On most nights, when Margy Agar finally falls asleep, she’s curled up with her daughter’s blanket. She wears her daughter’s gym clothes as pajamas and her Army dog tags as a necklace.
Sometimes, when Margy wakes up, she has dreamt of her daughter’s death. She thanks God it was only a dream.
Then she remembers.
War can destroy some of the nation’s most promising young people — and not always on the battlefield. Sgt. Kim Agar was a Texas beauty queen, a talented singer and a soldier who was awarded several medals. But she also was a 25-year-old woman who struggled with a traumatic brain injury, which can have lingering and even deadly effects with little outward signs of trauma.
Her experience in the war seemed to exacerbate emotional issues she’d had since adolescence. She hid her suffering from those closest to her until last October, when she took her own life.
Military suicide has soared since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, Kim was one of about 300 military suicides, according to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon has made suicide prevention a top priority, but so far has struggled to curb the problem.
Many families are left not only mourning, but also seeking to understand how and why their loved ones died. Margy, 57, has spent the last year consumed by her daughter’s death.
At her Bedford apartment, Margy keeps Kim’s pageant crowns on a corner table in the living room. Her formal Army dress blues hang on the door to her brother’s room. Margy has plastered a large photo of her and her daughter on the divider to the kitchen.
But among the photos, scrapbooks and Army artifacts, there is another object in “Kimi’s Corner” of the apartment: a thick white binder containing hundreds of pages marked with yellow highlighter.
When Margy looks at that binder, other feelings stir beneath the sorrow: Anger. Frustration. Confusion.
Her need for answers awakens a strength she didn’t know she had.
Crowns for helmets
Throughout her childhood, Kim sang anywhere she could — from nursing homes and malls to Rangers Ballpark and the White House. Her voice also opened the door for her to compete in beauty pageants.
In high school, Kim won Miss Teen Burleson, Miss Teen Parker County and Miss Teen Northeast Tarrant County. She placed 17th in the Miss Teen Texas competition.
Rebecca Robinson, who won Miss Texas in 2008, said Kim’s sincerity set her apart from other girls in the pageant system. “She always had an open heart. Very, very sweet,” Robinson said. “There was never a moment when she was not supportive.”
But during that period, Kim’s parents split up, which Margy said affected Kim for years afterward. At 16, Kim slit her wrists in front of her mother because of the divorce, Margy said. Army records indicate Kim overdosed on drugs and alcohol at 17, but Margy said she wasn’t aware of this.
Kim went to Birdville High School, where she received a letter jacket for community service. After graduating in 2004, Kim attended community college. But Kim had attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, and Margy said college didn’t work out for her. She worked as a waitress and a lifeguard. At 20, she was charged with a DWI, but the charges were dropped, according to the Army.
When her older brother, Stephen, joined the Air Force, Kim was inspired. In 2006, she surprised her family and friends and enlisted in the Army. She was stationed with the 104th Transportation Co. at Fort Benning in Georgia.
In the summer of 2007, Kim was deployed to Iraq. She drove equipment across the country. Just a few months into combat, an improvised explosive device, or IED, hit Kim’s truck.
Margy was told a large mushroom cloud of dust surrounded the truck. The blast broke the truck’s windshield. Insurgents fired at Kim and the driver, who did the only thing they could. They kept driving through the ambush.
After the attack, Kim was diagnosed with a concussion, hearing loss and insomnia, according to Margy and Army records. “They were very lucky they didn’t die,” Margy said. “But I look back and think it was a slow death.”
While Kim was overseas, Margy lived for short, middle-of-the-night phone calls. The pair also chatted on Facebook. Margy knew her daughter was in a military mood when she called her “Mom” and a girly mood when she called her “Mama.” She knew she’d made her daughter laugh when Kim called her a “dork.”
But Margy didn’t know that her daughter was struggling, and didn’t find out about her daughter’s injuries until Kim returned from Iraq in the fall of 2008. “I felt like if she wanted to say anything about the war, she would say it,” she said. “I didn’t want to ask her.”
Dream to nightmare
By 2011, Kim was deployed to Germany. There, she decided to audition for the U.S. Army Europe Band & Chorus. On the final night of a 30-day audition, Margy paced around her apartment at 3 a.m. When Kim called to say she had made it, they both screamed for joy. Kim danced around her room. Margy cried happy tears.
