. As he walked into their daughter’s room, Genevieve fell back asleep.

The gunshot didn’t wake her.

“I still blame myself a little bit. I wish I had seen the signs,” Genevieve said during an interview with The Desert Sun. “I wish I would have gotten off of that couch and followed him.”

Although Scahill didn’t leave a suicide note, he did send a text message to some of his fellow Marines, perhaps a final cry for help.

“Hey man, I’m not coming to work today,” the text said, according to a military investigation report. “I’m going to blow my f—ing brains out.”

Another Marine, who assumed Scahill was joking, wrote back: “GTG,” military slang for “good to go.”

The message prompted a commanding officer to call police, sending the deputies to Scahill’s door.

Genevieve said her husband’s suicide first came as a shock, but in hindsight, the clues of his looming death were everywhere.

Both Scahill’s father and grandmother had killed themselves. Scahill had once told his wife that his father told him the only good way to commit suicide was to shoot yourself in the head.

One night, when Genevieve was pregnant, a drunken Scahill said he sometimes heard a voice that told him he was no good and that people would be better off without him. He denied it the following morning.

Later, only a few weeks before he died, Scahill showed off two guns to some of his friends. Upset at their rowdy behavior, Genevieve confronted them, telling her husband to put the guns away. He responded by pulling the trigger on an unloaded shotgun, saying, “You don’t care what I do?”

Scahill bought that shotgun — which he would later use to kill himself — about two months before his death. According to the military investigation report, Scahill would joke to his fellow Marines that he might accidentally shoot himself while cleaning the gun.

In January 2010, while attending a suicide prevention course at the Marine base, Scahill protested, insisting that “if someone is going to do it, they’re going to do it.”

Scahill had the numbers “5150″ tattooed on his right forearm — a reference to the section of California law that deals with people with mental health issues who are a threat to themselves or others. Scahill had confirmed the meaning of the tattoo during chats with other Marines.

Finally, the most terrifying clue was also the most cryptic. After Scahill was gone, his wife found one of his books, arrows drawn in the corners of the pages. At first, the scribbling seemed undecipherable. However, when she flipped through the pages with her thumb, she discovered the drawings were a flip book, a rudimentary cartoon where stick figures played out a gruesome suicide scene.

Genevieve had seen this before. It was the same scene she and deputies had found in the backyard.

“The stick figure man was him waving goodbye to everybody. He took a gun, he put it under his chin,” Genevieve said. “The cartoon was everything exactly what I saw. He followed the cartoon.”

http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/article/20140324/NEWS/303240031/Ending-all-by-their-own-hand-Corps-probes-Marine-suicides

$250K awarded to help Alabama Veterans suffering from PTSD

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David Lynch Foundation Announces $250,000 Grant to Teach Transcendental Meditation to Alabama Vets with PTSD.

Birmingham, Alabama, The David Lynch Foundation (DLF) has announced a $250,000 grant to provide Alabama veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Syndrome  (PTSD) an opportunity to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM).

The DLF was established by the film-maker David Lynch in 2005 to fund the implementation of scientifically proven stress-reducing techniques for those in need including, veterans with PTSD and their families;

John Harrod, Executive Director of the Alabama Transcendental Meditation Program and a full-time TM teacher, will host a presentation at the Hoover Library – Main Branch Wednesday evening March 5th at 6:30 P.M. P.M. to introduce the Alabama PTSD project and discuss the tremendous benefits TM brings to veterans with PTSD. Veterans who attend the events will be eligible to learn Transcendental Meditation at no cost.

“”Thousands of veterans with PTSD have already learned TM and it has been transformative” says Harrod.  “The U.S Government now spends between $ 4-6 billion dollars a year trying to help vets, but no treatment has proven widely effective.  Transcendental Meditation is extremely effective, and brings immediate and ongoing relief and benefits.”

A recent study published in the July 2013 issue of Military Magazine found the twice-daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation among vets with PTSD at Fort Gordon, Georgia markedly reduced symptoms of PTSD, some by as much as 50% in the first few weeks.

