CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Jeff and Paige McDonald sat down recently in front of a television camera, looked into glaring lights and shared memories of the worst day of their lives.
The married couple, who live in Dalton, Ga., were asked by filmmakers contracted with comedian Ron White's production company to tell the story of their son's suicide as part of his sixth annual "Salute to the Troops" special scheduled to air on the Country Music Television channel on March 15.
The camera crew spent most of the afternoon of Feb. 1 with the McDonalds and local former Marine Staff Sgt. Joey Jones, a childhood friend of the couple's son Chris McDonald.
Jones was featured in a yearlong series of Chattanooga Times Free Press stories tracking his recovery after the sergeant lost both legs above the knee to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
McDonald's story, while different, is equally heartbreaking.
Chris McDonald ran headfirst at every challenge in his young life, excelling in school, four sports and rising fast in the ranks of the U.S. Marine Corps.
His parents weren't surprised at their son's early successes and drive; it seemed to be his nature.
But like too many driven young men and women who have fought in recent wars, McDonald collided with a toxic mixture of trauma and addiction — one he couldn't overcome.
In 2001 there were 160 reported suicides among active-duty U.S. military, according to Department of Defense spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith. That number rose every year except for one, reaching 301 in 2011.
McDonald told doctors he hurt; they diagnosed a back injury and gave him painkillers.
He took his medicine as ordered, but the pain didn't go away. So he took more medicine. At about the same time, while in Iraq, he saw bloody scenes and came home a shaken and changed man.
By the time doctors figured out he had dislocated his hip joint and fixed the physical problem, McDonald was addicted. Suffering from post traumatic stress disorder only added to his burden.
When his son came home, said Jeff McDonald, he was changed.
Jeff McDonald is a former Marine himself; he served in the first Persian Gulf War.
"He and I had some long talks; what happened to him was pretty bad," Jeff McDonald said. "He kept calling it 'the evil,' that whole place. He said, 'There's no way there's a God.'"
As a Marine reservist living in Dalton after he returned home to finish college, Chris McDonald didn't have access to a military hospital down the street as many active-duty troops have.
When the McDonalds noticed things missing around the house and confronted their son, they learned he was taking as many as 10 pills at a time throughout the day.
After an intervention of family and Jones, Chris McDonald agreed to get help.
He went to a weeklong treatment center near the family's home, but the cost was too much and he couldn't stay longer.
The McDonalds didn't know what to do. Finally, after months of struggle, they found a local facility that would take him.
His bags were packed on that March day last year when he was to leave for extended treatment. Paige McDonald came home at lunchtime, ready to drive him to Chattanooga, and found her son dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"It has absolutely destroyed our lives," Jeff McDonald said.
He knew his son had needed help.
But they didn't know where to turn.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if we had gotten him in in-patient treatment he'd be alive today," Jeff McDonald said.
Jones told his friend's story to the Armed Forces Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps military members and their families.
The foundation contacted the McDonalds, who recently traveled to a benefit in Arizona and told their son's story.
"These vets need to know that there are people out there to help them," Jeff McDonald said.
The pain of losing their son will never go away, he said, but if telling his story can help one family avoid what they've gone through, then it's worth it.