FamilyOfaVet - Real world info about PTSD, TBI, & life after combat
FamilyOfaVet - Real World info about PTSD, TBI, & life after combat.

PTSD & Suicide - One Couple's Story



The story below was written by a couple, Kelly and Brian, who have recently faced a near
suicide.  It's a story that will be strangely familiar to many households living with PTSD
(
post-traumatic stress disorder).  It's a story of missed opportunities for help, of PTSD
and suicide
too often go hand in hand and this brave couple hopes that by sharing their
story they will be able to help others come to terms with their own need for help.

Here is their story...

KELLY:

I was out of town the day my husband, Brian, decided he wanted to kill himself.  I had been
visiting my family in a neighboring state for about a week, had spent the night with Brian’s
parents to break up the long trip home and was making the final five hour drive late that
Monday afternoon.  The week I was away seemed normal; Brian and I communicated
several times daily via text and phone.  And while his frequent calls did seem slightly out of
character over such a short separation (especially given the much longer deployments and
training exercises we had been through before), I never detected any alarming signs of
stress or depression.  Yet mere minutes after I returned home I received another phone
call from Brian.  This time he informed me that he was returning home in the company of
his station commander and his CO.  When I questioned why, I was told the whole story.  
That morning, while driving to work, he had an overwhelming urge to shoot himself in the
head.  Thankfully, he did not follow that urge.  Instead, he turned his gun into his station
commander and his chain of command took the steps to finally get him the help he
needed.  So while I was making the drive home, Brian was meeting with therapists,
psychiatrists and social workers.  So how did it come to this?  How did I miss the signs?

BRIAN:

When I came back from my first deployment in the late fall of 2006, I didn’t know what to
expect.  I was elated to see my wife, and have the opportunity to go out with her and our
friends again, but I was also still hurting from the loss of a friend.  My wife and I went out
almost every night of the week during my 30 days of leave, getting drunk and having a
great time.  I recall one night that we went out shortly after my return.  We were returning
from a night of bar hopping, and we were both very intoxicated.  The door to our apartment
was unlocked, and as I walked through the door, my wife said “I didn’t leave the TV on”.  I
immediately panicked, froze, and quite literally saw my M16 and body armor lying against
the wall and went for them.  I heard my wife laughing, and came back to reality.  I told her
what I had just experienced, and she apologized, but I’m pretty sure I spent the rest of the
night being an ass to her.  The time spent sleeping was horrible.  Repeated nightmares
about fire fights and indirect fire attacks either woke me up, or kept me up at night.  I
started a cycle of self-medication through drinking.  I have a hard time remembering the
years between 2006 and 2008 due to my heavy drinking.  

I never felt like my drinking was affecting anything, either professionally or personally.  I
don’t recall any major arguments with my wife about it, nor was anything said to me that
would indicate that my work performance had been slipping.  The only time I recall any
negative vibe from my chain of command came from my brand new LT when we were
walking back from a PT test one morning.  One of the units on post was doing rehearsals
for a change of command, and when they fired the cannon, I hit the ground.  My LT looked
at me strangely and asked if there was anything wrong.  Since he had just been assigned
to the unit, and had yet to deploy, I just brushed it off with a joke.  The cannon fired again,
and I ducked, but did not get all the way down.  He asked me again if I was alright, and I
brushed it off again.  I didn’t even feel like explaining the panic I was feeling.  He wouldn’t
understand.












KELLY:

After Brian returned from his first deployment in 2006 I was nervous. I knew his transition
back could be potentially difficult and I wanted to do everything I could to make it easier on
him.  Prior to his return, I attended all the classes offered by the FRG and readiness
center, I researched the symptoms of
PTSD and I talked with several wives who had been
through previous deployments with their husbands.  All in all, I felt I was prepared, and that
together, Brian and I could handle anything that would happen.  Things weren’t perfect, but
they weren’t horrible either.  All in all, I actually felt relieved; Brian seemed to be handling
his return home better than most of his fellow company members.  Looking back however, I
can see now the assumptions and missteps that I made during this time. First because he
was willing to share some aspects of his deployment, I assumed he had shared everything
with me.  And based on this belief, I made many false assumptions about his deployment
and the trauma that arose from it.  I assumed that he hadn’t been involved in much action,
seen many traumatic events, or encountered many of the common stressors of battle.  This
I would later find out was very wrong.

