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Fort Bragg soldier's story shows why preventing military suicides is a 'frustrating challenge'

Fayetteville, N.C.— At 3:37 a.m. on May 19, Fort Bragg Pvt. Eric Watson sent a text message to his mother:

"I love you mom. I just can't take living anymore and I'm so sorry. I will always be with you."

The message set off a flurry of texts between Watson and his mother, Angela Moore, who said she tried to keep her son on the phone until she could get someone to check on him.

Watson, who Moore said had tried to overdose on pills and alcohol, was found in time.

Watson's story provides insight into how far the military has come in helping mentally ill soldiers, even as too many continue to slip through cracks in the system.

At the same time, the fact that Watson ended up in the Cumberland County Detention Center three days after his suicide attempt -- where jailers weren't even told to put him on suicide watch -- raises questions about Fort Bragg's handling of his problems.

Military suicides are soaring.

According to an Associated Press analysis, from the first of the year to June 3, suicides among active-duty U.S. military service members averaged nearly one per day. The 154 suicides represent the highest rate since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began a decade ago and an 18 percent increase from the same period a year earlier.

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Researchers say the protracted wars, with long and multiple deployments, have put stress on the troops like never before. Studies show that at least one soldier in five comes home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many suffer from traumatic brain injuries and alcohol and drug abuse.

Suicide is a problem the military is confronting head on.

At a major three-day conference in June on addressing military suicides, Leon Panetta called them "perhaps the most frustrating challenge that I have come across since becoming secretary of defense last year. Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction."

Another speaker at the conference -- a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- was Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health.

"The reality," he said, "is suicide prevention is an extremely complex and difficult task."

Petzel nonetheless believes that there should be a "zero tolerance" policy for suicides.

"We will do everything we can because we will not tolerate a single suicide among people we care for," he said.

And the military and VA are doing more each year.

The military has introduced a national suicide hotline and myriad programs aimed at assisting soldiers in crisis and reducing the stigma attached to getting help.

Still, soldiers keep dying by their own hands.

A case could be made that Pvt. Watson should never have been in the military. When he was 16, his parents said, he got drunk at a party and harmed himself. The incident resulted in a stay at a mental health center.

But privacy laws keep the military from digging into past mental health issues, and Watson's recruiter, Jeffrey Sessoms of Jacksonville, said Watson never mentioned his problems.

Watson is now 24. Angela Moore says deployment damaged her son. He got home in October after a year in Iraq, she said.

"He was really distant, and any little thing, he would just go off," Moore said. "He didn't want to tell me nothing they dealt with over there. We are super close, so I knew something was wrong. ... It's just like he snaps for no reason. He'll scream, he'll hit, punch walls. I've seen him hit his car before."

She thinks her son's commanders at Fort Bragg could have given him more help, more protection, when he returned from Iraq showing problems.

But Fort Bragg did try to help Watson, who is a member of the 18th Airborne's Corps' 8th Ordnance Company.

In February, Moore said, the post sent her son to a substance-abuse treatment clinic in Alabama.

After his release, she said, Watson returned to Fort Bragg and quickly found himself in more trouble. He threatened to desert and to kill himself, so he was sent in March to a mental health center in Winston-Salem, where he stayed for two weeks.

When he again returned to Fort Bragg, he was restricted to the post for 45 days and put back on work detail, Moore said.

"They just threw him back out there," she said.

Not long afterward, she got the text message that he couldn't take life any more. Moore said she called military police, who went to his room that morning but couldn't find him. She also called a friend, who later found him in his room. Moore said she called an ambulance, and her son was rushed to a hospital.

On the day of Watson's suicide attempt, his father reached out to a Fayetteville Observer reporter.

"I am writing to you with a heavy heart," Demarco Moore wrote in an email. "My son is a soldier station (sic) aboard Ft. Bragg. His mental state is fragile at best. My ex-wife and I have spoken to him and all I see is a time bomb waiting to happen ...

"Today, May 19th he told his mom that he was tired and did not want to live anymore.

 "He attempted suicide today."

