February 24, 2008 – During Michael Sherriff’s nine-month tour in the battlefields of Iraq, his mother worried that one day a pair of Army officers in full dress would come to her door with terrible news.
“You’re just on edge every single minute,” Jennifer Cass said. She didn’t dream her son would become a victim of the war the way he did — not on a faraway battlefield like she feared, but like a growing number of veterans — by his own hand once he made it home.
Of 807,694 veterans diagnosed with depression and treated at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility nationwide between 1999 and 2004, 1,683 committed suicide, according to a study released in October 2007 by the University of Michigan Depression Center.
After her son safely returned stateside in April 2004, Cass dealt with a new set of worries. She said she began experiencing stress and anxiety as her Mikey had an increasingly difficult time adjusting to civilian life.
When a police officer and a chaplain came to her north Redding door Feb. 1, she invited them in for coffee, not thinking they could be bearing the news that she once had feared so much — that her son was dead.
Sherriff, 27, had put a pistol to his head and ended his life after police approached his hotel room in downtown Redding earlier that day to talk to him about a felony arrest warrant out of Washington.
Sherriff suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the horrific scenes he experienced in Iraq, and his family thinks his condition caused him to commit suicide.
Like other families and friends of soldiers who have survived war only to lose the battle within themselves once home, those who knew Sherriff are left wondering if enough was done to recognize and treat his mental problems.
“When I got home I thought I was fine,” said Jim Tyson of Shingletown, who served in the U.S. Army from 1996 to 2003, doing tours in Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and Iraq.
Tyson drove an armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, like those often seen at construction sites around the north state, but in wartime he used the massive tractor for destruction.
With the help of his uncle, Jim Richards of Redding, a veteran of three tours in Vietnam who suffers from PTSD himself, Tyson recognized his problem and sought help. He now regularly meets with a counselor and is on antianxiety medication.
Richards said it’s difficult for someone who has been hardened by military service to admit he needs help.
“Soldiers learn how to grit their teeth and bear pain,” he said.
Both said they think the military should put every returning soldier and Marine through counseling to search for subtle signs of PTSD. While veterans are screened when they leave the service, the two men said that step isn’t enough. They said there also should be classes about PTSD for the family and friends of veterans.
Bonded not just by blood, but by their combat experience, Tyson and Richards said veterans dealing with PTSD can get the most help from talking to other veterans.
With few lines drawn between who is friend or foe in combat zones like Iraq, Tyson said the nature of fighting today adds to the stress endured by those in the military.
“Nobody plays by the rules anymore except us,” he said.
The ever-present dangers of bombs hidden along roadways and suicide bombers who could be anybody cause those serving in Iraq to be tense and ready for action at all times. Once home, it’s hard to turn that readiness off, Tyson said.
Triggers for PTSD are ever present on the home front: The sound of a jet. Smell of gasoline. A flash of light.
A Different Michael
While he said war hadn’t changed him when he first got home, Cass said her son Michael soon started to show signs of PTSD.
He’d threaten violence against those he felt had wronged him. He had trouble maintaining relationships with women.
Once a talented debater who had aspirations of becoming an attorney, Sherriff developed a short fuse, said Brian Sherriff, the oldest of his two brothers and two stepbrothers.
“He had a lot more anger and a lot less control over that anger,” Brian Sherriff said.
Michael Sherriff was diagnosed with PTSD by VA physicians and sought help at VA clinics, but came to resent them, Cass said.
His father, John Sherriff of Incline Village, Nev., said his son didn’t talk much about what kind of counseling he had or medicines he was prescribed. John Sherriff said he wanted to know, but wasn’t able to find out through the VA because his son was an adult and his medical records were confidential.
“They can’t share any information,” he said.
John Sherriff said he hopes that VA officials would be more open with the families of those suffering from PTSD, and that he thinks bureaucracy could be cut by ensuring that veterans could consistently see the same physicians.
Adrift after the Army, Michael Sherriff accumulated a criminal record, including driving under the influence and concealed weapon arrests, and spent about a month in jail while he lived in Reno. He’d moved there to attend the University of Nevada at Reno. He also had a girlfriend there whom he hoped to marry some day, though their time together was turbulent and punctuated with occasional breakups, Brian Sherriff said.
The relationship continued until early this year when the girlfriend broke it off for good.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the last breakup,” Brian Sherriff said.
Michael Sherriff had lived in Redding off and on with his mother after he returned from Iraq, and he moved in with her again after the breakup. She said he became increasingly angry and difficult to live with.
Months earlier she’d thought about checking him into a VA mental health clinic in Mountain View that takes new patients at the start of each month, she said. But Michael Sherriff had convinced her that he’d be better off staying in Reno and helping his girlfriend with her ailing father, who eventually died.
“He said the best therapy he could have was helping someone else,” Cass said.
With the first of the month approaching again, she said she once again considered trying to get her son to the clinic. But living with Michael Sherriff became too hard and on Jan. 30, she kicked him out and changed her locks.
“Michael was just out of his mind,” Cass said.
She called his ex-girlfriend, who now lived in Kirkland, Wash., and left a message warning her that he had traded his laptop for a gun and he was headed up there from Redding to get her and her mother, according to a Kirkland Police report.
“She stated that her son has a list of people he wants to get and they are the top two,” the report said.
The ex-girlfriend called the police after hearing the message and told them that during a visit in December, Michael Sherriff had pointed a gun at her and held her hostage.
Because of the threats and the gun incident, Kirkland police issued a warrant for his arrest and sent notice to their Redding counterparts. Police learned that Sherriff likely was staying in a room at the Thunderbird Lodge based on a tip that he was in a motel near the bus station and preparing to go to Kirkland.
Officers tried calling him to get him to come out and talk, but he hung up after picking up the phone, said Redding police Sgt. Bruce Bonner. Sherriff then shot himself after seeing a police officer outside the room.
Amid his angry tirades, Michael Sherriff had talked of suicide.
“He said if a cop ever came at him again he would shoot himself,” Cass said.
She said she didn’t realize he meant it.