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Suicide: war’s hidden toll

interior-clayhunt3This article was published in the Sunday Herald, on May 8, 2011.

On March 31, burdened with survivor’s guilt over the deaths of three close friends, numb with prescription drugs and unable to cope with the nightmares, panic attacks and depression of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sergeant Clay Hunt shot himself in his apartment. According to official U.S. military statistics, he was not a casualty of war.

He had been out of uniform since May 2009, after four years in the Marines, including two deployments, to Iraq and Afghanistan. His mother, Susan Selke, insists he died for his country, no less than the victim of a Taliban sniper or a roadside bomb. “Clay took his life because of mental problems that are a direct result of his experience in war,” she says. “I want our government to acknowledge that.”

An internal report published in July 2010 concluded that the rising suicide rate is among the U.S. Army’s most pressing challenges. The previous year, in which 160 active duty soldiers killed themselves, was the worst on record. The Army’s vice chief of staff, General Peter W. Chiarelli, noted that if accidental deaths, often the result of drinking or drug abuse, are added to the suicide column, then “less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions.”

Shocking as it is to consider that the majority of deaths in Army uniform are self-inflicted, the headline figure underestimates the true scale of the problem. The most recent statistics show that 156 active duty soldiers took their own lives last year, but this does not include 145 reservists who also killed themselves. It does not count veterans like Clay Hunt. It fails to take account of Army wives who crack under the pressure and pain of separation.

Hunt’s death attracted national attention because of his efforts on behalf of other veterans. He had featured in an advert for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America that told returning soldiers “you’re not alone”. He lobbied Congress for increased disability benefits and volunteered with an organisation called Ride 2 Recovery, building customised bicycles for amputees. He was good-looking, determined and generous with his time. Having overcome physical and mental wounds of his own, he was helping others to do the same.

His best friend, Sergeant Jake Wood, served alongside him in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they came home, Wood founded Team Rubicon, an organisation that sends small teams of veterans, doctors and nurses to the scene of natural disasters. After an earthquake destroyed Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, in January 2010, they were among the first aid groups to arrive. Hunt had decided not to go, but after reading updates at the Team Rubicon website, he drove to Los Angeles airport in the middle of the night, bought a ticket to the Dominican Republic and crossed the border by himself, finding his colleagues amid the chaos using an old GPS co-ordinate he’d seen online. “When I saw him, the first thing I did was cuss him out for being so stupid, but he started helping, right away,” Wood says.

Clay Hunt on the left, Jake Wood centre.

Clay Hunt on the left, Jake Wood centre.

Hunt joined the Marines in 2005. His first tour, to Anbar Province in Iraq, began in January 2007. His dad, Stacy Hunt, remembers that “he was very strong in his belief that nothing would happen to him,” but within weeks, his bunkmate, Lance Corporal Blake Howey, had been killed by a roadside bomb. When he heard the news, Hunt crawled down into Howey’s bed, later writing that “I just wanted to be closer to him, I guess. But I couldn’t – he was gone.”

A month later, Hunt and Wood were on patrol when their wingman, Lance Corporal Nathan Windsor, was shot through the throat by a sniper. Pinned by enemy fire, Hunt was trapped inside his vehicle. Wood eventually managed to carry Windsor to a helicopter, where he died. Hunt described his friend’s final moments as “a scene that plays on repeat in my head nearly every day, and most nights as well.” As his father remembers it, “for the first time, there was fear and pain on the other end of the line in my son’s voice.”

Hunt’s deployment only lasted three more days before he, too, was shot by a sniper, through the wrist. He was sent home, via Germany, and awarded a Purple Heart. “I’ve heard it called a ‘million dollar wound’ but he didn’t agree with that at all,” his mum says. “He was desperate to get back to his men. He was distraught to be home and not back with them.”

Hunt was diagnosed with PTSD and prescribed pills to calm his anxiety and help him sleep. But there was never any doubt in his mind that he would return to war. Once his hand healed, he trained to become a sniper, to serve in the same unit as Wood. In March 2008, he married the girlfriend who had helped him through the recovery process. The next month, he flew to Afghanistan. “It wasn’t like he was going there to pay back Al-Qaeda,” says his father. “It was ‘I have to be with my fellow Marines, Dad, you don’t understand.’ It tore him apart. Those guys were his brothers.”

Although Hunt wanted to go, Wood is angry that the military was willing to deploy him. “How the hell do you send a guy with diagnosed PTSD back into a combat zone to operate as a sniper for seven months? There should be somebody with a cooler head that says ‘no, you can’t go.’”

The Army suicide report acknowledged that soldiers with mental health and behavioural problems are being sent to war. It estimated that more than 100,000 service members are on medication for anxiety, depression or sleep loss. It counted 75,000 criminal offences committed by soldiers in 2009. It also observed that by the age of 24, the average soldier has lived through as much trauma and upheaval as a civilian experiences in an entire lifetime.