Last week, the Journal of Traumatic Stress announced the publication of a new scientific study showing that African war refugees who learned Transcendental Meditation experienced an immediate and dramatic reduction in PTS symptoms by as much as 90%.

Significant Reductions in Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Congolese Refugees Within 10 days of Transcendental Meditation Practice

And the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Veterans Administration is currently conducting a $2.4 million research study on TM as a treatment. The results of that research will be announced later this year.

“There are thousands of Alabama veterans who suffer with PTSD”, says Harrod. Meditation has come to the forefront as a something that works..  Vets say they get their lives back.  It’s simple to learn and to practice and all any vet has to do learn is to come to this presentation.

Anyone interested or wanting more information can also contact John Harrod at jharrod@tm.org or by phone at 250-979-7073.

Anyone wanting to learn more about TM and PTSD can go to www.tm.org and www.davidlynchfoundation.org

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Message from Secretary Hagel on Suicide Prevention Month

The Department of Defense has no more important responsibility than supporting and protecting those who defend our country and that means we must do everything possible to prevent military suicide. As we observe Suicide Prevention Month, the entire DoD community – Service members, civilians, members of our families and leaders at every level – must demonstrate our collective resolve to prevent suicide, to promote greater knowledge of its causes and to encourage those in need to seek support. No one who serves this country in uniform should ever feel they have nowhere to turn.

The Department of Defense has invested more than $100 million into research on the diagnosis and treatment of depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse, as well as interventions for relationship, financial and legal issues – all of which can be associated with suicide. We are working to reduce drug and alcohol abuse and we are steadily increasing the number of mental health professionals and peer support counselors. Effective suicide prevention training is critical to all these efforts and we are instructing our leaders on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of crisis and encourage service members to seek support. We are also reaching out to military families and the broader community to enlist their support in this cause.

Seeking behavioral health care is a choice that embodies moral courage, honor and integrity. Those values are at the foundation of what that we stand for and what we defend. The Military Crisis Line is there for all who need it. I encourage anyone in need to call 1-800-273-8255 and press one to speak to a trained professional, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This service is confidential and available to all service members and their families.

Always remember that our most valuable resource is each other. When one of us faces a challenge, we all must stand together. By fighting as one team, we can – and we will – help prevent suicide. Thank you.

The Art of Healing

http://www.tappsartscenter.com/exhibitions/future-exhibitions/

http://www.tappsartscenter.com/exhibitions/future-exhibitions/

The Art Of Healing begins August 1, 2013

“The Art of Healing,” a collaboration with Hidden Wounds, a non-profit aiming to provide peace of mind and comfort for military personnel suffering combat stress injuries and other postwar challenges, is designed to benefit those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries through artistic and creative healing. Jim Dukes, of Cary, N.C. and Tapp’s visiting artist-in-residence for July, August and September, will be the feature artist for the exhibit. While recovering from a traumatic brain injury and working through PTSD, Jim discovered relief in a creative outlet, photography. While an artist-in-residence he will work with and assist local organizations and individuals who utilize art therapy or art healing techniques and help solidify an ongoing art healing program for the Tapp’s Arts Center. Participants are invited to use photography, writing, drawing, painting or mixed media or other art forms aimed at healing. This exhibit is not limited to individuals using art healing to augment their PTSD and/or TBI rehabilitation but also cancer, depression and other life-changing conditions. Selected artwork from the exhibit will be included in a photo book, with the participants’ experiences, as told by area writers. This photo book will be released and sold, at an exhibit closing fundraiser, on August 30th at 7:00pm. Proceeds from admissions and artwork sales will benefit both Hidden Wounds and the Friends of the Tapp’s Arts Center, to advance healing through art. This is a FREE program for participants but space is limited. The first informational meeting will be Wednesday, July 10th at Tapp’s Arts Center at 6:00pm. “We see Tapp’s as a community center and we’re excited about the possibility to serve those individuals who seek and lead recovery through art and share examples of these proven technique with our community,” says Brenda Schwarz, executive director of Tapp’s Arts Center. Recognized Columbia artists, some who also provide healing through art, will share their work in the August “Art of Healing” exhibit at Tapp’s, including Heidi Darr-Hope, Whitney LeJeune, Sandra Carr, Mary How and Lyssa Harvey. The exhibit will open Thursday, August 1st as part of First Thursdays on Main. Those interested in healing through art and participating in the program should contact Steven Diaz at Hidden Wounds at (803)873-6540 or steven@hiddenwounds.org or Jim Dukes at 704.840.9008 or http://www.jjdphoto2art.com. For information on submitting artwork and exhibit details, contact Brenda Schwarz at (803) 988-0013 or by email at Brenda@TappsArtsCenter.com. To learn more about Tapp’s Arts Center and Friends of Tapp’s visit Tapp’s Arts Center online at www.TappsArtsCenter.com or on Facebook.

