The war on terror has seen the advent of many new realities in modern warfare and its aftermath. The protective gear of our soldiers has advanced, as have our technological protective mechanisms such as signal jamming devices that prevent I.E.D.s from exploding within damage range of our personnel carriers and other vehicles. Medical advancements and the preparedness of our combat medics has progressed to where soldiers who would have died from the injuries they’ve been sustaining in this war in wars past have been coming home alive.
Most would agree that these are good things. However, in spite of these advancements on the battlefield that have come during a war in which it can be agreed that there are no clearly drawn front lines, and the enemy wears no standard uniform, we’ve had little focus and very few advancements on post- combat casualties, namely, P.T.S.D. and the veteran suicide epidemic we’re seeing in the U.S. as a result of it.
The latest numbers released by the U.S. Government show that 22 U.S. veterans a day are committing suicide. This is up from the previous numbers released, which stood at an already record high of 18 suicides a day.
On the morning of June 21, 2012, Sheri Johnson walked into the garage of her Fulda, Minnesota home to find something no mother should ever find. Her son, Trever Gould, had hanged himself by an electric cord, and he was dead.
Sheri Johnson and her son Trever Gould
Trever was only twenty five years old, and he had served honorably in Mosul, Iraq with the U.S. Army as a mechanic. Part of his responsibilities in Iraq included manning recovery trucks that went outside of the Green Zone to retrieve other coalition trucks that had broken down or had been destroyed or disabled by enemy fire or explosives.
“It’s something you never want anyone to go through,” Sheri says of the experience. “I knew my son was depressed, but I never knew he was that depressed. It tears a parent up to know that your baby was hurting that bad.
“I’d come home from work the night before after eleven thirty, and I just had a gut feeling that something was wrong,” she says, retelling the terrible tale. “I noticed that the air conditioner wasn’t running, but I told myself that the night was sort of cool, so that was okay. I just couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t fall to sleep until after five in the morning.
“When I woke up around ten thirty, I walked into the kitchen, and I saw that Trever’s work things were still on the bench. I thought ‘oh, no,’ and I started looking for him. I checked his car, which was in the driveway, and he wasn’t in it. Then I crawled upstairs to check his bedroom, but he wasn’t there either.
“I kept looking for him, and I noticed that there was something funny about the garage door. I had to pry it open because it had been blocked. When I opened the door, there he was, hanging. I touched him. I closed his eyes. I kept saying, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ And then I called dispatch.”
Sheri’s story is not new, and it’s one that is being shared by too many mothers and wives and significant others around the country, yet one that is not receiving the level of attention that it should be within the ranks of the military, the aisles of Congress, or within the Veterans Affairs Administration. Rarely is the issue emphasized by the mainstream media.
“No one cares, because it doesn’t affect them,” Sheri says of the suicide epidemic among U.S. Veterans. “My experience has cost me friends. My best friend has two sons, and she doesn’t even talk to me now, because she doesn’t want to look at the fact that it could happen to one of her sons.”
Sheri speaks of the stares she often receives from strangers and acquaintances alike when she’s in public, because of the stigma of suicide and what she’s been through. “Would you like to discuss it?” she says to many of those who gawk.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the entire situation is in knowing that people who were in a position to do something to help Trever did nothing.
“He asked his leadership for help,” Sheri says of Trever’s chain of command at Fort Hood, Texas. “They called him names, and said he just wanted out, and made things even harder on him.”
After Trever’s death, Sheri gained access to his Army records and those records amazingly show that Trever had actually discussed his suicidal thoughts with U.S. Army medical care providers at Fort Hood.
“He even told them how he was going to do it… that he was going to hang himself,” Sheri says. “That’s in his records.”
Sheri says that it is also in the records that Trever had reported that his dad had committed suicide a little more than a dozen years before. Statistics show that children whose parents commit suicide have a twenty five percent greater chance of committing suicide themselves, yet in spite of this knowledge, Sheri feels the people within the organization of the U.S. Army who could have done something, chose to do nothing.
