Soldier Suicides: veterans are killing themselves in record numbers

But at the VA, not much has changed

On February 19, 2004, Private Jonathan Schulze's life changed forever. The stone-faced, blue-eyed Marine got word he was going to war in Iraq, an environment completely different from his previous cozy posts in Okinawa, Japan, and California.

Two months later, Schulze found himself in the midst of a bloody, two-day firefight in Ramadi. He watched a rocket-propelled grenade decapitate his best friend. There was no time to grieve, he told his family; he had to "bag and tag" bodies with the dead man's brains still smeared across his shirt. There were 16 U.S. fatalities that day.

Seven months later, after receiving a general discharge from the Marine Corps, Schulze returned to the family farm near Stewart, Minnesota, where he grew up. Although unusually quiet, his life seemed back on track; he worked construction with his father and fawned over his daughter, Kaley Marie.

Former Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze killed himself just days after he was told he was number 26 on the waiting list for the St. Cloud VA's PTSD program
courtesy of Eileen Schulze
Former Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze killed himself just days after he was told he was number 26 on the waiting list for the St. Cloud VA's PTSD program
Marine Bryan Benson of St. Paul shocked his family when he killed himself in 2005, just a year after his return from Iraq
courtesy of Matt Hinton
Marine Bryan Benson of St. Paul shocked his family when he killed himself in 2005, just a year after his return from Iraq

In May 2005, Schulze suffered an on-the-job injury and turned to the Minneapolis Veterans Administration for treatment. For reasons unknown, his body was resisting antibiotics and he was continually developing infections.

But that wasn't all that was wrong. Jonathan told doctors that several times a day he experienced panic attacks. His heart would race, his chest would hurt, and he'd feel like he was being choked. He couldn't sleep at night and had developed a violent temper. One psychiatrist noted that Schulze said his "life was falling apart."

Jonathan was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a serious mental condition that can result in nightmares, panic attacks, and hypervigilance.

By January of 2007, Schulze's binge drinking and violent outbursts had hurt his relationships with family and friends. He'd been convicted of driving drunk and was asked to leave an apartment he was renting.

Schulze hit bottom and realized that no amount of booze and anti-anxiety drugs would make the pains of the war fade. He inquired about residential PTSD programming at the Minneapolis VA and was told he had to wait until March.

So Schulze traveled with his father 75 miles to the St. Cloud VA. They had heard about its residential treatment program for PTSD and hoped Jonathan would be admitted on the spot.

At the hospital, Schulze told an intake nurse that he was suffering from severe PTSD and that he was suicidal, his parents say—a claim the VA denies. He was told to go home and wait for a phone call; the social worker who was supposed to conduct screenings was busy with another matter.

The next day, Schulze was told that he had been admitted, but he shouldn't pack his bags just yet: He was 26th on the waiting list.

"He got off the phone and he looked at me and his face just fell," says his stepmother, Marianne.

Four days later, police found the 25-year-old motionless in a sitting position, semi-suspended from a blue electrical cord tied to a cross beam in his friend's basement. He had hung himself.

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THE DEATH OF PRIVATE SCHULZE reverberated far beyond Minnesota. Charles M. Sennott of the Boston Globe declared Schulze a "searing symbol of a system vastly unprepared and underfunded to handle the onslaught of 1.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are returning home," and wrote that the "apparent failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer him timely and necessary care" raised questions as to "how a serviceman with such obvious symptoms faced a wait for hospital care."

New York blogger Bob Geiger wrote a post on January 31, titled "Young Marine Dies of PTSD—and Neglect." Schulze, Geiger wrote, "died of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of wounds to the soul and not the flesh. He died because the government that was there to send him far away to fight in 2004 wasn't there for him when he got home."

The following month the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Military Deployment Services for Youth, Families, and Service Members reported that there were "significant barriers to receiving mental heath care in the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs system."

Today, as violence continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more and more troops return home from combat, the VA and Department of Defense have been unable to keep pace, says Dan Reidenberg, a doctor of clinical psychology and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a Bloomington-based nonprofit. In February 2006, the national VA said it was expecting 2,900 new PTSD cases; the actual number was nearly six times that, with some 17,800 documented cases, according to a 2008 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America report.

Recent studies show one in five soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, Reidenberg says. With no draft in place and military recruitment numbers dwindling, the burden of this war has been put on a relatively fixed number of servicemen and women. Multiple tours of duty have put excessive stress on soldiers and their families. Homecoming often collides with failing personal relationships and legal, financial, or occupational problems, which can all contribute to higher levels of PTSD.

The nature of PTSD makes sufferers more likely to turn to suicide than people with other mental illnesses, Reidenberg adds. They can't escape what's going on in their minds and see suicide as the only way out.

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