Florida military families cope with suicides
The women get up on a hot Saturday morning in April for the long ride to Tampa.
One is making a 130-mile drive from Astor, and the other is traveling 40 miles from Dade City.
Though they are coming from different places, their paths to a Tampa ceremony honoring fallen troops is remarkably similar.
Each lost an Army son to suicide last summer. Each is suffering despair, what they say is a stigma that comes with a child who takes his own life and anger at the Army for failing to do more to prevent the deaths.
They are not alone in their misery.
More U.S. troops are dying by their own hand than by the enemy's. There were 488 confirmed suicides last year and another 27 suspected, compared with 298 deaths in combat. The trend is continuing this year - 102 confirmed and 66 suspected suicides, compared with 75 combat deaths.
Strangers until recently, Debbie McLean, 50, and Cathy Sprigg, 59, say their lives have been drastically improved since meeting each other and joining the Tampa Gulf Coast North chapter of the Gold Star Mothers Inc., an organization dedicated to helping families of sons and daughters who died in service to their country. The group invited them to the Field of Honor ceremony at the Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park and Museum.
For McLean and Sprigg, the Tampa trip is bittersweet, a mix of trepidation and anticipation. It brings back painful memories yet offers a chance to spend time with others who have lost children to war - especially Toni Gross, the organization president both mothers credits with helping them make it through the agony.
"I can relate to these anguished mothers," says Gross. Two years ago, her son, Army Spc. Frank Gross, 25, was killed in Afghanistan. And her father and two uncles took their own lives.
Last year, the Pentagon introduced a suicide prevention plan that called for increased responsibility by military leaders; improved quality and access to health care; elevated mental fitness; and increased research into suicide prevention.
Yet men and women continue to kill themselves. As a result, groups like Gold Star Mothers are stepping up at the grass-roots level to provide support. Helping families deal with what Gross calls the "ripple effects" of suicide is becoming a bigger part of her portfolio.
"Their loss is compounded with feelings of guilt for not knowing or realizing that the son or daughter was depressed and contemplating suicide," she says. "These families want answers."
Since he was 6, David LaDart wanted to follow family tradition and join the military. His grandfather served in the Navy during WWII and in Korea. His uncles served, too.
By 9, LaDart experienced the divorce of his mother, McLean, who was living in West Monroe, L a. Though the divorce was hard on him, McLean said LaDart grew to be "a very outgoing young boy" who "loved sports, baseball, basketball, football, fishing and hunting. He was funny as all get out, could just make you laugh like crazy."
LaDart fulfilled his lifelong desire to enlist after graduating from West Monroe High School in 2005, says McLean. "I was not happy," she said. LaDart was first deployed to Iraq in 2006, serving as an armored truck driver.
McLean says the two stayed in touch every day. Their frequent phone calls brought the war home.
"I heard the bullets and the gunfire and the machine guns and the sirens and the bombs coming in on him," she says. "I would lay in the fetal position while I was on the phone with him. It was just horrifying."
Returning to Iraq in 2007, LaDart was assigned to hazardous convoy duty during the surge of forces. The deployment lasted 14 months and deeply affected him, says his mother.
"He told me he saw bodies burning," she says. "He had to help his buddies get out of vehicles. Pick bodies up and clean out the vehicles, picking up body parts."
Despite the horrors, LaDart re-enlisted. He injured his knee, was sent to Kuwait, and when he returned to Iraq, he suffered a mental breakdown, according to Army records.
It happened when he was about to return from his deployment. LaDart witnessed a 3-year-old boy get shot in the head near his base, says his mother.
"He had the panic attack, or what they call PTSD episode," says McLean. "They told me he threw a helmet at another soldier."
The incident led to psychiatric counseling, Army records say, during which LaDart revealed he had a pre-existing case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was successfully treated and went back to his unit. When he returned to the states, LaDart's post-deployment check-up found he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a non-combat traumatic brain injury from falling off a truck and striking his head.
In December, 2008, LaDart married his girlfriend, with whom he would later have a son.
Deemed by the Army to be fit for service, LaDart began helicopter mechanic training at Fort Eustis in Virginia. His problems continued to the point that he was disciplined and demoted. He then referred himself to military behavioral health providers, who once again diagnosed him with PTSD and ADHD and started a treatment program. The Army then sent him to Germany as a tactical vehicle driver.
