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Searching for answers after a soldier's suicide

PHOENIX — On the first day of 2010, Jeanette Baker sat down at the kitchen table to eat a late breakfast of takeout from Filiberto’s Mexican restaurant. Her family, sleepy and still recovering from New Year’s Eve festivities, recounted the highlights of what she missed after she went to bed.

Jeanette assumed her youngest, 23-year-old Spc. Jonathan Hughey, who was home on leave from Fort Hood, Texas, was at his girlfriend’s house. Why else wouldn’t he be bouncing around the kitchen? He was always the first one awake.

Oh, he’s here, her daughter said, describing how Jonathan’s boisterous teasing of his girlfriend had driven her home in a huff.

“That little butthead,” Jeanette said. “I’m going to go in there and tell him off.”

She walked back to Jonathan’s room, the same bedroom he had as a child, opening the door as she knocked. The light was on, and Jonathan was lying on the floor on his back, the way he slept when he got home from basic training.

She sighed and shook her head at what looked like spilled Kool-Aid on the floor.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Jonathan didn’t move.

Jeanette noticed how oddly white he looked. Panic gripped her.

She reached out and touched him.

Cold.

And then she screamed.

———

On the first day of 2010, Gen. Robert Cone, the commander of Fort Hood, paused to reflect on the base’s recent dip in suicides, wondering what he and his senior leaders were doing right. The numbers showed real progress: After 14 suicides in 2008 and 10 through August 2009, in the last four months of the year there had been only one.

Then word came that Spc. Jonathan Hughey had shot himself in the head.

Gathered by the company commander to talk about the tragedy, Jonathan’s shocked squad mates mostly stared at their feet, quiet. Jonathan hadn’t seemed to his buddies like a soldier who would kill himself.

Over the next 10 days, two more Fort Hood soldiers committed suicide. The grim streak was a slap to the base’s newfound confidence.

Jonathan’s death set Jeanette and the Army together down on the same dark path. Both began groping backward for puzzle pieces they could lay out and arrange into a clear picture.

Jeanette was searching for some explanation for why her son killed himself.

The Army wanted to know how her son fit in with the other 819 soldiers who had killed themselves since 2001.

The answers for both remain elusive.

The Army’s suicide rate now surpasses that of the general population, and June was the deadliest month on record for active-duty and reserve soldiers combined.

But suicide is still rare, and perplexing. There are nearly 550,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army. Identifying the 160 or so who trends suggest will take their own lives this year is like trying to find a few sugar crystals in a shaker of salt.

The Army has been unable to discern a pattern that might reveal which soldiers are most likely to commit suicide.

The problem is that the known risk factors for suicide in the military read almost like a description of the Army itself: Young. Male. Access to firearms. Working a high-stress job. Likely to drink heavily and be dealing with a major life change, like a cross-country move or a divorce.

Moving down the checklist, Army leaders can’t eliminate very many soldiers. They are left drowning in generalizations.

“When we start drilling down to the individual level,” said Adam Borah, the clinical director of Fort Hood’s Resilience and Restoration Center, “those same risk factors don’t necessarily apply.”

———

Jonathan was raised in a middle-class suburb of Phoenix not far from the highway.

In this house, on a small cul-de-sac next door to Jeanette’s parents, he was the youngest, the stuttering pest to his big sister and three older stepbrothers. John Baker — “Dad” since Jonathan was 3 — was a member of a Vietnam veterans motorcycle club. Jonathan grew up around scruffy vets with nicknames like Poncho, Cisco and Zippy; TJ taught him how to flip the bird when he was 4.

Not long after, he learned how to shoot a gun.

In grade school, Jonathan would run around the neighborhood playing war with a friend Jeanette nicknamed “Sonny.” The two boys shot at each other and the pigeons with BB guns. Later Jonathan would graduate to a rifle, and on his 16th birthday Jeanette gave him a .22-caliber handgun she bought at Kmart.

The spring before he turned 18, she bought him the Taurus pistol he wanted.

His house was the place his friends always wanted to be. It was the kind of inviting environment where guests would just open the fridge when they were thirsty and everyone called Jeanette “Mom.” Jonathan’s five younger half-siblings and his biological father were regulars.

Once, Jonathan asked John about the nightmares that robbed the elder man of all but a few hours of sleep each night. He said he told Jonathan he could still vividly see the decapitated head of a Vietnamese man rolling toward him after an incident with American soldiers.

