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Veteran's suicide devastates those left behind

By KIRSTI MAROHN | USA Today | Published: November 16, 2014

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (MCT) — Rory Gavic was a young, decorated member of the military who served his country overseas twice, who had earned praise and the respect of his peers, who had volunteered as a Big Brother.

His suicide in 2009 devastated his family, especially his mother. His death was the beginning of hers.

Gavic had joined the Air Force Reserve after graduating from high school in 2002. A few years later, he enlisted as active duty in the Air Force and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.

As a K-9 handler, Gavic served in Iraq in 2007 and Pakistan in 2009. He earned more than a dozen commendations, including Airman of the Year in 2008.

But the deployments changed Gavic. He struggled with post traumatic stress disorder.

In 2009, he was 25 years old and stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Layton, Utah. On Nov. 14, he called his mother, Linda Sawatzke, at home in Buffalo. She was worried and asked him to talk to her. He hung up. She tried calling back again and again, but there was no answer.

Later, Utah officials called Sawatzke to tell her they were searching for Gavic, who was missing from the base. His truck was found in Antelope Island State Park.

Gavic's body was found the next day. He had shot himself.
Hundreds of people attended the memorial service at Hill, including top officers. Many more signed an online guest book where they described Gavic as a dedicated soldier and a fun-loving friend.

Left behind were two brothers and a stepsister, his stepfather and his heartbroken mother. The program for the memorial service included a quote from Sawatzke.

"Gavic, I love you more with every beat of my heart. I miss you so much my son and you have only been gone for a short while. My life and my heart have a missing piece that will not fill until I see you again."

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After Gavic's death, Sawatzke seemed unable to move on.

Her sister Debbie Larsen was concerned. Larsen had lost her own son to suicide in 2004. Sawatzke had been a source of comfort then, going for long walks with Larsen when she was feeling down.

Around the four-year anniversary of Gavic's death, Larsen stopped by Sawatzke's house to check on her. Their sister had told Larsen that Sawatzke was having a hard time.

She pounded on the door, rang the doorbell. No answer. The door was unlocked, so She went in. Sawatzke was in bed with her back to the door. Larsen woke her up, startling both of them.

Usually polished, Sawatzke looked haggard, her hair in a messy bun. She told her sister she'd meet her in the kitchen for a cigarette. Larsen was surprised. You never smoke in the house, she said. I do today, Sawatzke replied.

On the dining room table lay papers written in blue ink. Larsen tried to read them, but Sawatzke turned them over. Larsen asked what they were. Just some things I was writing, Sawatzke said.

She changed the subject, asking Larsen if she had read the memorial she'd put in the local newspaper for Gavic. Larsen said yes, it was beautiful. But she was worried. To Larsen, it sounded like Sawatzke was telling her son, "see you soon."

Sawatzke said she didn't mean to be rude, but she worked last night and worked later today. Would Larsen mind going home?
I'll stay with you, Larsen said. You can sleep, I'll watch TV. No, Sawatzke said. I'll feel like I have to entertain you.

Sawatzke walked Larsen to the door and gave her a long hug. Larsen kissed Sawatzke on the forehead, and left.

The next day, on Nov. 16, the phone rang at about 7 p.m. It was Larsen's stepfather, Rick. I have some bad news.

Sawatzke had shot herself in the heart, the same as Gavic. She'd even used the same 9mm handgun. Her sister Rita had found her and tried to do CPR, but it was too late to save her.

Larsen broke down. She told her husband to drive her to the hospital, where they gave her something to calm her down. She asked for Mitch Weinzetl, then the Buffalo police chief and a friend, who came to visit her.

We can't save everyone, he told her.

Sawatzke apparently had been planning her death for a long time. She'd recovered Gavic's belongings, including his personal weapon, from the sheriff's office in Utah. The papers Larsen had seen on the table were her own obituary and instructions for her funeral.

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"How a person gets saddled with that level of tragedy in their life -- it's just hard," said Weinzetl, who has left the Buffalo police department and now teaches criminal justice at St. Cloud State University.

Weinzetl worked with Larsen on the Wright Mental Health coalition. He said he can't fathom what she has been through -- and how she keeps going.

"I try to envision myself having a close friend who committed suicide and I think about how impactful that would be for me. Then I try to consider what it would be like to have my own child do that. And a nephew, and a sibling.

"It takes me beyond my capacity to understand how someone maintains some measure of normalcy in their life without being just completely shut down with that kind of tragedy," Weinzetl said. "Deb has managed remarkably to channel those life tragedies into ... a measure of societal benefit."

Larsen has become a passionate advocate for suicide awareness and prevention. She works with Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national nonprofit organization based in Bloomington. She's volunteered at Eagle's Healing Nest, a recovery home in Sauk Centre for veterans who are struggling with PTSD and other issues. She's given speeches at national gatherings and earned a President's Volunteer Service Award.

Earlier this year, Larsen competed in the Today's American Woman pageant in Greenville, S.C., and won the title of National Petite Elite Mrs. 2014. Her platform: suicide prevention and awareness of depression.

"I am moving forward," she said. "If it helps just one person, to me, it's been worth it. I just can't quit."

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Sawatzke and Gavic are buried side by side in a small cemetery on a hill overlooking Buffalo.

Larsen comes to the cemetery often to water and trim the flowers. In the beginning, she came almost every day. Now her volunteer work keeps her too busy. It has become her gift to those she has lost.

"Their voices are silent now," she said. "I feel like I have become that voice. I have to be that voice. It's like I'm fighting for them. It's like I'm fighting for everyone who's struggling."

Marohn also reports for the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times

(c) 2014 USA Today. Distributed by MCT Information Services
 

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