“You and I both know there are examples of soldiers who have deployed, and family members have said later that they had no business deploying,” Colonel Chris Philbrick, who runs the Army’s suicide prevention unit, told me. “That is not the Army standard. There are pressures to take soldiers who might not otherwise be eligible to deploy. But we have been very robust in our efforts to make sure that those are the exception.”

interior-clayhuntHunt’s Afghanistan tour, alongside British troops in Helmand Province, was a disillusioning experience. Another friend from their old unit, Corporal Michael Washington, was killed. “Clay started to get disenchanted with the war on terror mission, as our friends continued to die,” Wood says. “He was trying to understand what we were still fighting for. We were just sitting there waiting for the Taliban to attack us. They threw us out there with no helicopters, no artillery, no tanks, spread us out way too thin. We fought for a piece of real estate, had a bunch of guys die. Why? He struggled with that.”

By the time he came home, Hunt’s symptoms had worsened. The medication he was prescribed changed so often, and produced such debilitating side-effects, that he complained of being a “guinea pig” – although he spoke favourably of the counselling he received. His marriage foundered and he ran up credit card debts, to pay for university tuition, when his promised G.I. Bill payments were slow coming through.

Rescuing earthquake victims in Haiti gave him something to live for, but even there, he struggled to forget what he had seen. “One night, over a few beers, Clay talked about his friends who were killed,” recalls Sergeant Matt Pelak. “He said ‘it should have been me’ and you could tell he really felt it. And for some reason, Clay didn’t sleep in his own bed that night, he came down to sleep in my room. It struck me that he needed to be near somebody who understood what he was going through, because it was ripping him apart.”

Even so, his suicide came as a shock. “He had mentioned that he’d been close to it a couple of times in the last few months, so people knew, but we thought he was getting better,” says Wood. He had recently bought a new truck and was planning his next overseas aid mission.

The military is making a concerted effort to reduce the number of suicides. New soldiers are required to fill in a detailed questionnaire about their mental well-being. Mandatory resilience training includes a video called “Shoulder to shoulder: I will never quit on life,” that features soldiers who have tried to kill themselves and been saved by their friends. There is even a “Virtual PTSD experience” that attempts to recreate the feelings of fear and disorientation so many veterans encounter on their return to civilian life.

Most importantly, the Army is attempting to change a culture that views asking for help as a sign of weakness. In an Army Research Institute survey 51% of respondents said they believed that seeking treatment would adversely affect their careers. “Is it possible to change the culture? I believe it is,” says Philbrick. “Will we be successful with every senior leader? No, I’m not naive enough to believe that.”

Despite these efforts, major systemic obstacles remain. There is a desperate shortage of mental health professionals in the Army, Navy, Marines and Veteran Affairs administration. In combat zones, in particular, a military chaplain is often the only counsellor available. “Several years ago it was near impossible [to find a psychiatrist on base],” says Philbrick. “We have placed a more forward focus on behavioural health resources in theatre. But there aren’t enough people around to meet everybody’s needs.”

On average, every 36 hours another soldier commits suicide. Specialist Armando Aguilar shot himself in a petrol station, at three in the morning, as police officers tried to calm him down. Specialist William Hamilton was discharged from hospital suffering from hallucinations and stepped in front of a moving train shortly afterwards. Sergeant David Stewart, high on amphetamines, killed his wife and five-year-old son, before turning the gun on himself. Counting veterans, over the decade that the United States has been at war, there are thousands of similar stories.

Hunt’s family and friends accept that little more could have been done to save him. But all agree that the military continues to underestimate the numbers of soldiers returning with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries. “Unless you’re a sociopath, you will come home with mental health problems, to one degree or another,” insists Wood. “You could be shooting Taliban and then thirty days later they kick you to the kerb in Des Moines, Iowa, saying ‘we know you don’t know anyone on the outside, you probably come from a broken home and have a shitty family structure, but here’s your month of decompression, now go find a job.’ Those guys end up unemployed, homeless and suicidal.”

Stacy Hunt points to the disconnect between military and civilian life, observing that, for the most part, the war in Afghanistan is being fought out of sight and out of mind: “As a parent, you ‘what if’ yourself to death, but I wish there was a way these guys could reach out to their peers. It’s not like after World War Two. They come back home and life in America, or life in Britain, hasn’t changed that much. It’s like ‘do you people know that there are soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan?’”

Clay Hunt was cremated, according to his wishes. More than 1,100 people attended his memorial service, spilling out onto the drive at Houston’s United Methodist Church. The last call, Taps, was sounded on the bugle. Marines folded the Stars & Stripes, to present to his parents. Wind swirled around the chapel as a piper played Amazing Grace. “In general the military experience was an excellent one for Clay. He found himself during that time,” his mother says. “And yet the flipside is that, ultimately, that experience has taken his life.”