My second mistake was assuming that the mild symptoms of PTSD that Brian was
exhibiting, (exaggerated startle response, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and avoidance of
crowds) were just typical responses when returning from a deployment and not a
something to be concerned about.  It was with this thinking that I didn’t push for Brian to
seek any mental health services.  I overlooked the minor symptoms and failed to notice
when he began to exhibit major ones.

My final and perhaps my biggest mistake was the amount of enabling I did during the time
between Brian’s deployments.  To cope with the increasing
PTSD symptoms he was
beginning to experience, Brian began to rely more and more on alcohol.  This “self-
medicating” is such a common thing, and was so easy for me to recognize in other soldiers,
but was also very easy for me to overlook or explain away in my own husband.  Brian was
drinking several beers or mixed drinks nightly to help him sleep.  On weekends, we would
often go out drinking with friends.  These nights frequently involved both of us drinking to
excess.  But Brian in particular was prone to binge drinking and even blacking out.  We
were young, child-less, and in Germany so it was easy to justify these weekend excesses.  
Additionally his nightly drinking never seemed to negatively affect his performance at work
or our relationship so it was easy to overlook it.  But I would also find myself making it
easier for him to drink.  I would supply his beer for him, suggest that we go out and drink or
have a drink with dinner, always be the designated driver so he could drink, or if we were
walking home, lessen my drinking to ensure that I was sober enough to moderate his
behavior while drinking and get us both home safely. In short I made it easier for him to
continue to self-medicate in the belief that I was supporting him and making his return
home easier.

Life continued in this manner without major trauma.  I continued to see other soldiers
struggle with PTSD, depression, anger management problems, and anxiety disorders but
failed to see just how much my husband struggled with these very same things.  There
were no major episodes or incidents like I expected; no domestic violence, no overt
alcoholism (that I identified), no drug abuse, or no suicide attempts.  He continued to startle
easily, seemed to have a shorter temper (but was never violently angry towards me), had a
lower stress tolerance and had a very low tolerance towards crowds, but I continued to view
those as only minor and expected symptoms of returning from combat.  We prepared for
Brian’s second deployment and Brian started making comments about how excited he was
to return to combat (another red flag I would later learn).  I was apprehensive, but once
again confident we would make it through this one as well as we had made it through the
first.

BRIAN:

My soldiers knew about my drinking, but trusted my leadership.  When we deployed to Iraq
again in 2008, they started testing me, seeing what they could get away with.  Instead of
handling it in a professional manner, I started becoming the type of leader that they could
walk all over.  My chain of command insisted that I switch with a friend for R&R dates, so
that I could get home and regroup my brain.  There were some intense moments leading
up to my leave, and I thought I handled them well.  However, my anger started flaring up
more often and with more intensity.  As I flew home, only two things were on my mind, being
with my wife, and drinking.  I only remember two events from that two week period.  My wife
and I went out with some of her friends to a comedy club and a piano bar.  I drank a pitcher
or two of beer at the club, and continued drinking beer at the bar.  The next thing I knew, it
was morning.  My wife confronted me and asked me if I had any recollection of what had
happened at all the previous night.  

I told her what I remembered, but that I didn’t remember coming home or anything really
past 9pm.  She told me that I had become belligerent at the bar, had attempted to climb a
wall, and had wanted to urinate on an ATM.  Right then and there, she told me to make a
choice: booze or her.  We had a long, long talk, and I agreed that I would seriously cut
back on my drinking, and at the most, have only two beers with a meal.  The rest of my
leave passed without any more drama, and I returned to Iraq just as stressed as when I
had left.  The deployment continued with my anger problems getting to the point that most
of the platoon avoided me.  During our last month, my chain of command sent me to mental
health for an anger management class.  I went, but basically ignored everything said to me
by the docs, because I figured I wasn’t the one with the problem.

