October 20, 2008, Sioux City, ND – “I’m no quitter, Ma. You know me, I’m never gonna quit.”
Those were the words Carl McCoy used to reassure his stepmother, Pat McCoy, whenever she worried about the 23-year-old man’s safety.
Now it’s that sentiment that perplexes the Sioux City woman as she seeks to understand why Carl stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Seven months after he returned from war, U.S. Army Spc. Carl B. McCoy killed himself at his Clarksville, Tenn., home July 11, following a recently concluded child-custody battle, chronic alcoholism and what his family and friends suspect was a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Deployed twice to Iraq, he leaves behind his wife, U.S. Army Sgt. Maggie McCoy, and a 3-year-old son, Kharrie.
Carl’s family — including his stepmother — said his death could have been prevented had Army medical providers paid more attention to his growing sense of desperation and increasing reliance on alcohol.
Troubled by memories of war, Pat said her stepson’s drinking escalated after he returned to stateside active duty in December 2007.
Army statistics show that five U.S. soldiers try to kill themselves every day. The 2,100 attempted suicides the Army reported in 2007 is a sharp spike when compared with the 350 suicide attempts reported in 2002, the year before the Iraq war began.
In 2007, the Army identified 89 soldier deaths as suicides. It’s also investigating as many as 32 other deaths as possible suicides.
Such statistics were the furthest thing from Carl’s mind when he enlisted in the Army after graduating from DeQuincy High School in DeQuincy, La., in 2003, his stepmother said.
“After 9-11, Carl was gung-ho about fighting for his country,” Pat said, sorting through a photo album in her Sioux City apartment. “I was happy about him going into the service. I thought it would give Carl’s life the structure it never had before.”
That was important to Pat. Although she was not Carl’s biological mother, he still called her “Ma.”
“He just did it to aggravate me,” Pat, already the mother of four, said with a laugh.
Pat married Carl’s dad, Garner McCoy Sr., in Sioux City in 1974, divorcing him eight years later.
“Carl was born to Garner and wife No. 2, Trena,” Pat said.
Through the years, Pat kept tabs on young Carl, especially after Trena’s death (from heart disease in 1996) and Garner’s death (from heart disease brought on by alcoholism in 2005).
“Carl was shifted from aunt to aunt to friend to a friend of a friend,” she said. “That’s no way to raise a boy.”
Admitting her stepson had a few scrapes with the law while growing up (“kid stuff, mostly”), Pat always had a place for him in her heart.
“Carl had a wonderful sense of humor and a smile that could light up a room,” she said. “He had a lot of friends. The girls, especially, loved Carl.”
On reflection, Pat said: “Given his upbringing, Carl could’ve easily grown up to be a thug. But he learned how to fend for himself and aspired to be a good person.”
“Carl was always smart,” she said, smiling. “Did he have a whole lotta common sense? Um … no. But he was still very bright.”
‘Born an alcoholic’
Initially deployed to Iraq in June 2004, Carl worked as a generator mechanic with Fort Bragg, N.C.’s 659th Maintenance Company, where he performed convoy escorts and guard duties. Returning from his second Iraq deployment to Fort Bragg in December 2007, he was assigned to Fort Campbell’s 196th Quartermaster Company, 101st Sustainment Brigade in Clarksville, Tenn.
Throughout his deployments, Carl kept up a weekly correspondence, by phone or e-mail, with his former stepmother.
“Whenever I asked him, Carl would never talk about the war,” Pat said. “It was obvious that he saw a lot of things, yet he kept it all buried within him. He’d just shut down and get all quiet.”
Carl’s best friend, Marco Perez, was much more vocal about what the two of them had experienced in Iraq.
“Carl and I had friends who lost limbs during the capture of Fallujah,” Perez, an Army sergeant with the 659th, said in a phone interview. “We both had friends who died right in front of us.”
Perez calls Carl “my brother.” Sharing a love of hip-hop, Southern cooking and strip clubs, the two men bonded when things got tough.
“A lot of people didn’t ‘get’ Carl,” his friend insisted. “I ‘got’ Carl.”
But the weight of the war began to wear on Carl.
