Advocates offer free peer-to-peer support, crisis line, case assistance
February 21, 2009 – After Private Paul Bridges saw his buddies die in Iraq in a Humvee in February 2006, his mental state began going downhill, said his father, Terry Bridges.
Three months later, a mental health counselor told his chain of command that Bridges needed to leave the theater immediately. His weapon was taken away.
But nearly six months later, on Nov. 2, 2006, still in Iraq and working 12-hour days, Bridges shot himself with his roommate’s weapon.
“His command let him down,” said Terry Bridges, who has received no answers about why his son remained in Iraq. “It was something that could have been prevented.”
He said the military needs to train noncommissioned officers not to treat troops as malingerers when they exhibit mental health problems, and also train troops in how to react and protect their comrades who might be contemplating suicide.
“We can’t do anything for Paul. But if we can help change the culture to understand that just because a soldier doesn’t have an arm blown off, or a hole in the stomach, it doesn’t mean soldiers aren’t wounded … maybe it will prevent this from happening to others,” he said.
Bridges and his wife, Sherryl Marsh, are joining forces with other families of suicide victims in the military through the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors to help prevent suicide in the ranks and assist families of suicide victims.
In fact, Bridges is working with the family of a sailor who recently killed himself.
“TAPS has seen a tragic increase in families whose loved ones lost their very personal battles,” said Bonnie Carroll, the group’s founder and chairwoman. “We embrace these families with a wide array of programs offering comfort and care, [and] a prevention program for battle buddies coping with the death of a fellow service member.”
TAPS offers peer-based support, crisis care, casualty casework assistance and grief and trauma resources, all free. Unlike most programs offered through the military, TAPS provides ongoing help to anyone grieving the death of a loved one in the military, regardless of the relationship to the deceased, where they live, or the circumstances of the death.
TAPS can also help connect service members, families and others to free, confidential, one-on-one, unlimited counseling through partnerships with the Veterans Affairs Department’s Vet Centers, Give An Hour and the Association of Death Education and Counseling.
In the past year, TAPS has seen a 25 percent increase in calls from survivors of suicide to its 24-hour crisis line, (800) 959-TAPS.
Connie Scott believes a program like the battle buddies initiative might have helped save her son, Army Pfc. Brian Williams.
She will never know exactly what Brian saw in the days before he left Iraq to come home on leave in December 2006. But the day before he was supposed to return to Iraq, the 19-year-old killed himself in their garage.
“If only Brian could have reached out to someone who understood his pain,” she said. “He could have done that through TAPS. Everyone in trauma needs someone who understands.
“He was sent home in a critical state without a support group,” she said. “He had never been exposed to death before. I think he would’ve been OK if he hadn’t come home on leave … if he’d had the support of his Army buddies.”
Williams’ troubled mental state was worsened by an e-mail from his fiancée that he received at the airport while waiting to leave Iraq, in which she broke off their engagement because she had found someone else.
“He couldn’t sleep or eat and was withdrawn,” she said. “We walked on eggshells, not knowing what to say or what not to say. There was no Army base near me. I had no one to call. I didn’t know what to do.”
‘I’m a gunny. I’m fine’
Marine widow Mary Gallagher said she is confident that military leaders are sincere about trying to eliminate the stigma that clings to seeking mental health care.
She believes the stigma played a big role in keeping her husband from seeking help. Gunnery Sgt. James Gallagher hung himself in their garage at Camp Pendleton on May 23, 2006.
After his return from Iraq — where more than 12 people in his unit were killed, including the commanding officer — “Jim never spoke of anything,” she said.
When she tried to talk about his behavioral changes — sleeping more, not showering — “he told me, ‘I’m a gunny. I’m fine.’ ”
The stigma has to be dealt with, Gallagher said.
“Depression kills. Stigma kills. That stigma was a part of Jim. No way he trusted and believed in the system set up for him to get help. I know, in his state of mind, it would have meant the end of his career.”
Just a month before he took his own life, she said her husband helped stop one of his own Marines from committing suicide.
“Jim said, ‘Doesn’t he understand what he would put his family through?’ ”
‘I can’t rest’
Army officials saw a spike in soldier suicides in January. From what TAPS is seeing, February is no better. Kim Ruocco recently talked to four newly grieving widows of Army suicide victims, offering support from one who has been there.
“It’s brought me back to square one,” said Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Corps Reserve Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton, Calif., three months after returning from Iraq. “I’m exhausted with the subject of suicide, but I can’t rest because there’s too much to be done.”
Ruocco and another widow of a Marine suicide, Carla Stumpf-Patton, have begun coordinating TAPS’ nationwide peer support group program specifically for survivors of suicide.
Family members and others often say they realized later that there were red flags, and they want other people to be aware.
“You don’t want to wait until your family is in crisis mode to learn about it. Prevention and education are the key,” said Stumpf-Patton, whose husband, drill instructor Sgt. Rich Stumpf, killed himself in front of recruits and other Marines at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., in 1994.
Not everyone shows the same signs, said Ruocco.
“Looking back, there was a drastic change,” she said. “He lost a ton of weight, he was irritable and angry. I attributed it to the pressure and stress of coming back from war, and no time off. How do you separate that from a deeper problem?”
But, she added, “if there’s a drastic change and the person doesn’t seem like the person you knew, you need to get help. Don’t assume it’s normal.”
Chaplains are a first line of defense, as are VA’s Vet Centers, which are confidential.
“If I’d known, I would have taken him there at Christmas,” Ruocco said. “There’s a Vet Center 20 minutes away” from their home in Massachusetts.
But service members’ peers have to be watchful, too, she said.
“People have to start taking notice when something isn’t right. Peers have to watch over their peers psychologically, too. They need to talk about it. Realistically, most are suffering in silence.”