During the deployment, I also started doing some seriously stupid stuff, just for the rush.  I
would spend an entire patrol sitting on top of my Bradley’s turret, basically daring someone
to take a shot at me.  When I went on dismounted patrols, anytime I had an excuse to take
my gear off, I would.  Even though it was battalion policy to wear all of our protective gear
while in vehicles outside the wire, I never did.  I had reached a point where the risk of death
almost seemed exciting.  When I got home, the risk taking behavior continued.  I would
push my car to its limits on the autobahn, occasionally ride my motorcycle in a foolish
manner, and found other unhealthy ways to get the same heart pounding experience that I
missed so much.  

KELLY:

Due to his increased access to the internet we actually communicated more frequently
during this second deployment.  We would usually chat via instant messenger or even web
cam nightly.  Yet Brian was actually telling me less about what was happening inside his
head.  I would only later find out that he had been referred for anger management classes
during this deployment as well as had his R & R moved to an earlier date for his mental
wellness.  It was on his two-week R &R visit back to the states (where I was visiting family)
that for the first time some problems with his drinking came to a head between us.  During
a night out with friends, Brian continued to get extremely drunk and attempted to climb over
a concrete wall and urinate on an ATM in front of some local police.  When I attempted to
stop him he berated me and called me names.  Essentially, he embarrassed me, made our
friends uncomfortable and ruined what was supposed to be a fun night out for everyone.
For one of the first times in our relationship, I felt less like his wife and more like his
babysitter.     

He often says that the next day I gave him the “it’s me or the booze” speech. In my memory
however, it didn’t exactly occur in that manner.  I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t about to send
him back into a war zone with an ultimatum hanging over his head either.  I was extremely
angry and did let him know that I did not enjoy being put in that position I had been in the
night before.  And that I felt that his drinking had become a problem that he needed to deal
with.  Once again hindsight is 20/20.  This was probably not the best time or place to have
this discussion, and as a result I sent an even more stressed out soldier back to Iraq. He
would later tell me that he engaged in many risk-seeking and life threatening behaviors
during this time, both as a stress release and to get an adrenaline rush.

It was after this deployment that Brian finally agreed to seek help from mental health
services. Unlike after the first deployment, he actually answered the redeployment
questionnaire given to all returning soldiers truthfully and was flagged for mental health
follow-up.  Unfortunately, the “follow-up” provided was pitiful.  Partly due to Brian’s
unwillingness to admit the full extent of his problems and partly due to the lack of
organization and follow through of our post’s mental health services.  So these efforts
resulted in little more than a band aid over a deep wound.  So where was I during this
time?  Same place I had always been, in denial.  Once again I was telling myself we were
doing all of the right things.  Sure we had missed some things, but he was getting help
now.  I was once again the proverbial ostrich with her head in the sand.  I failed to see the
continued risk-taking behaviors, the increasing anger and anxiety, the lower stress
tolerance and the increases in avoidance behaviors as a sign of an increasing problem.  
Instead I chose to believe the fact that since he stopped drinking (and incidentally stopped
sleeping) as progress and chose to believe that we were doing all the right things.

BRIAN:

In early 2010, my unit sent me to Bradley Master Gunner School, something I had wanted
since the beginning of my career.  While I didn’t make commandant’s list, I excelled in the
school and put forth my entire being to my studies.  I felt a sense of purpose being only
one of two E5's sent from my battalion to a school normally reserved for E6's and E7's.  
About halfway through the three month long course, I received orders stating that I was
going to be assigned as a detailed recruiter.  I was crushed.  I couldn’t understand why the
Army would pull me from the line while I was attending a school that cost my unit over
$150,000.  I almost lost my motivation to pass the course.  I soldiered on, though, and
passed the course.  

When I returned to my unit, I was taken from my role as the CO’s gunner and made a
squad leader.  I spent the April to September of 2010 training a squad of brand-new
privates and preparing them to go to Afghanistan.  By the time I PCS'ed to Oklahoma, I felt
that they were as ready as they could be.  I felt guilty, though, because I was going to not
be able to continue my leadership and mentorship while these kids went through some of
the same stuff I had gone through.  To this day, I feel guilty that I’m not there with my
soldiers.