“Carl tried to be his old smiling self,” Perez said, “but things were really taking their toll on him.”
Back home in the States, Carl’s memories began surfacing in unexpected ways.
“Carl loved the Fourth of July,” Pat recalled, “but the sight of fireworks would terrify him. Christmas was a favorite holiday, yet blinking lights on a Christmas tree sent him over the edge.”
Pat feared her stepson was suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder that triggered an increasing dependence on alcohol. Carl’s father was an alcoholic, too, which led to the breakup of the marriage between Garner and Pat.
“Carl was born an alcoholic,” she continued, “and he knew it. Because of his father’s addiction, he had that genetic gene inside him. Carl knew better. It just didn’t seem to matter.”
The soldier’s alcoholism didn’t go unnoticed by Perez, who said it was leaving its mark on the battle Carl was fighting with his first wife, Miriam, over custody of their son, Kharrie, as well as on his marriage to Maggie, whom he wed in March 2008.
Perez also said Carl’s alcoholism did go unnoticed by the Army.
“By the time (Carl) returned to Fort Bragg (in December 2007),” Perez said, “his drinking was pretty bad, but the Army never pushed him to get help.”
Returning stateside, Pat thought her stepson’s life would show signs of improvement.
“Carl and Maggie were both assigned to Fort Campbell,” she said. “They went to Clarksville, where they found a house big enough to raise a family.”
In the new house, Carl decorated a room that he hoped would one day belong to Kharrie.
“Carl decorated that room himself,” Maggie said, laughing. “Because he knew Kharrie loved Spider-Man, Carl filled every nook and cranny of that room with Spider-Man.”
“Kharrie had Spider-Man bedsheets and dolls and action figures,” she said. “Man, even Kharrie’s bike had to be a Spider-Man bike. Nothing was too good for Carl McCoy’s son.”
Pat tried to act as the voice of reason whenever her stepson went overboard.
“I’d get on Carl’s case for spending $40 on a pair of jeans that the boy would likely outgrow in a matter of months,” Pat said, chuckling.
But the excited young dad always had a ready answer.
“Carl didn’t want his son to have the sort of family life he had growing up,” Pat said. “He wanted Kharrie to have a father in his life.”
As the custody battle dragged on, so did the symptoms of Carl’s suspected PTSD. So did his drinking.
A new life
Carl’s words of reassurance, “I’m no quitter, Ma. You know me, I’m never gonna quit,” began taking on a more ominous second meaning.
“He knew he needed to stop drinking,” Pat said. “But it was something he just couldn’t do.”
That wasn’t always the case, according to Maggie.
Maggie met Carl while both were stationed at Fort Bragg. They were later deployed together to Iraq with the 659th.
When asked what attracted her to the young soldier, Maggie said it was his intelligence.
“Carl was very smart,” she said. “Here was this guy. Sure, he was very good looking, but he was really intelligent. That’s what drew me to him.”
As Maggie got to know Carl, she discovered his sensitive side.
“He had this terrific sense of humor,” Maggie said, “and he had this warmth.”
“Carl made the best jambalaya in the world, and everybody knew it,” she said, laughing. “People flocked to him because of it. But Carl didn’t mind. He loved people and wanted to share it with everyone.”
The tone in Maggie’s voice turned suddenly melancholy.
“Carl was such a generous guy,” she said softly yet insistently. “He was such a genuine guy.”
While in Iraq, did Maggie see her husband drink?
“Sure, Carl drank,” she said. “Who wouldn’t? But he never drank to excess.”
“Carl used to drink to kick back,” he explained. “Later on, he seemed to drink to numb himself.”
That became apparent when Carl returned to the States as an active-duty soldier.
“He’d be doing fine,” Pat said sadly. “For a while. But then his demons would return.”
Louisiana was the state where Carl had been raised.
“Carl was a Creole through and through,” Perez said, noting his buddy’s allegiance to Louisiana State University sometimes brought him good-natured ribbing.
Yet the Crescent State was the last place on earth that Carl wanted to be.
So much had happened to Carl since he had left home. His dad died the year after the young man enlisted in the Army. His son was just a month old when the young soldier was first deployed. And then, his marriage to Miriam derailed while he was fighting on the front line.