http://www.tappsartscenter.com/exhibitions/future-exhibitions/

Helping the Hurting: Chronic Illness and Your Mental Health Resource Fair

Helping the Hurting: Chronic Illness and Your Mental Health

 

When
Friday September 13, 2013 from 8:15 AM to 3:00 PM EDT
Add to Calendar

 

 

Where

Midlands Technical College Airport Campus
1260 Lexington Drive
West Columbia, SC 29170
Driving Directions

 

Mental Health America of South Carolina

 Midlands Technical College

 NAMI Mid- Carolina

   American Foundation for Suicide Prevention SC Chapter

 Invites You to Join the 2013 RESOURCE FAIR

 for 

Helping the Hurting: Chronic Illness and Your Mental Health for just $25.00 (includes 1 lunch)

This one-day conference at the Airport Campus of Midlands Technical College will feature speakers from the mental health profession such as Dr. Meera Narasimahn from USC Department of Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Health, and other featured mental health professionals specializing in the management of chronic pain and illness.

Please join us as an exhibitor in the 2013 Helping the Hurting Resource Fair

The cost for an exhibit table is the same as the general registration cost which includes 1 lunch. You can register as an exhibitor on the online registration page by clicking the link below. Please also register other participants and lunch orders.

Please Note *Exhibitor* after your Business Name on the Online Registration Form

Register Now!

 

We hope that your organization will be represented in the 2013 Helping the Hurting Resource Fair.

Please contact Anita Baker at Mental Health America of South Carolina, 1823 Gadsden St., Columbia, SC 29201.

email: atbaker@mha-sc.org phone: 803-779-5363

 

June 27, 2013 National PTSD Awareness Day Rally, S.C. State House 2:20PM

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Ashley Randall

                                                               Public Relations Director

                                                                                                Phone: (803) 873-6540

                                                                                                socialmedia@hiddenwounds.org

 

Hidden Wounds Host National PTSD Awareness Day Rally, S.C. State House

 

COLUMBIA, S.C. – On Thursday, June 27, 2013, Hidden Wounds will host a National PTSD Awareness Day Rally on the State House grounds in Columbia, S.C.  Columbia native’s and founding members Steven Diaz and Anna Bigham of Columbia-based non-profit Hidden Wounds, will lead this Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Rally beginning at 2:20 PM with closing remarks set for 3:30 PM.

 

Speakers include; The Honorable James E. Smith, Jr., Helen Pridgen, Director of SC AFSP, Mr. Bill Lindsey, Director of NAMI SC, Ms. Wendy Graham and Lisa Mustard, Directors for Psychological Health for the SC Army National Guard, Ms. Ashley Lambert-Wise, CEO Battling Bare, Ms. Amy LeClaire, Director of Suicide Prevention Dorn VA, Ms. Trisha Pruitt, Care Giver, and Lt. Dan Hoffman, USMC Ret., Vietnam Veteran.

 

Awareness Booths include; Team River Runner, PAALS, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, Team Red White & Blue, Mental Health America S.C., Veterans Administration, NAMI, Battling Bare, Center for Health Integration, Hidden Wounds, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, Blue Star Mothers of the Midlands, and University of South Carolina Chapter of Student Veterans of America.

