Soldier Suicides: veterans are killing themselves in record numbers

But at the VA, not much has changed

Last year, 121 Army soldiers killed themselves, a 20 percent increase from 2006. Attempted suicides and self-inflicted injuries have increased by 400 percent in the five years since the start of the Iraq war, with 2,100 in 2007 compared to 500 in 2002. In Minnesota, there have been at least 13 active duty or discharged servicemen under age 30 who committed suicide since January 1, 2003.

"This is a huge problem," says Reidenberg. "It's bigger now than it has been in any other conflict the United States has been in."

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David Fickel was never the same kid after he returned home. When his girlfriend moved out, he shot himself in the head.
courtesy of Robin Aanden
David Fickel was never the same kid after he returned home. When his girlfriend moved out, he shot himself in the head.

MANY SERVICEMEN AND WOMEN with PTSD don't come forward because they're afraid the diagnosis will affect their military rank and future employment, says Sue Abderholden, associate director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Often they don't understand PTSD or know that help is available.

Marine Bryan Benson was one of them. After deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Benson came home and enrolled in courses at the University of Minnesota. But on April 27, 2005, he shocked his family by driving far away from his St. Paul home and shooting himself in the head. He was 24.

"If Bryan can commit suicide, it's really open season; it can happen to anybody," says his mother, Denise Hinton. "He's the last person anybody would have thought would die this way."

Benson couldn't wait to join the military; he signed his commitment papers even before his graduation from Como Senior High, where he was a member of the ROTC program.

Three years after Benson graduated, he found himself on a Marine ship patrolling the waters near Australia, the kind of comfortable military assignment that was to be expected in the pre-9/11 word. But when the Twin Towers came crashing down, Benson's unit was immediately sent to the Arabian Sea. One month later, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served for four months. In March of 2003, Benson was sent to Iraq.

While in Fallujah searching for a missing Marine, the then-22-year-old was ambushed by Iraqi gunmen. He was shot in the abdomen, escaping death only because the bullet hit the magazine of his M-16 rifle. Later, he was shot in the leg. He told his parents nothing more about the incidents, other than that he and other Marines "dispatched" their assailants.

A natural-born leader, Benson returned from combat in 2004 with the ambition to move up the military ranks. He was admitted to the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, which would allow him to transition from sergeant to officer. To gain entrance to the program, Benson had to pass several psychological tests and interviews with panels of high-ranking military officials.

"Nobody caught anything unusual," his mother says.

Hinton noticed her son was different after the war, a little jaded, perhaps, but nothing unexpected for someone who'd experienced combat at such a young age. She wasn't that surprised when her son told her he wanted to get a gun; he no longer felt safe in the middle-class St. Paul neighborhood where he grew up.

"When you experience war, nothing is ever going to be the same again," says Matt Hinton, Benson's stepfather. "For the rest of your life you are going to experience everything from a different perspective."

This is especially true with the current wars, says Reidenberg. Because there are no front lines, soldiers have to always be on guard. Many of them, like Benson, bring that mentality home.

"The Iraq war is a very different kind of war," Reidenberg says. "If you turn the wrong way, make the wrong step, it could be lethal."

The Hintons thought Benson's struggles would fade as he spent time at home. It wasn't until after his death that they realized the full extent of his psychological pain.

"I just thought we'd have to love him up and get the sparkle back in his eyes," says Denise Hinton. "But we were wrong, love wasn't enough."

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MARINE DAVID FICKEL WAS too tough to ask for help, but not too tough to admit pain. When he came back to Litchfield in 2003 after tours in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, he couldn't shake the memories of sick and maimed children he'd seen overseas. He confessed to family members that his unit had fired on civilians, a fact that constantly troubled him, says his mom, Robin Aanden.

"He had changed from being a happy, fun-loving, really outgoing person into being more quiet and thoughtful," Aanden adds. "He was very angry, a clean freak, uptight. He was not the same kid."

When Aanden suggested counseling, Fickel got defensive. He said he was a Marine and could handle it. "It was like he felt he needed to prove a point that he wasn't going to buckle under anything," Aanden says. "He didn't want to feel like he was beaten by his ghosts, his past. He really wanted to prove it, to us and to himself, that he could do it."

Fickel's solution to his anguish was to have a family of his own. At 25, he thought it would give him hope; he loved kids and hoped fatherhood would distract him from the nightmares and guilt.

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