As part of the chorus, Kim traveled across Europe. She sang for dignitaries like the British royal family. Kim said she was living her dream.
But she was also dealing with lingering effects from the IED attack. She suffered from headaches that nauseated her. Her ears rang constantly. Her high school years became a blur. She told her mom she felt like she was losing her mind.
Margy urged her to see a doctor. In May 2011, Kim was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, a signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Margy says the brain injury affected Kim’s ability to hear music and sing on key. Margy believes some members of the chorus made fun of Kim because of it — she even uses the term “bullying.” Army records indicate that Kim had a conflict with a colleague.
“Somewhere along the way,” Margy said, “her dream [turned] into a nightmare.”
The knock on the door
Once Kim had left the combat zone, Margy thought she had been saved from something she feared the most — hearing the knock on the door.
But for several years, Kim had been battling mental health issues, including depression and adjustment disorder, an extreme or excessive response to a particular event.
In Iraq, Kim had cut herself to help deal with the stress of combat. At the time, Kim explained that she used drugs and alcohol, and cut herself, as coping mechanisms, according to Army records.
But after she left Iraq, Kim no longer reported depression or anxiety, according to the Army. As late as July 2011, her records showed no symptoms. Then, in August 2011, while still living in Germany, Kim slipped into a particularly difficult bout with depression.
On Sept. 6, 2011, a member of the chorus criticized Kim’s singing. Kim had previously used criticism as motivation for improvement, but this time, she feared she would be removed from the chorus, Army records state. Kim texted a friend, saying, “I screwed up today.” That night, Kim was found in her room with cuts on her arm, towels on the floor and sad music playing. She was taken to the hospital to recover.
About a week later, Kim was released with orders to attend therapy. Her Army supervisors put her on a 48-hour suicide watch and she was not left alone during that time, Army records state. When she returned to the chorus, Kim asked to be moved into a new room in her barracks, where Margy says she did not have a roommate and was on an isolated floor.
For the next two weeks, band members and leaders checked on Kim regularly. Kim also went to counseling. The Army says she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, marked by unstable self-image and relationships, impulsivity and suicidal behavior. Margy believes a more accurate diagnosis would have been post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s unclear whether Kim was supposed to be on a 24/7 suicide watch during this period in late September. Based on a criminal investigation report on Kim’s death, Margy believes that Kim’s doctor recommended a continuous watch because he feared she might relapse.
But in an interview last week, a U.S. Army Europe spokesman said Kim was under no suicide watch beyond the initial 48 hours.
Other Army records make a reference to allegations that a caseworker took Kim off suicide watch without her doctor’s consent. The caseworker retired immediately after Kim’s death, and the investigator could not find her to interview her. But based on other interviews, the investigator concluded that she had not violated medical orders, the Army spokesman said.
By the last weekend of September 2011, Kim was no longer on a suicide watch and her colleagues were no longer checking on her regularly.
On Friday, Sept. 30, the female soldiers in the chorus got into an argument about one of their colleagues, who was not there at the time. A sergeant decided to resolve it after the weekend. On Monday, Oct. 3, Kim did not report for formation or show up to her scheduled therapy appointment. She was found dead in her room.
That same day, thousands of miles away in the United States, Margy was at a friend’s house when her son Chris called her to say there were two soldiers at their door. Once on the road, she called Chris back. He told her one of the soldiers was wearing a chaplain’s collar. In hysterics, she pulled over. Police drove her home.
Her ex-husband and two sons were waiting for her. The soldiers took the parents upstairs and broke the news. “I just knew,” Margy said. “I knew what the first words were: ‘On behalf …’ ”
Five days later, on Chris’ 21st birthday, Kim came home in a flag-draped casket.
Sitting on her couch, Margy pores over the thick, white binder that contains the Army’s investigation into Kim’s death. Her short, gray hair is curled. She wears a pin for Gold Star Moms, mothers who have lost a child in the military.
Margy used to be a teacher and later handled claims in personal auto insurance. Now, she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She lives on disability payments for her depression, as well as problems with her knees, back and neck.
She tucks her knees into her chest and wraps her arms close to her. Small and fragile, she cannot talk about Kim for long without crying.