 

More than 6,500 American service members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and over 50,000 have been wounded. What those statistics do not take into account are the tens of thousands who suffer from invisible psychological wounds including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression. The Veterans Administration and Department of Defense report 22 military veterans die by suicide each day in the United States, nearly 1 military veteran each hour.

 

Hidden Wounds has provided more than 210,000 counseling hours to military veterans nationwide.

 

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Hidden Wounds is a non-profit 501(c)(3) whose mission is to provide interim and emergency counseling services to ensure the psychological health and well being of military veterans and their families. www.hiddenwounds.org #GetInTheFight

South Carolina Non-profit, Hidden Wounds, Reports Successful First Year

COLUMBIA, SC – Hidden Wounds successfully completed its first year of operations on Jan 1. Under the direction of Anna Bigham, founder and executive director and Chris Younts, co-founder and chief financial officer, and through the efforts of a core group of volunteers, Hidden Wounds was able to
assist 68 veterans, more than one per week.

“The greatest weapon we have is the ability to help each other and our first year has been a time of hard work and significant growth,” said Anna Bigham, founder and CEO.

This growth was only possible through a critical partnership with Give an Hour and donations from 414 private donors totaling $45,727. Hidden Wounds was also able to assist with the benefits counseling of approximately 50 veterans at the Midlands Transitional Retreat Center in Lexington.

“It is a privilege to honor the many who have served our nation,” said Anna. “We were truly blessed to have tremendous support from the community during our first year. It is our hope that this support continues to grow as we strive to serve more veterans in the coming year.”

Hidden Wounds has established a well-rounded Board of Directors to help guide their mission in the coming year and distant future. Board of Directors members are as follows: Anna Bigham, Chris Younts, Dylan W. Goff, Barbara Livingston, Capt. Charlie Hall, Kim Milano, Thad Viers, Roxanne Wilson, Col. Steven Shugart and Bill Dukes.

According to the latest numbers available from the Veteran’s Administration (2008), there are over 408,000 veterans in South Carolina. Of the 1,049,540 service members currently serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom, 18,000 are from South Carolina. Hidden Wounds
successes in its first year are just the beginning of an on-going critical mission.

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Hidden Wounds is a non-profit 501(c)(3),founded in January 2010 by Anna Bigham. The organization’s mission is to help heroes battle the invisible war at home through providing immediate and emergency psychological treatment for veterans and military personnel suffering from PTSD, TBI, and other psychological post war challenges.(www.hiddenwounds.org)

Fatz Café to Host Second Annual Pancake Fundraiser to Benefit Hidden Wounds

COLUMBIA, SC – Several Fatz Café locations across the state are hosting a pancake breakfast fundraiser on November 13, the Saturday following Veteran’s Day. Proceeds from the breakfast will benefit Columbia based non-profit Hidden Wounds and the immediate psychological injury treatments for veterans and military personnel in need. In September alone, the organization funded the counseling needs of 30 veterans.

Last year, the event was held at the Forest Drive location in Columbia and raised $4,269.45 with the help of numerous volunteers and supporters.

This year participating locations include Columbia (Forest Dr.), North Charleston, Seneca and Conway. The services Hidden Wounds provides extend past the City of Columbia so it is important to raise awareness statewide. Fatz Café’s regional management team has provided Hidden Wounds with an
opportunity to do so.

The breakfast will be from 7-10 a.m. and will include pancakes, fresh fruit, beverage and a side item. Tickets may be purchased in advance at participating Fatz Café locations or by calling Hidden Wounds at (803)403-8460. They may also be purchased on the day of the breakfast at the door. Hidden Wounds representatives will be present at each location to answer questions.

###

Hidden Wounds is a non-profit 501(c)(3), founded in January 2010 by Anna Bigham. The organization’s mission is to help heroes battle the invisible war at home through providing immediate and emergency psychological treatment for veterans and military personnel suffering from PTSD, TBI, and other psychological post war challenges. (www.hiddenwounds.org)

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