Garner’s funeral, in fact, allowed Carl to reconnect with his extended family.
“Carl hit it off immediately with my daughter Rochelle,” Pat said. “They were like a coupla hood rats, they were so close.”
The sibling affection continued when Carl visited Sioux City while on leave.
“Carl had never seen snow before,” Pat said, chuckling. “There was snow on the ground, but it was pretty wimpy. He said there’d better be a raging blizzard the next time he comes to visit.”
But the real reason Carl didn’t want to go to Louisiana in June 2008 was because it would take him away from his new family: Maggie and Kharrie.
Frustrations with the Army
After months of trying, Carl had just been awarded joint custody of his 3-year-old son.
“I don’t remember ever seeing Carl so happy,” Maggie said, remembering the first unsupervised visit the young father had with his son. “I don’t remember seeing anybody as happy as Carl was when he got Kharrie.”
Kharrie’s next visitation was scheduled for the middle of June. But the Army had a different idea.
“Carl let the command know about Kharrie,” Maggie said, “but they wanted him to go to Louisiana to participate in a two-week recruiting program they had in Louisiana a few days before his son’s scheduled visit.”
“The recruiting was a joke,” Pat said. “(Carl) would show up at 9 a.m. and they’d let him go at noon.”
The Army specialist would then go back to his hotel room to think about missing his son and being away from Maggie.
But, mostly, Carl drank.
“I knew he was drinking because he’d call me two or three times a day,” Pat said. “He hated being there. He’d say that it was putting a strain on his marriage, he knew his ex wouldn’t reschedule Kharrie’s visitation, and he couldn’t understand why he should fight for his country when the Army didn’t show any concern or compassion for him.”
Returning home, Carl’s drinking had now became severe enough that Maggie made an appointment for marital counseling for the two of them at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital.
“Carl and I told (the marriage counselor) about his alcohol problem,” Maggie insisted. “We said it worried the both of us.”
Maggie said Carl was not referred to a specialist as both she and her husband had expected.
By July, the young soldier was at the end of his rope. Knowing he was headed for trouble, Carl scheduled an appointment to see a therapist at Fort Campbell’s Blanchfield Army Community Hospital for July 10.
At the last minute, the appointment was canceled. The therapist had called in sick.
The next day, Carl McCoy was dead.
‘His voice went unheard’
Calling Carl’s death a “tragic loss,” Blanchfield Army Community Hospital public affairs officer Laura Boyd said in a statement to the Sioux City Journal that “the Army and Blanchfield Army Community Hospital are committed to providing the best care to Fort Campbell’s soldiers, families and retirees, and stand ready to assist the McCoy family during its grieving time.”
Boyd said that both Blanchfield and Fort Campbell have multiple ways for soldiers and their families to have access to the Behavioral Health Services Department.
“No patient identified as high risk or in acute distress goes without immediate intervention,” she wrote. “These patients can be seen on a walk-in basis or after hours by a licensed behavioral health provider who’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
According to Boyd, Fort Campbell conducts a formal investigation of every suicide to review administrative processes and support that may be available to the soldier.
For any suicide, she said, the Army also conducts a root cause analysis to fully understand the circumstances surrounding the death and to determine if any treatment provided meets the national standard of care.
The results of the analysis are not publicly released, Boyd explained, “but we are willing to review findings with the family.”
Maggie McCoy will never know why her 23-year-old husband ended his life. He didn’t leave a suicide note before he shot himself in the bathroom of the house the newlyweds shared.
The young widow said earlier this week that she’d just returned from Louisiana, where she visited her husband’s gravesite on what would have been Carl McCoy’s 24th birthday.
“The Army promised there would be a gravestone by now,” Maggie, who does not plan to re-enlist, said with disappointment in her voice. “It hasn’t happened yet. That’s the Army for ya.”
It’s been more than two months since Carl’s demons got the best of him. His widow still questions the quality of mental health care provided to her husband, and she has concerns about the quality of mental health care provided to all other returning soldiers.
“Did the Army kill Carl?” Maggie asked. “No, it was Carl who pulled the trigger. Could the Army have done more to help him?”
