Living through nine suicides
WASHINGTON — The first suicide was in 2007.
Mike Little was preparing to head to Iraq for a year when he heard that his close friend, a National Guardsman who had inspired Little to join the military, had killed himself.
The second was before Little deployed to Afghanistan, about two years later. He couldn’t go to the funeral because he was due on a plane.
The next three came during the naval reservist’s yearlong deployment in Afghanistan. Another suicide happened just as he got home, in late 2010.
He’s up to nine now.
“At this point, I’m taking it personally,” he said. “I deployed twice, I came home, I struggled. I feel responsible that I didn’t reach out to them. Maybe if I had …”
Little, a petty officer 2nd class in the Naval Reserves, fought his own battle with suicidal thoughts and won, as much as any person still struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress can say they’ve won.
He has trouble sleeping. He calls the Veterans Crisis Line almost weekly.
He can’t stop thinking about the others who didn’t make it.
As the military has tackled the problem of suicide, the focus has been on the value of the lives lost and the impact on the family and loved ones left behind.
But the military hasn’t emphasized the dangerous ripple effect that any suicide can have on the force, the unspoken suggestion to unstable troops that if their fellow servicemembers can’t make it, maybe they can’t either.
Little’s psychiatrist tells him he suffers from “vicarious traumatization,” a combination of survivor’s guilt and empathetic engagement with the fallen troops. It’s a common problem among trauma counselors and suicide hotline workers.
He’s lost so many friends, he has started to obsess over the idea of suicide. It’s been the focus of his college assignments, his interactions with veterans groups and his free time.
“No one really wants to talk about suicide,” he said. “But I’ve lost too many people. And I was almost one of those numbers. I’m not OK with that.”
Determined to change the system
More than 2,600 active-duty troops, guardsmen and reservists have killed themselves since 2002. America has lost fewer servicemembers to combat in Afghanistan over the last 12 years than it has to suicide.
Little has added two more names to his grim total in the last five months alone. It’s a lengthy list for anyone, and Little just turned 30.
He feels guilty referring to one death as more emotional than the others, but also confesses that “after a while, you kind of get numb to them.”
He’s desperately trying to avoid that. Part of his obsession has been crafting proposed legislation to improve the Navy’s health and wellness programs, reaching out to any lawmaker who would listen.
Suicide prevention has been a major focus of the four services and the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent years, with a host of new support programs and public awareness initiatives. The results have been disheartening.
Military suicides have climbed steadily over the last decade. The latest VA data available shows an increase in veterans killing themselves.
Little believes much more can be done.
In a five-page “suggested outcomes” document he’s distributed to congressional committees, state lawmakers’ offices and pretty much anyone else willing to read it, he calls for ending phone assessment checkups. “No doctor in the world can diagnose mental illness after 15 minutes on the phone,” the document says.
He wants longer reintegration sessions for returning troops, in-depth training on PTSD in boot camp and dozens of follow-ups for every servicemember potentially affected by downrange stress.
He’s not sure whether his ideas are practical. But he knows the system isn’t working. If it was, he wouldn’t have so many examples of how it has failed.
Searching for reasons
Back when Little was just a kid, Adam Fiock was the cool sixth-grader who lived down the street, the one who stayed out a little too late playing flashlight tag and dispensed advice to the younger kids on how to be popular in middle school.
That’s how Little wants to remember him — not as suicide No. 1.
“He taught me how to rollerblade,” Little said. “He’d pick on you, but then come over and play video games. He just knew how to fit in.”
Fiock’s father worked alongside Little’s father, so the friendship went beyond the two adolescents. The families were close. The boys were always hanging around each other’s homes, or just as likely running through neighborhood backyards.
When Fiock graduated high school, he joined the Army National Guard. Little remembers being awed by the move.
“He was really a role model to me,” said Little, who was only two years younger.
Little followed suit, signing up for the Navy in 2003. His love of boats was getting him nowhere in his landlocked Indiana hometown, plus “I wasn’t smart enough to get into college.”
The childhood friends lost touch over the years, as jobs and deployments took them to separate parts of the globe. Little got updates on Fiock’s Iraq tour through his parents.