Things continued to deteriorate, though. LaDart threatened a superior. He expressed thoughts of killing himself and others and told his commander that he tried suicide before, Army records say. But under what the Army calls "intense care," LaDart's mental health improved. He was promoted to specialist and won the Soldier of the Month competition.
"Absent PTSD symptoms, he was returned to duty," Army records show.
Things started looking up for LaDart. He was assigned to Ft. Belvoir in Virginia in September 2011. In April 2012, he completed the Army Warrior Leadership Course, "an important developmental career step," according to the Army. But a few weeks later, his life cratered again.
A domestic dispute with his wife led to his removal from the home. A protective order was issued against him and the Army considered more discipline. His commander requested a mental health evaluation. Medical officials at the fort's hospital reviewed LaDart's recent mental evaluation and determined he was not a threat to himself or others. He kept his next mental health appointment on May 29, 2012, made no mention of suicide and talked about the future.
On June 4, LaDart arrived at work "without any outward display of distress," Army records say. "He returned to his family quarters during lunch and had a phone conversation with his wife in Louisiana. Tragically, David hanged himself in the garage without leaving a suicide note."
He was 25.
The news arrived in Florida at 3 p.m.
Debbie McLean was driving home from work when she got the call from her son's mother-in-law that LaDart killed himself.
"I had a mental breakdown in my vehicle," she says. "I am surprised I didn't walk into traffic."
McLean says she knew her son was having difficulty and wasseparated from his wife. But she didn't know of the PTSD diagnosis or the suicidal thoughts.
"I knew nothing," she says."I just knew he was dead."
The suicide sent McLean into a downward spiral. "I went into my own hole," she says. "It was like someone took away my whole world. Everything I believed in."
Adding to her misery, her son was placed in a casket in a sergeant's uniform, but before being transported to Louisiana, the Army realized he had been promoted in error and ordered his uniform changed, shocking the family during the viewing.
It was all more than McLean could handle. Depressed, she was prescribed Zoloft, Xanax and sleeping medications. At one point, she was involuntarily committed under the state's Baker Act.
McLean says she wasn't suicidal, but "I have thoughts of wanting to be with my son. A longing to be with my son. What mother who loves her son would not?"
Growing up in Pasco County, Robert Allen liked playing with GI Joes and dressing up like a soldier, says his mother, Cathy Sprigg. "He always wanted to be in the Army," she recalls, sitting in the dining room of her Dade City home.
It was natural, she says. "We are from a military family. My dad was in the Marine Corps in the Korean War. All my uncles were in the military. We have a military history going all the way back to the Revolutionary War."
Sprigg divorced Allen's father when her son was five and remarried when he was nine. Though there were tensions with his stepfather, Jim Sprigg, Allen's mother says her son was "a good boy, basically a good spirit who would bring stray cats home."
After graduating from Pasco High School in 2000, Allen worked as an air conditioner technician. He met a young woman in 2008, fell in love and married in 2009. A short while later, he was laid off and enlisted in the Army.
"We were very proud," says Sprigg.
Allen, who had battled weight issues, was eager to prove himself, says Sprigg.
"When he went into basic training, he was so excited and so motivated. His recruiter said that in his three years of recruiting, nobody worked harder to get into the Army than Robbie."
After basic, Allen was deployed to Iraq in September 2009, where he drove an armored vehicle called a Stryker, says Sprigg. He was stationed outside Baghdad, near the Abu Gharaib prison.
On March 17, 2010, his first son, Gavin Joseph Allen, was born. Having saved up his leave, he returned from Baghdad for the birth. Two weeks later, he shipped back to Iraq.
"He hated to go back," says Sprigg. "He was all about the baby."
The Spriggs say Allen saw combat but kept things close to the vest.
"He told me some stories that weren't very pleasant," says Jim Sprigg. "He was telling me that one time, his unit was guarding a local politician. The politician was safe, but they got his 9-year-old daughter. They blew her legs off. I am assuming he saw that."
Allen kept things bottled up. "'Mom, there's stuff I can't tell you,'" was his response, Cathy Sprigg says. "I didn't push it. It makes me wonder and it makes me sad. He never hated before he left, he had friends of all ethnicities and religions. But when he came home he said, 'Mom, I hate those people.'"