Maggie’s voice trailed off.
“People get sick all the time,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with that. But it’s ridiculous that an Army mental health clinic, in a time of war, would be so short-staffed that no one could see Carl in his hour of need. He wasn’t referred to another therapist, nor was he asked if he was suicidal.”
“This was his last cry for help,” Maggie said, “and his voice went unheard.”
Getting the word out
When he remembers his best friend, Marco Perez said he always smiles.
“Carl always dreamt of opening up a restaurant after he left the service,” Perez said. “Real old-fashioned Creole cooking or real old-fashioned Southern barbecue, that was always his specialty.”
“Nothing made Carl happier than cooking in the backyard for his friends,” he said. “Carl’s cooking made him a whole lotta friends.”
But his friend’s suicide has made Perez re-examine his own life and wartime experience.
“Do I have PTSD?” he asked. “Yeah, I know I do. Carl’s death forced me to confront the memories that I brought back with me from Iraq.”
Perez said he’s currently seeking the counsel of his clergy.
“PTSD can be treated. It doesn’t have to kill you,” he said sadly. “Wish my ‘brother’ knew that.”
Pat McCoy clutches a funeral program.
On the front is a photo of a beaming young man with a bright future ahead of him. She said she remembers her stepson as someone who could drive her crazy with his impulsiveness, but she also remembers a young man who mourned greatly when her granddaughter died from sudden infant death syndrome just weeks before his own death.
Still, she takes Carl’s words to heart: “I’m no quitter, Ma. You know me, I’m never gonna quit.”
“I want to get the word out about my stepson’s death,” Pat said softly. “I don’t want anyone to lose a family member the way I lost Carl.”
Frequently asked questions
What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
According to the National Center for PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a person has been through a traumatic event, such as sexual or physical assault, a serious accident or combat or military exposure. After the event, it’s natural to feel scared, confused or angry. If the feelings don’t go away or if they worsen, a person may have PTSD.
How does post-traumatic stress disorder develop?
“All people with PTSD have lived through a traumatic event that causes them to fear for their lives, see horrible things and feel helpless,” said
Matthew Friedman, executive director of the National Center for PTSD. “Strong emotions caused by the event can create changes in the brain that may result in PTSD.”
How likely a person is to develop PTSD depends on how intense the trauma was or how long it lasted; whether you lost someone you were close to or were hurt yourself; how close you were to the traumatic event; how strong your reaction was; how much in control of events you felt; and how much support you got after the event.
“Most people with PTSD get better over time,” Friedman said. “But one out of three people with PTSD may continue to have some symptoms.”
What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?
PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event. But they may not occur for months or years after the event or may come and go over the years.
The most common symptoms are reliving the traumatic event; avoiding situations that remind you of the event; feeling numb and finding it hard to express your feelings; and feeling jittery and always on the lookout for danger.
Common problems for those suffering from PTSD may include drinking or drug problems; feelings of hopelessness, shame or despair; employment problems; relationship problems or physical ailments.
How common is post-traumatic stress disorder?
Experiencing a traumatic event is something that 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience at some point in their lives. But going through a traumatic event does not mean you’ll experience PTSD.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 8 percent of men and 20 percent of women will develop PTSD after a traumatic event. About 5.2 million adults will have PTSD during any given year. Also women (10 percent) are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men (5 percent).
How common is PTSD in the military?
“Out of 100 Vietnam War veterans, about 30 developed some form of PTSD,” Friedman said. “Out of 100 veterans of the war in Iraq, between 12 to 20 have developed some form of PTSD.”
This number may increase, Friedman said, depending on how long the war lasts and how much combat soldiers experience.
What treatments are available?
When suffering from PTSD, dealing with the past can be hard. But Friedman said treatment can make help you get better.
If you are in an immediate crisis, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.
Although the National Center for PTSD does not provide any direct clinical care, it’s Web site (www.ncptsd.va.gov) provides links and information to help you find mental health services in your area.
If you are an American veteran with PTSD, contact your local VA Hospital or Veterans Center. In Sioux City, the Vet Center is at 1551 Indian Hills Drive. The telephone number is 712-255-3808.