By 2007, Little had left active duty and shifted to the Naval Reserves. Instead of continuing his work with ships and aircraft, Little found himself being trained for combat deployment. He would be working with detainees, as an individual augmentee attached to an Army unit.
The abrupt mission change was stressful. Much more shocking was when, in October that year, Fiock shot himself in his apartment.
Little’s father called him to let him know. Little was devastated.
“And I was scared.”
Years later, Little keeps searching for the reasons behind Fiock’s suicide and the others. He also wonders why he’s still alive.
Struggle with despair
Little’s fiancee, Elizabeth Leretsis, describes him as a funny, easy-going guy. He volunteers with local veterans clubs, civic organizations — anywhere he thinks he can make a difference. He’s a Monty Python fan with a dry sense of humor. He’s a fun person to be around.
Except when he’s not.
“When he’s upset, that’s a different Mike,” she said.
Little believes his PTSD largely stems from his deployment to Iraq. He doesn’t think about killing himself anymore, he said, but that doesn’t mean he no longer suffers.
When things go wrong, he doesn’t get frustrated. He despairs.
In August, when problems arose with his GI Bill benefits, he didn’t simply worry that he’d have to drop out of school. He worried about the money problems that would follow for years and the extra stress that would put on the couple. He worried that his whole world would come apart.
“I get so overwhelmed. … I stop making sense,” he said.
It’s difficult for Leretsis, 28, a health technician in the U.S. Coast Guard. She’s naturally chatty and upbeat, accustomed to talking out problems instead of sitting in silence.
Brooding worries her, and Little does a lot of brooding.
“I’m getting better with the silence, I think,” she said. “It’s hard for me to give him that space. I think that if I’m not asking questions, am I really trying to help?
“PTSD is not anything I’ve ever dealt with. We’ve been taught, ‘This is what PTSD is; this is how it presents.’ But it’s different when it’s right in front of you.”
The supply guy
Little knew that something was wrong inside him long before his Iraq deployment was over. His only real counselor was an E-5 with a friendly ear but no psychological resiliency training.
As the supply guy, Tom Murphy served as base bartender minus the alcohol. Everyone stopped in for a quick chat or lengthy rant while picking up uniforms, envelopes, whatever.
“I remember worrying that maybe we were all dumping too much on him,” Little said. “But he was probably the nicest guy I’ve ever known.
“He had been in combat before and dealt with the stress. He wasn’t going to judge you, just listen.”
Little struggled with his role in the detainee mission in Iraq. He still isn’t comfortable talking about the details. When he came back to the U.S., he wanted to forget the whole thing.
Murphy kept pushing the reservists to keep their makeshift unit together, planning reunions for the group on the flight home. He was active on online message boards, prodding the guys for dates and locations. Little said Murphy called to chat every few weeks for months after their return.
While Murphy was busy planning a get-together, Little was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, just six months after returning from Iraq — for detainee affairs again, despite all the stress of the first mission.
Little was agitated and angry, but determined to push through the depression and self-doubt. He started frequenting his local American Legion post and self-medicating with alcohol.
He was on that barstool in late November 2009 when his phone rang. It was Murphy. Little said he remembered thinking he was probably calling about a reunion again. Little kept drinking and let the call go to voice mail.
Murphy didn’t leave a message. He shot himself in his Florida home later that night.
Almost giving up
Murphy’s death haunted Little through his time in Afghanistan. When his command informed him of additional suicides — three servicemembers who deployed to Iraq with Little — his commanding officer ordered several of the individual augmentees to seek counseling.
Little says it helped.
When the deployment ended in late 2010, he decided to move back home to Indiana. He missed his family. He thought he’d feel more connected if he was near his friends.
But McLeansboro was three hours away from the nearest naval reserve unit in St. Louis. Even though he remained in the reserves, Little felt isolated from anyone who understood what it felt like to go to war.
“I didn’t want to talk to someone who had never deployed before, who had no idea” what he went through, he said. He started missing drills, adding weight.
Little said he didn’t sleep for days at a time. He was pursuing an associates degree at Rend Lake College but struggled to make it to class.
“Now I look back and say, ‘I had so many people I could have called,’ ” he said in a recent interview. “I could have called my unit. I could have called my old captain. … I know my father would have rushed to help me.
