March 15, 2008 – See a video presentation of this story at http://www.wvgazette.com/costofwar
Stan and Shirley White of Cross Lanes remember they were at a restaurant that day – Sept. 26, 2005. They were talking about their youngest son, Andrew, and about how happy they were to have him home safe from Iraq.
Then, Shirley’s cell phone rang.
It was their daughter-in-law on the other end – the wife of their middle son, Bob, who was stationed in Afghanistan with the Army. Bob’s Humvee had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was gone.
Now, 2 1/2 years later – on Feb. 12 – the Whites lost 23-year-old Andrew. He died mysteriously in his sleep, just as he was beginning an achingly slow climb out of the debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder.
Their oldest son, Will, a career Naval officer, is in the Persian Gulf.
“You really can’t compare the two deaths, but directly and indirectly, both of their deaths are a result of the war,” Stan said. “As a parent, you fear for them when they go to war. You fear for their lives over there. Andrew was home. We thought he was safe.”
They are waiting for autopsy results, but the circumstances of Andrew’s death mirror those of two other local servicemen, also treated for PTSD and taking the same medications.
“Is there a connection? We don’t know,” Stan said. “When you’re 23, you’re not supposed to go to sleep and not wake up.
Three sons, three military branches
Andrew was a toddler when big brother Will, now 40, went into the Navy. Bob followed in the Army six years later. Afghanistan was his first combat tour.
Bob loved to travel to foreign countries and enjoyed peacekeeping missions in Korea, Kosovo, Egypt and Panama. Bob was 34 when he died. He is survived by his wife, Cathy, and 17-year–old son Zachary in North Carolina.
Career military men, neither Will nor Bob were interested in college, Shirley said.
Andrew was different. He planned to go to college. Although the Whites live in Cross Lanes, Andrew attended Capital High School, largely because of its strong ROTC program. His father was assistant principal there, and handed Andrew his diploma upon his graduation. He joined the Marine Reservists in 2003.
Stan was not a serviceman, and their family did not have a strong military background, but Stan and Shirley supported all three sons’ decisions to join the military.
“Andrew’s life was the Marines. At one time, he wanted to make a career out of it,” Stan said. “After the war, he decided against it. He was still very proud to be a Marine. Everything in his room is about the Marines.”
Described as a homebody by his mother, Andrew was initially anxious about his Marine unit’s deployment, but seemed to adjust. He carried out his nerve-racking work searching for “improvised explosive devices” and land mines as a combat engineer. He patrolled areas near the Syrian border and returned fire as a navigational gunner on a Humvee.
At his funeral, his buddies told his parents about the time they swept an area, declared it clean and were prepared to move on, when Andrew took one more look. They gave the Whites a photograph of Andrew holding the mine he found, which led to the discovery of six more in the same area.
When he returned home, Andrew enrolled as a criminal justice major at West Virginia State University. As time passed, he found it difficult to focus on classes or on his job as a car salesman, where he was initially very successful.
By the summer of 2006, he was missing appointments and work times because he couldn’t focus or control his anger.
“He probably had eight or nine jobs,” Shirley said. “He just couldn’t hold a job. It’s a classic symptom of PTSD.”
News that his unit was being deployed back to Iraq may have triggered the disorder.
He finally sought help in February 2007 at the West Virginia Vet Center, where he was referred to a VA clinic in Kanawha City.
“It’s frustrating. We are sending these middle-class kids over who have had no trauma in their lives. They’re taught to respect life,” Shirley said. “Then they are seeing all these terrible things and bringing it back all bottled up inside.”
By late July, Andrew’s condition had escalated. He lost his short-term memory. He began missing his appointments at the VA clinic. He couldn’t remember to take his medications. Shirley called his psychiatrist and a social worker, who told her to come to his sessions and record what happened, since Andrew couldn’t remember.
“He had become like a child that’s ADHD,” said Shirley, a former elementary schoolteacher. “Every appointment after that, I went with him. In August and September, he had 19 appointments. His doctors were very concerned.”
