June 29, 2008 – Cara Davis knew her husband was still at war.
In the night, he would yell out his name — Dwayne D. Davis! — followed by his rank and serial number. He’d shout that he would never be taken hostage. Four times he tried to choke her because, in his nightmares, she was al-Qaida.
She knew what she had to do.
As gently as she could, she told him: I think maybe you have that disease, that post-traumatic stress thing. I think maybe you need some help.
“We talked about it,” she recalled. He had never told his buddies. “He said he was afraid if he did, the other soldiers would call him a coward.”
Finally, the pain was too much.
In December, a year after he got out of the Army, he asked for help. He spent 30 minutes talking with a psychology intern at a Veterans Affairs hospital. He told how he felt edgy and had trouble sleeping. He told about his rage and depression, his fatigue, his difficulty with crowds. He told about keeping a gun under his pillow and carrying a blade everywhere he went.
He had cleared the first hurdle, taken the first step.
But he never took a second.
Instead, two days after his 30th birthday, the Raytown native and Army veteran of four tours of war — two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, one in Kosovo — became part of a grim litany of veteran suicide statistics.
Each day, 18 veterans kill themselves, according to the latest estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs. No firm numbers are available, such as breakdowns of veterans’ suicides by the decade in which they served. There’s no unified nationwide system to track veterans’ deaths.
But 18 suicides each day translate to more than 6,500 deaths a year — and 21 percent of all U.S. suicides. Veterans make up about 8 percent of the U.S. population.
Now, with the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq lasting longer than World War II, the number of troops returning home with some form of mental illnesses is increasing.
On April 22, Sgt. Davis came home after an 80-hour week in an Oklahoma oil field. He’d had car trouble. In a rage, he grabbed a rifle and shot out the windshield of his wife’s car outside their Elk City, Okla., home. Then he asked where his handgun was. She had hidden it earlier.
When she looked into her husband’s normally crystal-blue eyes, she shuddered. They “just looked black,” she said. She ran outside and hid in the backyard bushes. Before police arrived, she heard one shot.
Her husband had killed himself.
Cherie Durkin knows the hurting souls are out there.
Ten months ago, she became Kansas City’s suicide prevention coordinator for the VA. She goes to work each day hoping to connect with just one more veteran.
She smiled as she told about three Kansas City veterans alive today because of a telephone call each man made.
“They were rescued,” she said. The men had called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Durkin’s message to veterans and their families is to make the call for help.
“It’s a hurdle, I know. I’ve heard the word ‘cowardice’ so many times. But if your loved one can’t make the call, you as their spouse can,” Durkin said.
Spouses need to know that someone believes them when they say their military hero seems on the brink of mental illness, she said.
“We will try to help them any way we can.”
A recent Rand Corp. study of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars concluded that 19 percent of veterans suffer depression or stress disorders — an estimated 300,000 veterans among the 1.6 million who have served in those wars. By comparison, the American Mental Health Association estimates that about 6 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers depression.
Many veterans go without treatment. And the Rand study noted that mental disorders are more widespread and deeply rooted among vets than health care professionals had previously thought, often surfacing long after a veteran returns to civilian life.
Suicide among veterans “has been a moving target in the news lately,” said Janet Kemp, the VA’s national suicide prevention program coordinator. In the past few months, almost every week has brought new information regarding veterans, post-traumatic stress and suicide. Among them:
• The “Shh!” e-mail by Ira Katz, a top VA official for mental health, on the subject of the number of suicide attempts among veterans. Katz wrote: “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.”
That contradicted the number the VA reported publicly: 790 attempted suicides in 2007.
“Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” Katz wrote.
• A congressional hearing this spring titled “The Truth About Veterans’ Suicides.” Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat and the chairman of the committee, was highly critical of the VA’s handling of mental health patients. The VA admitted at the hearing that its suicide numbers were higher than it previously had thought.
• Since the VA opened its suicide hot line last year, it has assisted more than 49,500 people who indicated they were veterans and has performed more than 1,000 rescues.
• Earlier this month, the VA put together two panels of experts to share ideas on ways to improve suicide prevention, research and education.
“Despite what the media has been saying about us, we’re working really, really hard and trying to hit every angle, trying to listen to everybody we can to reach our veterans,” Kemp said. “Hopefully, the message is getting out to veterans. … If we can touch just one life today, it’s worth it. It takes the courage and the strength of a warrior to ask for help. That’s our motto around here.”