My transition to recruiting was a tough one.  I wasn’t given much information about the unit
prior, and I wasn’t given a firm location that I would be working out of, complicating our
search for a home.  I started feeling more and more depressed as the weeks went by.  
Every time I went to a high school during lunch, my heart would start pounding and I would
shrink away to the corner.  I was unable to get over the panic I felt in crowds.  My
performance at the job continuously got worse, as I was unable to handle crowds, deal with
groups of loud kids, or even deal with people being rude to me on the phone.  Every day
was filled with dread and anxiety.  My leadership kept telling me that I was a horrible leader
because I couldn’t get kids into the Army.  I was told to lie in order to get an appointment,
and to sacrifice my integrity in order to complete the mission.  I couldn’t get how NCO's who
had never deployed in their 13 year careers were telling me that I didn’t know how to do my
job as an NCO.  

KELLY:

Finally it came time for our PCS move.  During a 3 month TDY to the states for Master
Gunner School, Brian received orders for recruiting duty.  This was not in our plan to say
the least.  Brian had no desire to become a recruiter and I had settled in nicely to a new job
at our current post.  However, even after hearing the horror stories from past recruiters
and their spouses, I was trying to look on the bright side of our new assignment.  This
would at least mean that for the next three years there would be no deployments and no
long field exercises.  However, almost from the start, I could see the effects that the
stresses from the “office” were having on Brian.  On week nights he would come home
talking about how much he disliked his job and complaining about how he did not feel like
he was contributing.  I also began seeing increases in
PTSD symptoms.  He would be
required to go into crowded shopping malls, high schools and college campuses to
prospect for recruits.  This would undoubtedly increase his stress and anxiety levels.  I
literally watched my husband slowly shut down over the next three months.  First starting
on Sunday he would begin to stress about work on Monday.  That quickly changed to
Saturday, and then he would eventually start worrying about having to go back to work as
early as Friday evening.  It got to the point where after he commented on how he wished
he could deploy to Afghanistan that I made the comment that I would rather have him
deploy again than have stay in this recruiting job.  It was that bad.    

BRIAN:

I sought counseling through the local Air Force base, and had to wait a month for an
appointment.  I was depressed, but told the psychiatrist that I didn’t need any medication to
“even” me out; I just needed to see a counselor.  The day of my appointment with the
counselor, I was told that they had forgotten to call me to reschedule, because the doc that
I was supposed to see had not shown up to work that day.  They had me sit down with
someone else, who asked me a series of questions.  One of them was “Do you have any
thoughts of
suicide or harming others?”  I told her that, yes, there were times I thought it
would be easier to just
kill myself.  As I started to feel that weight lift off my chest, she
went on to the next question.  She then took me down the hall to reschedule with my
original counselor, and nothing else was said about my answers.

My CO called me to the company the next day because he said he was worried about my
mental state.  I told him how I was feeling, where those thoughts had led me, and gave him
a general run-down of my emotions at the time.  I don’t know if he thought he was helping,
but he started telling me how he related because a guy in his BN had been killed in Iraq a
couple of years ago.  He also asked me the “magic” question about suicide, and I told him
the same thing that I had told my stand-in counselor.  Once again, I felt that I was getting
the brush off.  I started to feel like I was just another troublesome, easily replaced NCO in
this recruiting office.  I also felt angry as hell because this fat, unkempt captain was trying
to tell me that he knew how I felt.  

KELLY:

And yet I still wasn’t prepared for him to tell me that he was having suicidal thoughts.  Once
again I had taken another step in the right direction, but just wasn’t a big enough step.  By
this time both Brian and I were ready to admit that he had PTSD.  I was able to look back
over the past 5 years and recognize and admit most of my false assumptions and mistakes.
And Brian was finally ready to get help. This time however, our local treatment center was
working against us.  Due to some miscommunication Brian had to wait two weeks to even
get an initial appointment with a therapist after he tried to self referral to our local
behavioral health center.  Then despite his symptoms, the therapist he saw would not give
him a diagnosis and waited to schedule his follow up for a full month later (which was later
rescheduled for the following month).  It was while he was waiting to be seen that he
developed the
urge to commit suicide.  