The Whites tried to keep his environment as stress-free as possible. They read everything they could find on the disorder as Andrew retreated further from family and friends. From August until his death, he ate with his family only two times.
He obsessively played violent war video games and watched movies alone in his room. He gained 40 or 50 pounds
“He was fighting his battles in the games. He’d get angry. The characters became real to him,” Stan said. “It’s the last thing you’d think he’d want to play.”
But by December, Shirley noticed Andrew’s short-term memory was improving.
Andrew’s final days
Late in January, Andrew’s outlook started to improve after he started meeting with a local psychiatrist specializing in PTSD. He made plans for a beach trip this summer, the first time he’d shown any interest in the future in a long time.
On Feb. 11, he had an appointment with his psychiatrist, talked to his sister on the phone and even made a dinner date for the next day.
“I noticed he was smiling more,” his mother said.
Andrew seemed particularly tired that afternoon, but otherwise healthy. He went to bed early, after solidifying plans to meet his mother at a cell phone store at 1 p.m. the following afternoon. She gave him his medication as usual and checked on him the next morning before leaving for her job at Sylvan Learning Center. He was sleeping normally.
At about noon, she called to be sure he was awake, but didn’t get an answer. She tried again repeatedly with the same result, then called a neighbor and asked her to go next door to rouse him. The woman pounded on the front door and his bedroom window to no avail.
Shirley rushed home and found Andrew dead in his bed, without any apparent cause.
A toxicology screen indicated normal levels of his prescribed medications. They’re still waiting for the autopsy results.
“It seems like a cruel joke for him to die just when he was getting better,” Shirley said.
Searching for answers
Since then, the Whites learned that the mysterious circumstances of Andrew’s death are markedly similar to those of two other local servicemen who were being treated for PSTD with the same medications – Paxil, Klonopin and Seroquel.
Eric Layne, a soldier from Kanawha City whose wife, Janette, is expecting their second child, had recently returned from an extended treatment at a VA facility. Andrew and Layne knew each other from a PTSD support group that Andrew attended faithfully.
“Andrew really went through a tough time when Eric died,” Stan said. “We never thought that, two weeks later, it would be him.”
Stan immediately thought of Layne when Shirley called him after the paramedics failed to revive Andrew.
The next day, the Whites heard about Logan County resident Cheryl Endicott’s son, Nicholas, who died in his sleep Jan. 29 while being treated for PTSD at a military hospital in Bethesda, Md.
The Whites wondered: Were their deaths related to the drugs? Was there a problem with sleep apnea? Did they suffer brain injuries?
Immediately after he buried his son, Stan began looking for answers.
The Whites spoke with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate committee on Intelligence and a member of the Veteran Affairs committee, who called them after Andrew’s death. The senator called and has corresponded with the Whites after Bob’s death, also.
Rockefeller has requested independent reviews from the Inspector General of the Departments of Veteran Affairs and Defense, said Jessica Tice, deputy press secretary for Rockefeller. He brought the three West Virginia servicemen’s deaths to the Veteran Affairs committee members’ attention and urges anyone with similar concerns to contact him at the e-mail address: v…@rockefeller.senate.gov.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito has also expressed concern about the deaths.
“The main issue is that these men have given so much,” Stan said. “Our intent is to find answers and to keep this from happening to anyone else.”
West Virginia Friends of Veterans have supported the Whites, screening their e-mails and passing along any relevant information to them. The Whites requested donations to the group in lieu of flowers at Andrew’s memorial.
Stan and Shirley are spending more time with their daughter, Christina, a sophomore at Marshall University. Christina was especially close to Andrew because Will and Bob were so much older. She comes home more this year than she did during her first year at college.
Her parents think she’s coping well.
“We’re not bitter. Bitterness will kill you,” Stan said. “We’re just trying to keep someone else from going through this pain. We have a son, a daughter, a grandson and two granddaughters to live for.”