Allen returned to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Seattle in 2010. A little more than a year later, the couple had a second child, Colin Gene Allen. During a visit to see her new grandchild, Sprigg learned from her daughter-in-law that Allen had PTSD and that he returned from Iraq a different person.
"I didn't really see that," she says. "But I knew he was under a lot of stress."
In February 2012, Sprigg says she flew to Seattle at the behest of her son, who asked that she stay with his wife and children while he went on a training mission. Allen returned toward the end of her stay.
"When he came back, I noticed he was under a lot of stress," she says. "He had a new baby and worked 12-hour days."
At some point, there was another sign of stress, says Sprigg. He gave all his guns to his best friend.
Britney Allen says that, other than talking about being surrounded by the enemy while in a Stryker, her husband didn't talk about what happened in Iraq.
"He would wake up frequently, screaming, saying he was on fire," she says.
Last summer, Allen talked about suicide and tried to get help, says his wife, but he was told he did not "score high enough on a suicide test." The Army says it cannot comment because of privacy laws.
At 4:30 a.m. July 31, the phone rang at the Sprigg house. "It was Britney on the other end," says Cathy Sprigg. "She said, 'Robbie hung himself, Robbie hung himself.'"
After taking a second to comprehend the news, Sprigg says Britney Allen told her that her son was still alive and on his way to the hospital. As the day unfolded, the Spriggs learned that Allen was in grave condition.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Sprigg says, she had a last chance to caress him, wipe his face and whisper in his ear.
"I said that it was OK, that he could go in peace and I loved him," Sprigg recalls, crying over the memory. "I whispered, 'I love you forever, I love you for always, as long as I'm living my baby you'll be.' I told him he is supposed to bury me, I'm not supposed to bury him."
On Aug. 2, surrounded by friends, family and his commanding officer and chaplain, Allen died.
He was 27.
Sprigg says her son's death filled her with "incredible sadness."
"As a mother, I felt defeated," she says. "I do feel the stigma of suicide. I go shopping in the next town so I don't run into people who look at me like a deer in the headlights. I know it is uncomfortable for them and for me as well."
Seeing how troops killed in action were treated made matters worse.
"Their sons came home with a parade and a motorcycle escort and my son didn't have any of that," she says.
For several months, Debbie McLean and Cathy Sprigg continued to suffer in virtual solitude.
Last fall, Toni Gross reached out to both women. Still hurting from her own loss, Gross spends hours reaching out to families, especially mothers.
On Oct. 20, Gross crossed the state to meet with McLean. "It was the first time I talked to anyone outside my family about what happened to my son," says McLean. "I found it very relieving."
A month later, Gross invited her to a lunch with another Gold Star mother.
"It was after that meeting that I began to put together the story of my son," says McLean, who has spent hundreds of hours gathering documents and pushing back at the Army.
About the same time, Gross reached out to Sprigg, inviting her to lunch with a half-dozen other Gold Star moms.
Arriving at Poppa Joe's Pizza in Brooksville, Sprigg says she found an instant bond.
"Right off the bat, they hugged me and let me know I am not alone," she says. Hearing other mothers talk emboldened Sprigg to try to find out what happened to her son. Now the Army says it is working to get her answers, says Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, spokesman for the 7th Infantry Division, a task complicated because Allen's wife is the primary next of kin.
On Feb. 16, a chance encounter in Orlando led to an epiphany for McLean and Sprigg.
Sprigg and her mom were talking at a VFW Hall about what happened to her son. McLean happened to be in the audience.
"It was surreal," says McLean, to hear another family talk about a soldier who hanged himself.
"Just knowing what happened to her and my sons, it was heartbreaking," McLean says.
Sprigg recalls McLean coming up to her and giving her a big hug. "She whispered in my ear and said, 'my son did the same thing.' Immediately, there was a sisterhood. A connection."
For Toni Gross, working with other moms who have lost a child in uniform helps her heal, too.
"I am strengthened when I see these moms grow, and it encourages me," says Gross.
"I am thankful and glad to be part of this, part of their healing, part of bringing moms together. Through our bonding, we do grow stronger."
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