Trever, like many veterans and civilians alike who suffer from P.T.S.D. turned to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate his condition. He would later fail a required drug test and be chaptered out of the Army.
“They made the problem all his,” Sheri says. “They even tried to say that during his pre-deployment screening they’d found that he had a ‘personality disorder,’ yet that didn’t stop them from sending him to Iraq. It was only an issue for him when he came back and was seeking help. Then, instead of helping him, they just booted him out when he slipped up.”
Sheri says that Trever never sought help through the VA once he was out of the Army, and she feels that the negative treatment he received from those within the Army at Fort Hood was a large part of the reason he did not seek further help. “They’d left him an empty shell of a human being,” she says.
Trever had been attending college at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he had been focusing on studies in business, and had been home for the summer working a summer job at the time of his death. Ironically, and showing how insidious the suicide epidemic among our veterans in the U.S. has become, one of Trever’s instructors at his college, Professor Peter Linnerooth, who was also an Iraq Veteran, committed suicide as well. Linnerooth had been an Army psychologist and had gone to Iraq to help soldiers dealing with P.T.S.D., only to come home and lose his own battle with the illness seven months after Trever lost his.
Linnerooth, who had been a Captain in the Army, was a Bronze Star recipient and had been honorably discharged in 2008. In his post military life, he became critical of the military’s limited work on providing mental healthcare to soldiers, particularly to those suffering from P.T.S.D. He spoke out about the issue through major U.S. media outlets such as the New York Times and Time Magazine.
Capt. Linnerooth was buried with full military honors at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, MN. Trever Gould, having been ‘other than honorably discharged’ for having gotten into trouble for self-medicating with alcohol and illicit substances due to his seeming inability to get the help he needed, even after having gone to his chain of command at Fort Hood to get it, was not buried with full military honors.
Today, Trever’s mother Sheri is reaching out to other parents who have lost a son or daughter to suicide. She speaks at retreats, and has volunteered with emergency help lines, and she is planning on taking this cause to Washington once she builds enough of a supportive following. She is honoring Trever’s memory and reaching out to others with a memorial she’s started in Trever’s name. You can get involved and offer Sheri support on the Trever Gould Memorial Facebook page.
Sheri now sits on the Board of Directors of Operation:I.V., a Nonprofit founded by Gold Star Mother, Roxann Abrams, who also lost her son to P.T.S.D. induced suicide. Operation:I.V. provides specialized treatment for P.T.S.D. combat veterans and referrals of help to their families. There is no long approval period required, such as the case is with the V.A., where many of our veterans are literally dying before being seen. You can get in touch with Operation: I.V. to make a donation or to seek treatment through their website. The organization also has a supporting Facebook page.
“People within the military need to be held to account for these suicides,” Sheri says in closing. “We’ve all heard it said that ‘sh#* rolls downhill.’ Well, it’s been rolling down on these guys for too long, and it needs to start rolling back up! There needs to be accountability for the higher ranking officials who are doing nothing.
“It’s terrible for any parent to lose a child under any circumstances,” she says, “but there is a different kind of deep for the pain when your child takes their own life. As a parent, we’re supposed to take all of our children’s pain away. That’s supposed to be my job as a mother.”
Somewhere in America there are 22 mothers a day who are feeling this deep pain. There are children, who at some point were happy that their mothers and fathers had made it back from war, who are now finding their mothers and fathers dead. Lovers are walking into bedrooms and garages and backyards to find that their love is gone forever.
This issue is not warm and fuzzy, but it’s the ‘new normal’ in a war that can boast fewer casualties on the battlefield because of advancements in technology, protective gear, and the medical preparedness of combat medics. However, we desperately need to catch up with mental healthcare advancements on the home front, where we are seeing that any pluses in the number of lives saved on the battlefield is merely being negated later at the hands of P.T.S.D. induced suicide.
Kevin E Lake is an Iraq War veteran and author of the book “Off Switch” which raises awareness of the rampant rate of suicide among our soldiers and veterans in the U.S. It is available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Off-Switch-ebook/dp/B009Q3MSK2