As an Army medic, Ray Burnside was called upon to save many lives during two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to administering care that included performing emergency surgery on fellow soldiers in combat, he was credited with providing medical help to more than 4,000 Iraqis and veterinary services to 2,000 head of livestock.
His humanitarian efforts built up the kind of trust and loyalty among Iraqi civilians that helped the U.S. military gain critical access to key tribal leaders, officials said in a letter awarding him the Bronze Star.
But the one life Burnside could not repair or save was his own. Beneath his man-of-steel exterior, the sensitive young Sonoma County native who as a teenager was a pacifist and handed out food to homeless people in Old Courthouse Square was imploding into a thousand little pieces.
In the small hours of the morning on Jan. 27, nearly four years after he was honorably discharged and returned home to Santa Rosa, Burnside checked into a Santa Rosa motel and texted his mother, Lynnette Casey, that he had a rope with which to hang himself.
He had made many such threats before. While she called police and drove to the motel, expecting to soothe him and offer support and reassurance as she had countless times since he left the military, he took his own life.
He had just celebrated his 30th birthday. His cause of death, his family asserts, was post-traumatic stress disorder.
An estimated 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD, and according to an often-cited figure from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans a day kill themselves. The real figure could be higher since some of the states with the largest numbers of veterans were not surveyed, said Jason Roncoroni, executive director of the North Carolina-based Stop Soldier Suicide. The nonprofit group connects veterans across the country with services and support and looks for new and alternative ways to treat a debilitating and seemingly intractable mental disorder that can leave vets paralyzed by anxiety and struggling to function.
That was the case with Burnside, who returned from service in 2012 with dreams of going to college, traveling the world and one day starting his own nonprofit organization to help others. Instead, his efforts were thwarted by persistent anxiety that prevented him from sleeping or holding a job and even made it hard to sit in a classroom full of people, his family said. He self-medicated with alcohol, becoming so dependent he could barely go a couple of hours without a drink. He was circumspect with his feelings as he slowly devolved. His family tried everything they could to get him help, but it was an uphill climb both finding services and getting Burnside to admit he needed help.
"My brother was helping civilians and also his fellow soldiers. But at the same time, he was witnessing a lot of death and devastation that had a lot to do with what ended up happening to him," said Jaime Burnside, who was just reconnecting with her older brother after returning from a stint in the Peace Corps in January.
"He would describe events that were just horrific. No person needs to see children and women and people have their lives taken due to events such as war. And his fellow soldiers, as well, got killed beside him. As a medic, he was first at the scene saving people's lives, and at the same time there were people who were not able to be saved."
It proved too much for Burnside.
On Sunday, in a scene all too familiar across the country, more than 100 friends and family members, surrounded by a protective phalanx of veterans with the Patriot Guard and American Legion on motorcycles, gathered at Cypress Hill Cemetery in Petaluma to say goodbye to a young man variously called "intense," "loyal, "committed," "compassionate," "heroic" and even "God-sent."
Pat Parks, a retired Petaluma police chief and pastor of a small church in Bodega Bay, who officiated at the service, spoke of soldiers' "wounds you cannot see."
"We cannot forget them. We cannot leave them behind. We have to do something. This is not OK," Parks told the mourners.
It was a time, Burnside's mother stressed, not to memorialize her son, who shrank from attention and recognition, but to honor him. One by one, his loved ones stepped forward and dropped red roses into his open grave before his closest friend, Mohammed Abdullah, who met Burnside when they were young teens hanging out in downtown Santa Rosa and jamming in a punk band called Black Box, covered the box containing his remains with earth and sod.
Afterward, they crowded the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building for a buffet donated by Oliver's Markets and members of Mothers of Military Service Members, a support group that helped Lynnette Casey get through the years.
The walls were adorned with photos and collages of Burnside — the small boy with a fishing pole and a puppy, the young iconoclastic musician who taught himself to play guitar and bass, and the strapping, 6-foot-2 Army Special Forces sergeant posing in front of a helicopter and in a cave where Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. troops after 9/11.
For all his seeming confidence and competence, the man who had completed training for the Green Berets — a leg injury ultimately kept him from serving with the elite force — and endured the grueling Infantry One Station Unit Training, along with numerous other specialized programs, was tormented with self-doubt after eight years in the military.
"You drop off a kid who is 18 and you get back a man who is 24 or 25 and he's just been a war medic doing a huge adult thing," Lynnette Casey said. She said she fought for four years to get help for her son, making multiple calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs but always being told her son had to make the call. He never did.
Burnside's stepfather, Culley Casey, added, "They train you to be tough and then the release comes and they give you a little pat on the back and, without any deprogramming or any counseling, send you home. He really started going off the edge."
That Burnside joined the military was a surprise to his family. Born in Petaluma, he grew up in Santa Rosa's Rincon Valley, attending Spring Creek, Matanzas, Binkley and Rincon Valley Middle schools.
He was "super brilliant," Culley Casey said, and showed a rare compassion and insight as a child.
People often called him "an old soul," Lynnette Casey said. But regular high school didn't suit him. He dropped out of Maria Carrillo in favor of the alternative Nexus Charter School, where he built a chicken barn as one of the projects to earn his diploma.
His family said his desire to help people and an intrigue with other cultures — he spoke several languages, including Russian — motivated the young vegan to enlist.
During his years in the service, which sent him all over the country for specialized training as well as two tours of duty, he disclosed little. Lynnette Casey said it is only through emails she has received from men who served with her son that she really came to understand the extent of his responsibilities and burden. One related how Burnside had saved his life and how, while under fire with his night-vision goggles, he sewed up the leg of a fellow soldier.
When he returned home he seemed fine, his stepfather recalled, and headed off to explore Eastern Europe and Israel with a backpack. But when he got back, he began to crumble inside. He attended Santa Rosa Junior College but felt confined in class and uncomfortable with the feeling of people sitting behind him. He had no trouble getting jobs but couldn't keep them. His drinking became so severe the family, concerned about the impact on their youngest son Cameron, a junior at Carrillo, asked him to leave.
It was heartbreaking, they said.
"We were harboring a guy who was falling apart in front of our eyes but not going to do anything about it," Lynnette Casey said.
He did go through detox at a VA health facility in Palo Alto and was accepted into a recovery program but ended up walking away when he saw the door to the psychiatric unit. The tight confines terrified him.
Burnside seemed to be doing better after spending time with an Army buddy in Tacoma, who helped him sign up for VA. services and qualify for disability, his parents said. He called at New Year's and said he was sober and ready to come home.
He seemed stable and almost happy for several weeks, spending time with family and celebrating his birthday Jan. 9. But something must have snapped, the family said.
Culley Casey thinks a blown transmission just as his stepson was about to start a new job may have been the trigger that sent Ray Burnside into his final spiral.
The couple is encouraging other families of veterans not to give up. They're calling for a greater awareness of the dangers of the hidden demons that torment war veterans, better deprogramming as they leave the service and greater funding for veterans services.
"They didn't die while they were in combat," said Lynnette Casey, wearing a red "22 Too Many" bracelet calling attention to the daily toll of veterans taking their own lives. "They died while they were here, at home, by their own hand, because they they feel like they can't live. They can't process it all. They can't put it together."
Her husband added with a sad grimace, "Ray was the biggest, smartest, best-looking guy in the room. Everyone knew it but him."
The family suggests donations to The Coming Home Project.
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