The story didn’t dissuade Jonathan from enlisting. Jeanette said that as a kid he wanted to be a Marine just like his grandfather, a proud Korean War veteran. When Jonathan told his parents as a 20-year-old that he was joining the Army to help pay for school — he had earned an associate’s degree from a local technical college and wanted to go to Arizona State University and eventually open a motorcycle shop — Jeanette tried to talk him into the Air Force instead. Something safer.

John said he was just glad Jonathan no longer wanted to be a gung-ho Marine.

Jonathan graduated from basic training in Kentucky in the summer of 2007. By the same time the next year, he had “destruction” and “war” tattooed in Japanese kanji on his forearms and was in the heat of Afghanistan with the 32nd Engineer Battalion out of Fort Hood.

His 15 months there were spent almost exclusively inside the wire, working as a mechanic. A fellow soldier said that each morning they’d walk the mile or so to the shop with a brown bag lunch, sometimes seeing the medevac choppers flying in the wounded from the front lines. Jonathan told his dad he was rattled by the deaths of two sailors who were blown up by an improvised explosive device.

He didn’t share these details with his mother when he chatted with her over instant message or in e-mails. Instead, he told her only that he no longer wanted to stay in the Army. She said he hatched a plan to go back to Afghanistan as a contractor and make three times as much money.

Jonathan continued to spoil his younger siblings, asking Jeanette, for example, to withdraw money from his account to buy a $300 cell phone for his 14-year-old sister. Jeanette would shake her head at his displays of wild generosity, proud of him but also thinking him overindulgent.

His unit returned to Fort Hood in July 2009.

“When he came home, it was like, OK, I can relax now,” said his older sister, Shannon Cooper. “If anything bad was going to happen, it would be while he was over there.”

On Dec. 18, five months after getting back from Afghanistan, Jonathan went home to Arizona for the holidays.

To ring in the New Year, the family rolled out “The Party Bus,” a 45-passenger vehicle painted camouflage that the family used for camping. Before they headed out, Jonathan anxiously approached his parents and tried to persuade them he should bring his gun along.

“Dad,” he implored, “it’s better to have it and not need it then need it and not have it.”

His parents laughed.

“There’s 40 of us, son,” Jeanette scoffed. “Who would be dumb enough to mess with us?”

Jonathan reluctantly left the gun at home, but he seemed to forget it as the rowdy crowd started barhopping. They went back to the house after the ball drop, and the Southern Comfort kept flowing. Eventually, Jonathan was the only one awake.

At 5:20 a.m. he sent a text message to his best friend from high school, telling him, “I love you.”

Not long after, he put the Taurus to the side of his head and pulled the trigger.

———

The day after the funeral, Jeanette had the furniture rearranged in Jonathan’s room.

She couldn’t stand for it to look like it did that morning, even though she knew she would rarely step inside again. The one thing she left untouched was Jonathan’s blue tie, which had been hanging over the door for years.

Over the ensuing days, whenever the pain tightened its vise, she would push the sliding door open to the backyard to go out for a smoke, taking long drags on the cigarettes she had planned to give up on New Year’s Day. She grieved for the experiences her son would never have.

Inside an old brown suitcase she kept the stuffed bunny Jonathan loved as a child, which she planned to give one day to his first born. On Jan. 8, she buried it with Jonathan in the cemetery plot next to her mother — a plot she and John had bought for themselves.

After the funeral, Jeanette tucked the American flag that had draped Jonathan’s coffin under her mattress. In a month it was flat enough to fit inside the triangular case the Army had given them. She placed it on a shelf in the study, next to a sculpture of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Jeanette hung pictures of Jonathan, taken in the precious hours before he killed himself, on the wall beside other family snapshots and professional portraits. But the photos began to disturb her. She saw deadness in his eyes. So she took them down.

When loneliness tugged, she listened to a recording of Jonathan’s outgoing voicemail message; she had to record it seven times before the sound came through clearly.

When overwhelmed by others’ grief, she took refuge in the bathroom. There, she sat on the toilet and talked to Jonathan. Then she would shake her head and apologize for talking to him while in there.

In fury, she demanded: “Why did you do this to your mother?”

She sobbed: “Why didn’t you say goodbye to me?”

From their regular pew at Mass, she and John could see their son’s name inscribed on the list of all the local sons serving in the military. The tiny cross next to “Pvt. Jonathan Baker” was enough to bring them to tears.

Jeanette spent hours in counsel with Sister Jean, a nun who taught at the Catholic school that Jeanette and Jonathan both attended and who had become a family friend. Jeanette wanted to know whether her son would go to heaven.

