MORRISTOWN — Capt. Thomas Gilley asked his ex-wife to tell his children he loved them.
He asked his fiancee when she’d be home.
Then he put a .40-caliber pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Gilley, commander of the Tennessee National Guard’s 190th Engineer Company, had been home six months from his last deployment — and had just finished a round of the Guard’s anti-suicide training days before.
The 32-year-old divorced father of three survived tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan without a scratch. He never lost a soldier.
But he complained over and over he “couldn’t do anything right.”
Gilley’s death Sept. 26 came amid renewed emphasis by Guard officials on suicide prevention and left family and friends with questions they’ll never be able to answer.
“We hadn’t even argued recently,” said his fiancee, Sarah Brooks, who walked in on his body. “But if anything at all went wrong, he always took it personally. He felt like a failure. Nobody could really help him.”
Gilley’s children — Jonathan, 9; Audrey, 6; and Meredith, 5 — had been making birthday cards to give him that weekend. They wrote messages of goodbye instead.
“We put them in his casket,” said his ex-wife, Sabrina. “I sat the kids down and told them their dad had died. Our middle daughter asked how. I just said, ‘Daddy shot himself, and we don’t know why.’ He always seemed so proud of his children. I don’t see how in his right mind he could leave them like that.”
More veterans commit suicide now on a daily basis than at any time in U.S. history, statistics show — nearly 350 last year alone.
“We lost more soldiers to suicide than to combat last year,” said David Pina, a Knoxville-based suicide prevention expert and former chaplain who has worked with the Guard and the Department of Defense. “I call it the terrorist within. We’re losing an unbelievable amount of veterans, an estimated amount of 18 per day. At first we thought it had something to do with the length of deployments, but it seems not to be related. People who have not deployed recently are committing suicide as well. It’s really alarming.”
From Iraq to Afghanistan
Gilley grew up in Pound, Va., and joined the Guard as a student at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the 278th Regimental Combat Team.
While in Iraq, his marriage fell apart. He and his wife of five years separated within two weeks of his coming home in the fall of 2005.
“If I could turn back time, I would have worked harder,” his ex-wife said. “I was young. He was young. We married young and grew apart, I guess.”
She says she noticed differences in Gilley — mood swings and other changes — after he came back the first time, even though she’s not sure their marriage would have survived regardless.
“He just seemed very controlling,” she said. “I guess it’s hard to come home from controlling all those soldiers and then try to control your family, and I guess I didn’t take too kindly to that. He was a very good dad who loved his kids. But even then he was always very, very hard on himself. Nothing he did was ever good enough.”
The pair stayed on friendly terms even after their divorce became final. Gilley saw his children regularly. He also sought treatment for depression.
Sometimes he and his ex-wife talked about getting back together. They never did.
He dated other women. One accused him of assault during an argument in December 2010. Gilley cooperated with police, and the woman didn’t pursue charges.
His ex-wife says he talked at one point about killing himself.
“I thought he was just down and thinking the worst,” she said. “I never thought he would actually do it.”
The National Guard reorganized after the return of the 278th. Gilley learned he’d be deploying again, this time to Afghanistan as captain of the 190th, based in Russellville, Tenn.
He left his job at Rentenbach Construction in Knoxville in 2010 for a two-year term on active duty. He met Sarah Brooks, a 20-year-old waitress, at the restaurant where she worked in March 2011, about a month before he left for the second time.
“At first he didn’t want to get attached,” Brooks said. “He still had a lot of problems from his marriage. He seemed to get over all that when he met me. He even told me he was going to get off his (depression) meds.”
The 190th rolled out of the armory in Russellville for mobilization training at Fort McCoy, Wis., on April 13, 2011. If Gilley had any doubts, he didn’t show it.
“The support shown by this community has been amazing, and we’re all very grateful for it,” he said just before the bus doors closed.
The 190th spent its time in Afghanistan clearing roads of bombs and training engineers for the Afghan National Army. Gov. Bill Haslam visited the company that August to praise their work and helped Gilley fold the state flag.
The captain told his fiancee he couldn’t wait to come home.
“He would call me every day,” Brooks said. “They got blown up a few times, but nobody really got hurt over there. He wrote me a letter saying all he wanted to do when he came home was to take care of me and his kids and he felt like he failed us.”
Gilley came back on leave in December 2011. He spent about half of his two-week pass with his children in Virginia.
“He seemed a little different, kind of standoffish,” his ex-wife said. “I didn’t see him at Christmas. His mom did and said it seemed like he was battling something.”
The soldiers came home for good in April 2012. Gilley’s children met him at the armory. So did his fiancee.
Somehow the homecoming didn’t live up to his expectations.
Gilley’s active-duty service ended in July. He spent the three months between trying to line up work. The sluggish housing market and a lack of construction contracts made for scarce results.
He told an Army doctor he’d been having trouble sleeping and continued episodes of depression. The doctor recommended a follow-up visit that family members say Gilley never showed up for.
He told his fiancee he didn’t want to go back on antidepressants.
“He felt like the medicine was a weakness,” Brooks said. “He tried so many times and couldn’t find a job. Nobody could hire him around here. Some of them told him he was overqualified. He tried to go back on active duty and couldn’t because some training wasn’t finished.
