December 2, 2007 – Livermore Falls, Maine – Tyler Curtis escaped mortars, bullets and bombs in Iraq. Yet, he failed to survive his homecoming.
On Thanksgiving morning, three months after the young veteran returned home to Livermore Falls, he took his own life. The emotional wounds of war left him unable to go on, his sister, Gretchen Errington, told mourners who filled a rural funeral home last week to say goodbye.
“He served his country and ended up paying the ultimate price,” she said.
In the months since his return, the 25-year-old got into bar fights. He talked about his desire to return to Iraq. And he talked about his grief for the families of those he may have killed.
“It’s not the fact I had to shoot people,” he told former wife Randi Sencabaugh about two weeks before his death.
“It’s the fact they had a brother or a sister,” she remembered him saying. “I can’t imagine somebody – my sibling or my parents – dying.”
Details of Curtis’ death are sketchy. Police said they received a call from a family member early on Thanksgiving with a plea to check on him. An Androscoggin County sheriff’s deputy found him a short time later.
An investigation is continuing, Capt. Ray Lafrance said Thursday. However, it is clear that it was a suicide, he said.
“He had lots of problems,” Lafrance said.
Many calling for help
Curtis was not alone among returning veterans.
The Pentagon has not released any numbers on how many veterans of the Iraq war have killed themselves since their return. Some numbers have trickled in, though.
At least 147 soldiers have committed suicide during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began, the Associated Press reported in October.
The outlook is similarly grim for returning veterans. At least 283 combat veterans who left the military between the start of the war and the end of 2005 have taken their own lives, according to preliminary Veterans Affairs Department research obtained by the wire service.
Veterans of any war are twice as likely to commit suicide than members of the general public, according to a 2006 article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The new veterans are a puzzle, experts say.
Attempts to define a particularly at-risk segment of returning soldiers – young, old, male, female, married, single – have been fruitless, said Kerry Knox, a psychologist who is leading a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) effort to end suicide.
“I think it’s such a wide range,” said Knox, who runs the VA’s Center of Excellence in Canandaigua, N.Y. “We are right at the beginning of understanding what we’re seeing.”
They’re seeing a lot. Knox’s center created a phone bank at the end of July, launching a branch of the nationwide suicide hot line. Anyone who calls the number, 1-800-273-TALK, is asked to press “1” if they are a veteran or calling on behalf of a veteran. Those calls are diverted to workers in Canandaigua.
In only four months, the New York call center received about 15,000 calls, said Janet Kemp, who runs the phone program.
Of them, about 250 have been categorized as rescues – people who were stopped from a suicide they were poised to commit. They often had already taken drugs or were armed with a gun.
In most cases, the call center managed to alert police for help. In less imminent cases, a call was made to the suicide prevention coordinator in the nearest VA hospital.
“One suicide is too many,” said Knox, who manages all of the coordinators. “We know it is preventable. It’s really a community responsibility to have that philosophy.”
It’s unclear whether Curtis called for help.
“He called me the day that it happened, but I didn’t answer the phone because my daughter was crying,” said Sencabaugh, who was Curtis’ high school sweetheart. “It’s very hard. That’s difficult to me.”
Though they were divorced in October 2005, they remained friends.
“He was the type of friend who would call me in the middle of the night to talk,” she said. “I think he was unhappy with a lot of things.”
He’d changed dramatically after seeing combat.
“The look in his eyes was different to everybody,” Sencabaugh said. “He would look right through you.”
At his funeral, Curtis was remembered as a mischievous kid who had always wanted to be in the Army.
“His death seems to empty the whole future of happiness,” the Rev. Roger Chabot told the roughly 200 mourners.
Too distraught to speak, Curtis’ sister, Gretchen, made her remarks through a letter read by a friend. As they left the service, family members including his mother, Joyce L’Italian, and his father, Gary Curtis, filed past photos of Tyler from childhood to his Army service.
Later, friends talked about his energy.
His football coach at Jay High School, Mike Henry, remembered Curtis as a vibrant kid who loved competition. What he lacked in size – he was about 5 feet, 8 inches tall – he made up for in gumption, Henry said.
Henry made him a lineman.
“Because he was smaller, he had to be that much more intense,” Henry said.
Even after his first of two tours in Iraq, the intensity seemed intact, said Sencabaugh. To her, he compared combat to one of his favorite video games, “Ghost Recon.”
But when she saw him again in August, he’d grown inward and sad.
‘He was just unhappy’
In Curtis’ obituary, family members blamed “post-traumatic stress syndrome” for his death. They did not respond to phone calls seeking interviews. However, Sencabaugh said Curtis believed he suffered from the symptoms.
“He knew he had it,” she said. “I know he did.”
Part of his sadness may have come from his desire to return to his Army buddies, she said.
“He told me a thousand times he wanted to go back,” she said. “Being in the Army was the only thing Tyler ever wanted, even if he had nothing. He was happy sitting in Iraq at 9 o’clock at night when the thermometer read 150 degrees.”
He’d begun to work as a truck mechanic, but he was bored.
“He was just unhappy,” she said. “He didn’t know what he wanted to do with himself.”
In ways, he tried to reach out. About a week before his death, he applied to become a member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
But it wasn’t enough. He’d been fighting more than ever, Sencabaugh said. He was avoiding old friends, who never seemed to compare to the Army buddies.
Whether he ever reached out for the help of counselors, it was available. Army rules would have forced him to meet with a counselor before his discharge. He would have also been given information on the VA, both from the national organization and Maine.
But he never enrolled with the VA, said James Doherty, spokesman for the VA in Maine.
It would have taken a step by either Curtis or his family to get the VA involved.
“Unless we know about them and they come to us, there’s nothing we can do,” Doherty said.
For Curtis, it is too late.
Sencabaugh, 23, wiped away tears last week as she thought of Curtis’s last moments.
“He was so uncomfortable in his own skin, he needed to get out of it,” she said.