She prayed each day, beginning with a whispered plea.

“Mother Mary, please embrace my son.”

She prayed that he wasn’t so confused when he died that he hadn’t known which way to go, and that he had forgiven himself. He had strayed from the Catholic Church, but not from his faith in God.

She’d talk in hushed tones as she stood with her hands clapsed in front of her, looking at a wall devoted to pictures of those the family loved and lost. The wall holds no picture of Jonathan stonefaced in his Army portrait. That wasn’t the Jonathan his mother knew. Instead, there is a photo of him giving the middle finger, and one showing him dressed as a Scotsman for Halloween. In another, he’s holding balloons to his chest like mock breasts.

———

At Fort Hood, as Jonathan’s commanders searched for any clues that might have foretold his suicide, they realized that their best tool for identifying struggling soldiers had let them down. Just days before taking his fateful leave, Jonathan had filled out the second round of a standard post-deployment health questionnaire.

His answers had raised no red flags.

The Army started using the questionnaires in 2005, the year soldier suicides began a dramatic increase. When soldiers started killing themselves at a record pace in 2007, the Army was jolted into high alert.

But the service’s efforts have had little measurable effect. The numbers keep going up each year.

Now the Army is refining the questions asked on the assessments to make them more nuanced. The hope is that soldiers like Jonathan won’t slip through unnoticed.

But dissecting the statistics for clues leads the Army on a circular path back to simple common sense. A majority of the soldiers who kill themselves have deployed at least once. A third of those have gone to war at least twice.

A month or so after Jonathan’s suicide, Army Secretary John McHugh told Congress that despite intense scrutiny of the suicide issue for the last few years, the service is not much closer to any answers.

“As to why people take this step — particularly as to why men and women in uniform do — we’re still in many ways befuddled,” he said.

———

A major with Jonathan’s unit, who was in charge of the internal investigation, called Jeanette.

“Your son doesn’t fit the profile, ma’am,” he said. “Could it have been an accident?”

Jeanette felt her first flash of anger at the Army. She didn’t blame the service, but like hell if she was going to let them take the easy route, to excuse themselves from addressing the problem.

She told the major absolutely not. Jonathan had owned that gun for more than five years, and was completely aware of how much pressure was needed to pull the trigger. Checking “accident” on the investigation box would be easier for her, less pain. But it wasn’t true: Jonathan took his own life.

“As much as I would like to think that it was an accident, I know in my heart it wasn’t,” she said.

The Bakers needed a place to take their grief. They didn’t feel like they belonged among the other Army parents whose children had been killed in combat. Those sons didn’t choose to die.

They found comfort at a community center in a strip mall. At their first suicide survivors’ meeting, half a dozen people sat in folding chairs around a table, and John let Jeanette do most of the talking. She took a deep breath and told the group her story, about finding Jonathan on New Year’s Day.

One woman burst into tears, acutely remembering the sear of such fresh pain. Jeanette admitted she was afraid they’d never escape their torment. The others had lost loved ones with long histories of mental illness, who had been on medication and in therapy. But ultimately the stories were the same. They were all left asking why.

The twice-weekly meetings gave the Bakers hope. They saw how these parents had been able to grab hold of the pain and mash it into a box. And how eventually that box could be put on a shelf — never forgotten, but out of the way, where it wasn’t bumped into every day.

———

At the end of the two-month Army investigation into Jonathan’s death, a staff sergeant told the Bakers that Jonathan’s blood alcohol was 0.22, which means over the course of the night Jonathan had downed about 14 stiff drinks. Knowing Jonathan was mind-numbingly drunk when he pulled the trigger troubled Jeanette and John, but it also provided a new understanding.

“He wasn’t thinking in his right mind,” Jeanette said.

Alcohol had always played a prominent role in their lives. They were a family that liked to drink and play hard. Jonathan would get boisterous, maybe push somebody into the backyard pool, but it didn’t seem like a problem beyond needing to stay in bed the next day.

Jeanette attuned herself more to the trouble drinking can cause. She told her grandsons, “You guys will never get into drinking alcohol that heavily.”

Other revelations kept coming.

A friend of Jonathan’s said he saw Jonathan twice pull out a gun and talk about suicide — once when he was home on leave from Afghanistan in January 2009. But since they had been drinking, the friend didn’t think it was anything to be alarmed about.

Later, an ex-girlfriend told them that during that same leave, Jonathan grew terrified one night, yelling about Afghanistan as if he were still there.

