Guardsman could survive 1st Gulf War, but not the second
National Guardsman Jeffrey Sloss was a tough guy. He made it through the first Gulf War. He was State Trooper of the Year in Union, S.C. He volunteered to stay in the Guard even after returning from Iraq in 1992.
But three days before his plane was scheduled to leave for Iraq in April 2003, he began behaving erratically. He bought a $27,000 Mustang and told the officers in his unit that the plane they would take to Iraq was “flying back to South Carolina and not overseas,” his medical records show. Worried about his health, his wife of two weeks traveled to Camp Attebury in Indiana to visit him in the hospital there. Later, he was transported to Fort Knox, Ky., where doctors attributed his problems to “high stress and poor sleep.”
“At this time, there is no evidence to suggest further non-deployment,” wrote psychologist Christopher Knipple in a memorandum to Sloss’ commander on May 6, 2003. “Recommend (Sloss) be considered deployable and fit-for-duty without restrictions.”
Sloss soon left with the rest of his unit to Iraq, where he worked as communications specialist for the 151st Signal Battalion. Pam Sloss, his wife, returned to South Carolina and waited for her husband to come home. He did come home, on April 18, 2004, “but he was never the same as before,” Pam said.
A little over a month later, one year to the day after he had arrived in Iraq, Sloss came home early from his stepdaughter’s softball practice, pulled his service revolver out from his desk, put it to his head, and shot himself while his wife and stepdaughter watched.
“The whole time he was at practice, he was pacing,” Pam recalls. “When we got home, my daughter and I walked into the apartment ? When I turned around from talking to my daughter, he’d walked out of the bedroom and he had the gun in his hand. I ran up the hall and tried to knock it out of his hands.
“I just wasn’t strong enough.”
Sloss should never have been sent to war, said Stephen Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, who testified before Congress about Sloss’ death. “DOD ignored the law designed to protect soldiers and ensure we send healthy soldiers to fight the nation’s wars.”
The Army declined to comment on Sloss’ case. But Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman, said, “Soldiers are given medical screenings before they are deployed. These include mental health issues. If a soldier is having a problem in a particular area, then he or she is referred to a specialist in that area and is evaluated for that particular issue. If a person is deemed medically non-deployable, then he is not deployed.”
Pam Sloss first met her husband in June 2002, when the state trooper stopped her car while conducting routine sobriety checks.
“I saw him. We hit it off. We had our first date a week and a half later,” she said. When he came home from Iraq, Pam said she didn’t see how troubled he was. She had been a military wife for less than a year, and hadn’t seen her husband for most of that time.
“I can look back and see a few things now,” she said, “He was a little distant, a little despondent about having gained a little weight, but I never thought he would do something like that.”
Sloss’ best friend, too, missed the warning signs. Fellow state trooper Daniel Seaford had been in the Guard with Sloss for 12 years — sharing hotel rooms when they did their weekend service and posing together for a photograph in front of Baghdad International Airport. They were so close that their friends dubbed them “Salt and Pepper” (Sloss was black, Seaford is white).
They also talked each week after their return to South Carolina.
“We had this conversation a few days before he killed himself,” Seaford said. “He was having some issues?about adjusting back to family life, home life.”
In Iraq, life was simple, Seaford remembers Sloss saying. ” ‘All you got to do is eat and survive.’ “
Back home, life was throwing Sloss off. He was forgetting his keys. Forgetting to show up for appointments on time. Making small mistakes on his paperwork. Seaford understood because he was going through the same.
“You could be sleeping, and somebody would slam the door, and you’d be back in Iraq,” Seaford said, “Just the thunder, and the rumbling sound ? For a brief moment, you don’t realize where you are. Your mind races.”
Sloss and Seaford survived 61 mortar attacks on their unit during their time in Iraq. Neither of them had expected that when they signed up for Guard duty.
“Never in a million years did we think we would be sent to Baghdad,” Seaford said. “Five years ago, that would have been impossible. For us to be where we were, it was unbelievable.” In Iraq, the two friends controlled the encryption keys that the 151st Signal Battalion depended on to communicate with the rest of the armed forces in the area. Signal units in wars generally tend to stay toward the rear, but as part of the close-quarters combat on the outskirts of Fallujah, their unit was out front.
“We had so many close calls,” pulling security escorts for people, Seaford said, “That’s something a Marine would do, and we were just National Guardsmen.”
When Seaford and Sloss returned to the states, they went through the Army’s debriefing process to alert them to the warning signs of combat stress and the danger in ignoring those signs.
“But you see, it’s one briefing, and it’s a whole battalion of people,” Seaford said, “To be honest, everybody is just glad to be home.”
Robinson said that when Sloss got back from Iraq, he had no one from the military looking out for his health. “He had served his purpose and was now on his own,” he said.
Pam said she sought help but didn’t know where to turn.
“The only numbers I had were for a major, and an Army chaplain, and those didn’t work” she said. “I finally found one number after looking on the Internet.”
The Army OneSource number she found, given to all veterans during their debriefings, is designed to help with any number of problems, including legal, financial and medical. Sloss wasn’t around long enough to keep the appointment he made, his wife says.
“He killed himself the next day,” Pam said, “Even if he had some numbers to call, considering the state he was in, he probably wouldn’t even have remembered.”
Seaford said he understands how confusing it is for returning soldiers.
“We did get some paperwork that had some numbers for help, but to be honest, I couldn’t put my hands on it if I wanted to,” he said. “It’s all so disorganized.”
Seaford said he isn’t seeking help even though he’s had some of the same symptoms as Sloss. He wants to cope with it himself, if he can. But with Sloss gone, it’s gotten tougher on him.
“I spent hours trying to figure out what happened, what went wrong,” he said. “I can’t ask him those questions now.”