BRIAN:

My depression deepened.    On March 7th, 2011, I was driving to work, feeling a level of
depression that I had never felt before.  I had been feeling down on myself for months, but
this was a kind of low that escapes description.  My heart was hollow, and I barely had the
energy to drive.  I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to pull my pistol out of my holster
and shoot myself while I was driving.  I pushed that thought back with great difficulty, and
unloaded my pistol.  As soon as I got to my station, I walked into my station commander’s
office, handed him the ammunition, and told him to hold on to it for a while.  I told him about
what I had almost done, and he called the 1SG and CO.  My CO drove me down to Fort
Sill, where I talked to a counselor about what I had been feeling.  She recommended that I
go to an inpatient facility where they could start giving me the help I needed.  

Since my wife was unaware of what was going on, I told her I needed a day to sort it out
and at least let her know in person what I was going through.  I got home late that evening,
with the CO and my station commander in tow.  They took my weapons, had me sign a
hand receipt for them, and I explained the situation.   As I was filling out the hand receipt, I
heard my CO explain to my wife that he was going to do everything he could to help me,
and not to worry because he was working on his masters in Human Relations.  I almost
wanted to break his neck right there.  I couldn’t believe the condescending and insulting
tone that he was using towards my wife.   

KELLY:

What scares me the most about this is that I completely missed the signs.  Typically,
individuals with suicidal intentions exhibit signs.  And looking back Brian certainly did.  He
was depressed, anxious, he suffered from insomnia and he didn’t really take interest in
things he once enjoyed doing. But my view, once again was skewed.  In my eyes, it hadn’t
gotten that far, at least nowhere near the point of suicide.  Plus I was more than willing to
believe that the therapist he was seeing would have noticed if he needed a serious
intervention. Obviously, that was yet again a wrong assumption.

So there we were.  Luckily all those missed signs and missed opportunities had not brought
about an absolute tragedy.  During the next 30 days Brian received treatment at a
wonderful in-treatment facility specializing in treating military members.  He actively
embraced aspects of treatment which he had previously rejected (i.e. medication, group
therapy) and partook in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) to begin to address his
PTSD.  Upon returning home he transitioned first to a military post behavioral health
treatment facility and then to a civilian therapist to continue his CPT treatment. The
transition was not exactly smooth, however, I am definitely trying to learn from the past and
take a more proactive role in the process.  It will be a long journey and so far we have only
taken the first few steps, but now I truly believe we are finally headed in the correct
direction.

BRIAN:

I went to UBH in Denton, Texas, for their Freedom Care program.  There, I finally realized
that I wasn’t alone with suffering
PTSD.  Between the group therapy sessions and just
socializing with fellow soldiers, I started coming out of my depression and learning how to
deal with it.  I also was prescribed medication to help me sleep, and for the first time since
2006, I started sleeping more than four hours a night.  Several of my fellow patients were
former infantry soldiers who were now recruiters, and I started learning how to relate to
others, and how to be open with my feelings for the first time in my life.  By the time that I
left, my depression was mostly gone, and the days that I would feel down, I learned how to
express it in a positive, rather than angry, way.

I still struggle daily with anxiety, anger, and depression.  I know now, though, that with
continuous therapy, positive relationships, and openness, my struggle will lessen with time.  
My biggest problem is now anxiety.  I feel that prior to my trip to UBH, I was masking all my
other issues with depression.  I don’t isolate as much, but still have a hard time in crowded
areas.  I can, though, recognize the times that I need to be left alone, and communicate
that need openly instead of playing the “I’m fine” game.  I’ve been pulled off production in
recruiting, and my future within my unit and the Army as a whole is still uncertain.  I have
learned that the old cliché of “one day at a time” isn’t as corny as it used to seem to me.  
There are days where it is “one minute at a time” but, because I finally opened up and
sought help, I am no longer a danger to myself.

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