———

A few months after the funeral, Jeanette looked through a stack of books on coping that people had given her and pulled out one about what happens to someone who has been to war. It had a list of warning signs that knocked the wind out of her as she read it:

“My God, that’s it right there.”

How Jonathan had returned home from Afghanistan more cynical.

How he had shrugged off his favorite foods. (She ended up throwing away all the ingredients to make her famous wontons.)

How he hadn’t wanted to go to stripper mud-wrestling that one night. (Since when did he have to be cajoled to go with friends to an event like that?)

How he came home so early whenever he did leave the house.

How he wasn’t sleeping very well.

How he was so quiet. (God, he was quiet. Content to stay on the couch or go to the movies with his nephew instead of hosting some raging pajama party that would go into all hours of the night.)

How he was just ... off.

“We just thought he was growing up,” Jeanette recalled.

Suddenly, the nagging regret of hindsight burrowed into the warm house that Jonathan always told his mom she could never sell, because too many memories lived there.

Jeanette wished she had paid more attention to her motherly instincts.

As part of the Army’s investigation into Jonathan’s death, she sent a letter to the staff sergeant: “I cry when I think of how he was not able to confide in me when he needed it most, and that I did not act on my feelings and talk to him about how he was feeling.”

John struggled with a regret all his own. He still takes sleeping pills 40 years after Vietnam to try to scrub his dreams of war, but he didn’t recognize those same troubles in his son.

John had come to Jeanette crying about a week after the suicide. On a lift in the gym where he works, as he and Jonathan changed light bulbs, Jonathan had casually asked him for help filing a PTSD claim. It was the week before he killed himself.

“I never put two and two together at the time,” John said. “I never thought he was suicidal. He didn’t make it seem urgent.”

They wonder why the Army didn’t give them a pamphlet, a letter, something about what to expect after Jonathan’s return from a war zone — especially since he was a single soldier.

“I believe spouses receive information on this,” Jeanette said. “Why not parents?”

Stroking his beard as he often does when the tears creep up on him, John said: “If they had just told us what to look for — had told us to even be looking.”

———

Staff Sgt. Scott Wozna, Jonathan’s platoon leader, looks harder at his soldiers now, telling them there’s nothing they can’t talk to him about no matter the hour. He’ll answer his cell at 3 in the morning if they need him.

With Jonathan, he can’t pinpoint any warning signs. Jonathan had come to him after returning from Afghanistan, worried about having to deploy again before leaving the Army. But Wozna had told him there was no chance of that. Jonathan had seemed calmed by the conversation.

Wozna now asks himself: “How come I didn’t see anything? Was there more I could have done?”

Outside the Army, Jonathan’s parents were his support system. But Col. Chris Philbrick, director of the Army’s Suicide Prevention Task Force, conceded that “the ability for us to connect with family members of our single soldiers has been hit or miss.”

Every Army unit has a family readiness program, which provides support and key communication with families, but “most single soldiers look at family readiness as a married soldier program,” Philbrick said.

Concerned family members have to seek out the Army, something the service is trying to turn around. But leaders remain focused on finding the best way to reach the soldiers themselves. On the task force’s list to possibly deploy Army-wide is Fort Hood’s innovative training, which is getting solid reviews from soldiers. Instead of dry PowerPoint presentations, they participate in an interactive play, with actors who look and talk like them.

Still, Wozna wonders whether the message is sinking in. Jonathan, after all, went through the training not long before shooting himself.

“They don’t understand it,” he said. “They don’t believe it: ‘That’s not me, so whatever.’ ”

Lacking a specific profile to identify those most at risk, the Army is forced to cast a wide net with suicide prevention. The efforts have to be as universal as generic safety precautions at a hospital.

“No matter who the patient is, I’m always going to wash my hands,” said Borah, the Fort Hood clinical director. “I’m always going to wear gloves and take all the precautions, whether the patient is risky or not. And that’s the way the Army is looking at suicide prevention: This is something for everyone to have awareness of.”

———

Seven months after Jonathan’s death, Jeanette can sense a big cry coming days in advance. The months of incapacitating grief have given way to some semblance of a normal life for her and John.

They find comfort knowing that the Army officially considers Jonathan’s suicide service-related.

Jeanette hopes his death leads, in some small way, to change in the Army, so no other parent “is asking that terrible question of why.”

Jeanette and John have begun to accept that they’ll never find the answers they’ve been chasing since New Year’s Day.

Heading out on a recent Friday night, John pats on some of Jonathan’s cologne.

Jeanette catches the smell, and then her breath.

And then she smiles.

mccloskeym@stripes.osd.mil

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