One change the VA instituted is to have its suicide coordinators meet veterans at the door or elevator, trying to make a personal connection.
In Kansas City, that person is Durkin. She’ll greet veterans, walk them to their appointment and introduce them to their initial psychologist. She also is the one who will call back a veteran who reached out to the suicide prevention hot line.
“I try to make (getting help) as easy as possible for them,” she said. “Helping them feel comfortable here is important. If they feel like there’s a personal investment, that’s what will keep them coming back.”
She’ll talk with spouses about other ways to find help if the veteran doesn’t trust the VA or fears his medical records won’t remain private from the military.
She hears about the veterans who didn’t make it, like Davis. Looking at his medical records, which his family provided to The Star, she points out that he stopped going for treatment.
“Veterans need to follow through, too,” she said. “Getting them back here is hard, especially once they start feeling better.”
Depression doesn’t turn off like a switch, she said.
“It’s not off one day and on the next. It’s there, but nobody notices, except maybe close family members.”
Donna Davis looked down, her eyes puffy and red.
In her Raytown living room, she caressed stacks of photos and newspaper clippings of her oldest child, along with an American flag, neatly folded into a triangle.
There’s a CNN photo of him manning a machine gun. Dwayne Davis was fighting in Afghanistan.
“He told me he was in Pakistan. And then I saw him on the news,” she said with a little laugh. “He thought he could fool me.”
And there’s a snapshot of a grit-covered Davis, the driver of a Humvee, carrying perhaps his most famous passenger, Geraldo Rivera. Both are mugging for the camera.
Donna Davis has plans to make a scrapbook. Her stack is growing daily. She’s already dug out many of Dwayne’s school photos. First grade: grinning so wide that the gaps caused by his missing baby teeth show. High school: a football player, down on one knee, dimples deep, eyes glinting. He graduated from Raymore-Peculiar High School in 1998.
She paused at each, memories crashing into her thoughts. But then her eyes grew dark, her brow furrowed.
Being in war “killed him just as surely as any bomb,” she said. “All those bodies he saw in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.”
Her voice trailed off. She wonders what she could have done. How she could have changed this. She had plans to see him. Maybe if she’d been there.
Almost the same thoughts come from his grandparents. Eleanor and Jim Poindexter of Belton had helped raise Dwayne since his 14th birthday — he was too wild for his single mother. They, too, are saddened beyond words. Not a day passes without tears.
“I think our government owed him to help him out as much as possible,” Eleanor Poindexter said. After some of his deployments, “he couldn’t even stand firecrackers on the Fourth of July.”
“This has been a horrible experience for us. I hope no other family has to go through it.”
The grass at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery rippled like waves on the ocean.
The widow squinted into the sunshine, shielding her eyes, searching. She recited its location from memory: “Section 53, row nine, 11th grave.”
There. Her eyes focused on one headstone, on a name her hand had written so often: Sgt. Dwayne D. Davis. She stared, seeing the sign, erected just days ago, for the first time.
“So strange to see it,” Cara Davis said, unable to catch a tear. Unable to explain how stark this feels, how strange, how final.
Workers nearby stopped digging the newest grave. Stopped talking. Interlopers in her private moment, they cast their eyes downward as if trying to render themselves invisible.
“Sometimes I’m angry at what he did, you know? Then I’ll remember how lovable he was.”
She twirled the wedding ring he gave her. She touched the gold locket on her neck. She traced her fingers across his name on the stone, feeling its chiseled coldness.
“I will never, ever be the same.”
She is now seeing the same counselor who would have talked with her husband, if he’d continued. She’s on medication to make her feel better.
“She’s helping me,” said Davis, but she struggles with wanting to sleep a lot.
“I’ve been going through all those stages of grief, and I’ve been thinking about suicide, too. But I’m not going to act on it. Those thoughts are normal after this.”
She feels the pain. Tries to roll with it. Let it out. Grieve.
“I’m like a lost little girl, taking one day at a time.
“That’s all I can do.”
Call for help
•The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available for anyone. Additional resources are available if you press 1 and identify yourself as a member of the military.
•The Crisis Intervention Hotline, 1-888-899-9377, is for Missouri and Kansas residents who need assistance for anything from prescriptions to counseling, not just suicide issues. Calls will be redirected to helping agencies.