“He actually filed for unemployment at the end of July. I know that got to him. He was only on it a couple of weeks, but he felt like he had failed himself. He was over 100-plus men for so long, and now he comes home and doesn’t have an important role anymore.”
Rentenbach hired Gilley back in August to supervise a construction job at the Nuclear Fuel Services Plant in Erwin, Tenn. Going back to work didn’t live up to his hopes, either.
“He hated it,” Brooks said. “He was gone all week. He was staying in a motel. He found out he was going to be deployed again in June.”
‘I can’t do anything right’
Gilley’s daughter Audrey turned 6 years old Sept. 17, two days after his birthday. He wasn’t there for the party.
“That was the first birthday he’d ever missed,” his ex-wife said. “It was at his discretion when he got the kids. He would come to his son’s ball games when he could, but there for a while he got really bad about not wanting to have them. He’d say, ‘It’s not a good time for me to have them. I’ve got too much on me.’ What father is gone for more than a year out of his children’s lives and doesn’t want to see them again?”
Gilley had planned to see his children the following weekend. A Guard drill in Smyrna, Tenn., canceled those plans.
Gilley spent the weekend sitting through training on suicide prevention. He laughed about the classes later.
“He made jokes about it, about how silly the classes were,” Brooks said. “He acted like it was a waste of time.”
Gilley left home early for work that Monday, Sept. 24. On the way to Erwin, his pickup ran off a straight stretch of road, down an embankment and into a utility pole off state Highway 107 near Chuckey, Tenn., around 6:45 a.m.
The impact totaled the truck, which hit the pole on the driver’s side, and sent Gilley to Johnson City Medical Center with a concussion and a cut to his head. A Washington County deputy’s report noted no apparent cause and nothing that should have distracted the driver.
Gilley told his family and fiancee he couldn’t remember what happened. He said he must have fallen asleep.
Brooks has her doubts.
“My own theory is that maybe this was his first attempt,” she said. “Maybe he felt like he could leave his family easier if they thought it was an accident.”
In the hospital, Gilley kept looking in the mirror at the cut on his forehead. His children asked him to send a picture.
“I don’t want them to see me like this,” he texted back.
Brooks heard him say the same words again.
“I can’t do anything right.”
Doctors kept Gilley overnight for observation and sent him home Sept. 25. He called his boss and planned to go back to work later that week.
He talked to his ex-wife about getting the children that weekend and about buying an Xbox for Jonathan’s birthday in October. He talked to Audrey for about 10 minutes.
Brooks left the next day for class at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn. She and Gilley traded texts throughout the day.
At 3:13 p.m., Gilley asked Brooks what time she’d be home. She told him around 5:30.
At 4 p.m., he texted his ex-wife.
“Tell the kids I love them,” he wrote.
At 4:52 p.m., Gilley asked Brooks to stop for some ointment for the cut on his head.
His daughter Audrey tried to call him at 5:20 p.m. He didn’t answer.
Five minutes later, he texted Brooks to ask where she was. She told him.
“Why?” she asked.
“Just asking,” he wrote.
He sent the last text at 5:29 p.m. Neighbors didn’t hear the shot that followed.
A medical examiner estimated Gilley’s time of death around 5:30 p.m.
Brooks found his body in a back bedroom about 10 minutes later. He’d had just enough time to pull the trigger before she got home.
Standing down, stepping in
Two days after Gilley’s death, National Guard officials announced every unit in the state would stand down that October for suicide-prevention training. Guardsmen packed armories from Bristol to Memphis for mandatory classes.
The Guard has partnered with the Jason Foundation, a national nonprofit, to offer the Guard Your Buddy smartphone app, which encourages soldiers and airmen to check on each other and offer support.
Experts often blame the military’s culture of silent self-reliance for the persistence of the suicide rate, but Pina, the Knoxville counselor, believes the problem goes deeper.
“People are afraid to ask someone, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ There’s a myth that if you ask, you’re planting the idea,” he said. “What we’re really afraid of is if the answer is yes, what do we do? Once we get the power and courage to ask the question, almost anybody will do something helpful. But you have to listen. Look for personality changes. You can’t count on mental health people to pick up on personality changes, because they don’t have the relationships to recognize those changes.”
In Russellville, soldiers of the 190th held a memorial service at the armory for Gilley.
“One guy messaged me later on Facebook,” Brooks said. “He said this let him know he’s not alone. He said he’d had similar thoughts. Now he knew there was help.”
In Virginia, Gilley’s children tucked the cards meant to wish him a happy birthday and to get well soon into his casket before the lid came down.
“The casket was open,” his ex-wife said. “They were touching his face, asking things like, ‘Why does he feel so hard? Why is he so cold?’ They’re going to counseling. Audrey still misses him the most. Just the other day a dad came to eat lunch with his kids at her school. She’ll never get to do that.”
The mother sees the Guard’s response as too little, too late. She wonders why no one noticed Gilley never reported for a follow-up visit, as the doctor recommended at demobilization.
“He took care of all those guys,” Sabrina Gilley said. “Who took care of him? Nobody. He wasn’t the type of man who would ask for help.
“I had a four-star general tell me, ‘If I had known he needed help, I would have pulled every string I could to get it for him.’ Why didn’t they check on him? I don’t know if anything would have prevented it. But I think if they did some kind of class for relatives on what to look for, that would help. You can’t just send him home to his family and expect us to fix him.”