Moore, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2008 after a distinguished career, said he understands the moral standards that soldiers are expected to live up to. As a master sergeant, Moore said, he sometimes had to get tough himself on Marines who misbehaved.

He acknowledged that his son has not always followed the Army's moral code, but he questions whether leaders at Fort Bragg were intentionally harassing him because of his fragile mental state. Every story has three sides, Moore wrote in his email, and the truth usually lies in the middle.

"I hear my son cry out for help and all I hear about, from him, is how he is constantly being harassed," Moore wrote.

Moore said he was concerned that his son would try again to hurt himself, or that he might hurt someone else.

"I don't want to be that parent that has to look another family in the eyes and tell them how sorry I am for my son's actions," Moore wrote. "Nor do I want to bury my son or visit him in jail. None of these options are what we want to face as a society."

Angela Moore can't understand why the Army didn't help her son readjust when he returned from the mental health center in Winston-Salem.

"It's just really frustrating, because I think it's crazy," she said. "Instead of getting him help, they do this. You don't just throw them back at work. You make sure their mind is right."

Dr. M. David Rudd, co-founder and scientific director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, said research indicates that Angela Moore's gut feelings are correct.

"It would seem that more could have been done, particularly in terms of increased monitoring," said Rudd, who is dean of the University of Utah's College of Social and Behavioral Science.

"Sadly," Rudd said, "there is apparently evidence of multiple warning signs, both clinical and contextual. In particular, the transition from an inpatient facility is the single greatest contextual warning sign for death by suicide."

Rudd said the first week to a month after someone leaves an inpatient hospital after a suicide attempt "is the period of greatest risk and requires quick and more frequent clinical follow-up and treatment.

"This is perhaps the greatest challenge for large organizations like the Army, to recognize and respond to these warning signs consistently," Rudd said.

Three days after Watson tried to kill himself, Cumberland County deputies arrested him at his barracks on a warrant charging him with missing a May 16 court date on reckless driving charges from Onslow County last year.

During booking at the Cumberland County Detention Center, court records show, Watson was charged with possessing a controlled substance on jail premises. Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Tanna said deputies found what was described as "a leafy substance" in his shirt pocket.

Tanna said Watson was not placed on suicide watch in the jail because the Sheriff's Office was not notified of his suicide attempt three days earlier.

Watson spent five weeks in the jail before his mother paid $1,000 bail to get him out June 29. Fort Bragg officials immediately picked Watson up and returned him to post, where Moore said he has been placed on restriction and awaits a decision on whether the Army will discharge him.

Moore said she got to meet briefly with her son before military police took him away.

"His nerves were really bad," she said. "He wouldn't stop shaking."

At the conference on suicide prevention, Ben Harris of Georgia described how his brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Harris, killed himself in February.

Harris said that when his brother started feeling the symptoms of PTSD, he told his counselor he was depressed, irritable, anxious and couldn't sleep for more than an hour at a time.

He was prescribed medicine, Harris said, but when he went back for additional help, a nurse told him he could no longer be seen because he admitted to drinking too much and needed to be treated for substance-abuse issues.

Michael Harris decided not to go back. A few weeks later, his brother said, he killed himself.

Ben Harris and members of four other families of service-member suicide victims spoke at the conference as part of a panel presentation by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. All of the panelists believed the military missed or ignored warning signs of a soldier's cries for help.

Kim Ruocco, the national director of suicide education and outreach for TAPS, said Watson's case is similar to the others. The abuse of alcohol or drugs should not be used against a soldier suffering from mental health problems, she said. Instead, it should be considered a symptom of those problems.

Ruocco said service members who suffer from multiple problems -- legal, mental and substance abuse -- are the most likely to fall through the cracks.

"Whenever we get a guy who is sick but also gets into trouble, it's so hard to get them the care they need because they get in the penal system rather than the mental health system," said Ruocco, whose husband, a Marine helicopter pilot, committed suicide in 2005.

Although Fort Bragg officials tried to help Watson by providing substance abuse and mental health treatment before his suicide attempt, Ruocco wonders whether the officials could have worked closely with family members and health providers to ensure that he didn't harm himself.

