Military's suicide prevention plan too late for Sarasota family
SARASOTA, Fla. — Friday afternoon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Department of Defense/ Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference that "we can do more. We must do more. And together we will do more to prevent suicide."
The next day, on a rainy afternoon in Sarasota, Luzdary Yepes cried and, over the phone, told me she wishes they did do more.
Two years ago. Before her son, Giovanni Andres Orozco, a 20-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, held his friends at gunpoint and then turned the weapon on himself June 10, 2010.
Yepes said that when her son came home from Iraq, he had a week to "detox" in New Jersey.
"A week is not enough when they see the kind of crap we don't even know about," she said. "They train them so well to fight, but they don't train them to come back. It's almost like when you train a dog to bite, and then you have to bring them to where little kids are and let them loose. It is not right."
Speaking at the conference in Washington, Panetta unveiled a four-track suicide prevention plan. It calls for increased responsibility by military leaders, especially junior officers and NCOs; improved quality and access to health care; elevated mental fitness and increased research into suicide prevention.
"I do think it does help," Yepes said when told about the plan.
She didn't know much about it before I told her.
Nearly two years to the day since her son killed himself, the pain is still so great that keeping up with the latest developments is difficult.
"Sometimes I can talk about it and be OK," she said. "Other times, I think life stinks, and sometimes I think I am losing my mind. I go through a roller coaster every day. Up and down. Up and down."
The pain of losing her son to suicide seeped into every aspect of her life, Yepes said.
A telephone bill collector, she said her work has suffered to the point where she has been given verbal reprimands.
Sometimes, she calls a person who lost a loved one and, like her, is overwhelmed by grief.
"They may be way past due, but I don't even care to collect," she said. "I am overwhelmed, too."
The specter of losing her job pales in comparison, she said, to what she has already lost.
"The worst that could happen to me has already happened," she said.
Yepes said her whole family has been affected. Her daughter is doing the best, said Yepes, in large measure because of her faith. The senior at Trinity University is taking business administration courses with a biblical ethical background.
But Yepes' 10-year-old son, who idolized his older brother, remains devastated.
Aside from dealing with his own pain, Yepes said, Jonathan has had to cope with a mother often barely able to take care of herself.
"He fell one year behind in school because of what happened," Yepes said. "I was to blame for that. I was so overwhelmed by pain that I took depression pills and slept, because when I slept, I felt less pain. I didn't do homework with him, didn't do anything. I just let the pain take over."
Yepes said she and her son have both been receiving therapy.
"I am more committed now with him," she said, adding that her husband, Edgar Lopez, has been strong for her throughout.
Yepes said she hopes the renewed effort at stemming the loss of so many people to suicide pays off soon.
"I hope for the best," she said. "I pray that it will be turned around."
With one mother a day joining Yepes in the growing ranks of the grieving, that turnaround cannot come soon enough.