She’s still learning how to talk about Kim’s death.
“To say, ‘My daughter died from suicide,’ is hard because of the stigma,” Margy said. “It’s hard for me. It’s hard for any member of my family to say how she died.”
But Margy is also drawing strength from her pain and becoming an advocate for military families.
“Once my children became soldiers,” she said, “all soldiers became my children.”
She wants to combat the stigma of suicide and support other families left behind. She hopes raising awareness about military suicide will be Kim’s legacy.
Military suicides nearly doubled from 2001 to 2011. The average number of suicides has been 300 per year since 2009. That spike can be attributed almost entirely to a soaring suicide rate in the Army, which is the largest service branch. In 2001, Army suicides made up about a third of the military’s total. By 2011, they made up more than half. Rates in other branches have remained relatively stable or even decreased since the beginning of the wars, according to Department of Defense statistics.
And traumatic brain injury diagnoses have increased threefold since the beginning of the wars. People with traumatic brain injuries are 1.5 times more likely than healthy people to die from suicide, according to a report by the Center for a New American Security, an independent nonprofit that develops national security and defense policies.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Defense said the Pentagon increased behavioral health care providers by 35 percent over the past three years, and undertook the largest study of mental health risk conducted by military personnel. It has also worked to improve early detection of traumatic brain injuries, but it has struggled to find an effective treatment for mild cases, which often go undetected.
But some, like Margy, wonder whether the military is doing enough to help its soldiers. She has questions. Lots of questions. And she asks them to anyone in the military who will listen.
Why did the Army allow Kim to move to a single room after her Sept. 6 suicide attempt? Why didn’t the Army notify Margy of that attempt? Why was Kim allegedly taken off suicide watch? Why didn’t the Army medically discharge her? What happened on that Friday to make Kim dread going to work on Monday?
“Most people, when they’re laid in the ground, everything is laid to rest,” Margy said. “When she was laid to the ground, everything blew up.”
The U.S. Army Europe spokesman said the investigating officer found that while Kim’s death was “aggravated” by her military service, the band “exercised due diligence” in caring for her after her Sept. 6 suicide attempt. The Dallas Morning News’ request for interviews with senior leaders in the U.S. Army Europe Band & Chorus was denied.
Margy believes the Army could have done more to prevent Kim’s death. Sometimes, she also questions her culpability. “My heart is telling me I didn’t protect her,” she said.
Channeling her grief
In “Kimi’s Corner” of the apartment, Margy looks at the Purple Heart and sees everything her daughter accomplished. She feels proud.
But the medal also represents all Margy has done to honor Kim in the last year. Margy worked to reinstate Kim’s combat action badge, which she says was revoked because of paperwork thrown away. She raised money to create a Miss Texas community service award in Kim’s name.
She also made sure Kim was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for her injuries from the IED attack. Just last year, the Department of Defense clarified that brain injuries must be caused in combat and severe enough to require medical treatment to be eligible for the award.
On July 4, when the Purple Heart was presented at the Miss Texas pageant in Allen, Margy had achieved everything she had promised Kim.
Margy walked on stage with Kim’s father. She wore a plastic button with photos of Kim, pinned to her floor-length gown. The crowd gave the parents a standing ovation.
A sergeant presented them with the medal, as well as a Purple Heart pin. The crowd fell silent.
As Margy stood in her daughter’s place, she held back her tears.
IN THE KNOW: Resources
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: a 24/7 tragedy assistance service that provides immediate and long-term help to those grieving the loss of a loved one in the military. For more information, visit www.taps.org or call 1-800-959-8277.
American Gold Star Mothers: an organization of mothers who have lost children in the military. For more information, visit www.goldstarmoms.com or call 202-265-0991.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline/Veterans Crisis Line. 1-800-273-8255.
America’s Mighty Warriors: an organization founded by a Gold Star Mom that is accepting donations to help and comfort military families, especially those who have lost loved ones in the wars. For more information or to donate, go to www.americasmightywarriors.org
‘Private Battles’ for your eReader
Our ebook, Private Battles, offers insight into real families and how they survive wartime and its repercussions. Available for $2.99 for Kindle, Nook and other eReaders. dallasnews.com/books