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
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.

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.

• • • • •

THE DEATH OF PRIVATE SCHULZE reverberated far beyond Minnesota. Charles M. Sennott of the Boston Globe declared Schulze a "searing symbol of a system that...is 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.

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."

• • • • •

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."

• • • • •

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.

But when Fickel and his girlfriend broke up in 2006, he just sort of gave up. Fickel had been through breakups before, but the stakes were higher this time, his mother remembers.

That weekend, Fickel canceled plans to march in the Memorial Day parade. Instead, he hosted a get-together at his apartment the same day his former girlfriend planned to move her stuff out. "He wanted to show her what she was missing," his mother says.

By the time everyone arrived, Fickel was drunk and out of control. He'd finished all the beer in the apartment and started guzzling rubbing alcohol. He was "nuts that day," his mother says. One minute he would act as if nothing was wrong, the next he was retching and sobbing.

When his ex-girlfriend finished packing her stuff and the truck pulled away from the driveway, it was as if he couldn't take it anymore, Aanden recalls.

"He looked me in the eye, blew me a kiss, and went back inside the house. We heard a loud noise and I thought it was a door slamming," she remembers. "I thought, 'Oh, someone is pissed off,' but he had shot himself in the head."

• • • • •

DESPITE THE INFLUX OF VETERANS from two new wars, the number of beds dedicated to treating combat PTSD at the St. Cloud VA had not been increased since 1995, according to an inspector general's report on Schulze's death. In the wake of the suicide, the St. Cloud VA doubled the number of psychologists providing mental health care for veterans, including the hiring of suicide prevention coordinators, a national mandate for all VA centers.

Locally, "not much has changed," says Joan Vincent, spokeswoman for the hospital, who canceled a scheduled interview with City Pages, citing ongoing litigation. She later clarified her statement, saying it was taken out of context. "Not much has changed in regards to PTSD treatment," she explained over the phone. Vincent later reiterated that the report investigating Schulze's death speaks for itself and that the VA was following appropriate protocol for PTSD programming at the time of Schulze's death. "We were doing a good job then and we're doing a good job now," she said.

During the 24 hours surrounding Schulze's visit to the VA on January 11, 2007, six beds were available in the acute psychiatry unit, a 15-bed wing at the hospital for patients who pose a risk to themselves or others. At the time, VA staffers failed to assess Schulze as suicidal, so he was put on a waiting list for elective PTSD treatment.

"They go into the military and they're promised that help will be there when they get out, but it's not," says Marianne Schulze, who thinks if her stepson was admitted that day he would be alive to tell his own story.

The Schulzes are now participating in a class-action lawsuit against the United States VA. Two groups—Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth—are accusing the VA of neglecting the psychological consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Schulze is one of several deceased veterans named in the suit, which was filed in San Francisco in July.

"The military is willing to send us off to combat at the drop of a hat, but then you come back and it's like, 'Get in line, take a number,'" says Travis Schulze, Jonathan's brother and a veteran of the Afghanistan war. Travis is currently receiving therapeutic care at the Minneapolis VA, but says he's a "special case" and doubts treatment would be as accessible if he weren't Jonathan's brother. "What if there is no time left to take a number? What if you can't wait?"

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