Now, she said, it appears that Watson's legal troubles will outweigh his mental health problems.

"I have no doubt that they are probably fed up and don't know what to do with him, but I would hope they would feel some responsibility in keeping him alive and would look at the core issue," Ruocco said.

The scope of the fourth-annual suicide-prevention conference leaves little doubt that the Department of Defense and the VA have been trying hard to reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts by active-duty service members and veterans.

But the numbers keep rising at Fort Bragg and throughout the country.

The VA reports that an average of 18 veterans a day have killed themselves. About a third of those veterans were receiving care through the Veterans Health Administration. In April, the New York Times reported that for every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans died by their own hands.

At Fort Bragg, the number of suicides has climbed from six in 2009 to 15 in 2011. So far this year, Fort Bragg said, nine soldiers have taken their own lives. That list includes Spc. Ricky G. Elder, who turned his gun on himself after killing his commander, Lt. Col. Roy L. Tisdale, during a safety briefing June 28.

The suicides continue despite the military's years of research, the array of programs available, the attempts to identify soldiers in trouble, the large increase in VA and military health-care providers and the annual suicide-prevention conferences.

Improvements have been made at Fort Bragg. About 18 months ago, the installation transferred the direction of its suicide prevention program from an in-house agency to Army Col. Chad B. McRee, commander of the 16th Military Brigade. The thinking was that military leadership is better suited to keeping soldiers from killing themselves.

McRee, whose brother committed suicide, speaks passionately about his mission and the "leave no soldier behind" mentality.

"I take this very, very personally," he said.

McRee said the fact that Fort Bragg provided Watson substance abuse and mental health treatment stands as a "great testament."

"That's exactly what we want to happen because we were committed to get the soldier treatment," he said.

McRee points to resiliency training and the ever-increasing awareness among soldiers that it's OK to get help, noting that the number of soldiers who have sought mental health help at Fort Bragg has doubled in recent years.

Although the number of suicides is on pace to triple between 2009 and this year, McRee said Fort Bragg efforts are making a significant difference.

As evidence that Fort Bragg is not letting obviously deeply troubled soldiers slip through the cracks, McRee pointed out that none of the 24 soldiers who killed themselves since the beginning of last year had attempted suicide previously.

The national conference featured a number of service members who came close to suicide and managed to pull themselves back. People such as Army Maj. Jeff Hall, who "couldn't wait" to go to war, until he experienced the death of a soldier he was leading in battle.

"It broke me," Hall said as he sat with his wife and two daughters and described the monster he became in his own home.

Eventually, Hall entered a program at the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Center, where he said he received the mental health care he needed.

Other service members provided similar stories of averting disaster because they sought help.

In his speech, Panetta outlined four areas of focus to reduce military suicides. Those areas included better and more accessible mental health care, improved training in coping skills and continued research into the causes and prevention of suicide. They also included the need for Army leaders, especially the ones who see the soldiers every day, to do a better job of taking care of their soldiers.

Leaders, Panetta said, "need to be sensitive, need to be aware, need to be open to signs of stress in the ranks, and they need to be aggressive, aggressive in encouraging those who serve under them to seek help if needed. They also must set an example by seeking help themselves if necessary."

The kind of harassment that Watson's father believes his son experienced is unacceptable, Panetta said.

"We have to make clear that we will not tolerate actions that belittle, that haze, that ostracize any individual, particularly those who have made the decision to seek professional help," he said.

Panetta's comments emphasized the points made in the Army Suicide Prevention Program, a manual for installations and units.

"Commanders must realize that actions taken to protect a person or the public from potential harm, while shielding the at-risk person from public humiliation, takes precedence over any other possible concern," the manual says.

On June 28, Demarco Moore, Pvt. Watson's father, sent another email. This time, he implored everyone to do more to help prevent military suicides:

"I think the more light that is shown on this problem the more people will realize that we as a nation must do a better job at addressing our warriors' plight or we risk being the victims of our own inaction."

 

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