Little said he kept waiting for the Navy to call, to make sure he was OK. He felt like they had an obligation to take care of him, even if he had withdrawn from them.
“It was like a locomotive had hit me, but I still didn’t really know I had a problem,” he said. “So I was racking my mind, wondering why the Navy didn’t care about me.
“And then one day, I thought, ‘Maybe if nobody else gives a damn about me, maybe I shouldn’t care either, and maybe Mike Little shouldn’t be around anymore.”
Little is a Catholic, and he grew up believing that suicide is morally wrong.
“I remember being taught early on that you can’t hurt yourself, that there’s no eternity for you if you do,” he said. “There were times I didn’t feel like living anymore, but that still wasn’t how I wanted to end my life.”
Instead, Little found other ways to tempt fate. He headed back to drink the pain away at the American Legion bar. After a few drinks, he started asking the Vietnam vets why he should bother to go on living. After several more minutes, he was escorted out the door.
“I had some guys literally take me by the hand and walk me to the VA, and when I got there the VA employees took my hand and walked me back to get help,” he said.
Turning to counselors
Each of the four services has set up offices to combat suicide and mental illness among active-duty troops. Servicemembers returning from combat zones are screened through health assessments. Transition assistance programs hammer home the warnings about depression, PTSD and suicide.
Reservists and guardsmen go through the same reintegration programs, but don’t get the follow-up support that troops returning to a major military base do.
Often, for many reserve units, VA clinics become the medical response team by default.
Little has nothing but praise for the care he has received from VA counselors. He’s worked with several regional offices now, as he’s moved across the country.
Initially, as a navy reservist, he said he didn’t feel comfortable looking for help there.
“I thought the VA was just going to shove medicine down my throat and send me away,” he said. “I’m not a veteran yet. I didn’t know anything about the VA. I thought I had to stay with the Navy, and I was afraid to talk to them because of what might happen to my career.”
It’s a delicate balance, according to Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. VA resources are foreign to many active-duty and reserve troops.
“For reservists, it’s tough to know what resources are available,” he said. “And for individual augmentees [like Little], it’s even harder to know where you can go.”
Another loss with no warning
The Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Program has a lengthy list of warning signs for a servicemember who might be considering suicide: withdrawing from friends, loss of interest in work, expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame, appearing sad most of the time.
The day before naval reservist Aleida Bordas committed suicide last spring, she posted on Facebook about taking her daughters to cheerleading camp.
“She was so excited,” Little said. “And she was dead the next day. There were no warning signs. They teach you to watch for them, but there wasn’t a sign.”
Bordas — a high school teacher in New York who served with Little in Afghanistan — took her life in April. That was suicide No. 8 for Little, and it hit him hard.
He had been getting counseling from the VA for almost three years by then. He got a service dog named Ginger, a 4-year-old golden retriever who won’t leave his side. He proposed to Leretsis — the pair are getting married next month.
Things had been better for Little. Not easier, but better.
Bordas’ death brought back the questions, the doubts about why the others killed themselves and why he didn’t. He wants to know more details about her final months but can’t bring himself to ask.
“I just always remember her as the happiest person in the world,” he said. “She was always talking about her kids, she was always finding something positive to say.
'I just want to do something'
Suicide No. 9 wasn’t a servicemember, but instead the father of a friend in the reserves. Little isn’t sure how that one could have been stopped.
But the other eight?
Little says his “suggested outcomes” outline can help save lives. It wasn’t written by the professional staff at the Pentagon, or by suicide prevention specialists who have been tracking the problem for years.
It’s a five-page paper from a guy who has to believe that working harder will stop people from killing themselves.
The plan is, at best, a legislative Hail Mary. Congress has kept on eye on the issue but typically takes its cues from the veterans service organizations and mental health professionals. Most legislative initiatives on the topic recently have been funding expansions, with little new approach to general suicide prevention efforts.
Little knows that.
“I’m just tired of sitting at home, taking call after call,” he said. “I just want to do something.
“I’ve got a buddy who’s headed to Afghanistan (this fall), and I’m worried about how he’ll come back, and whether he could be next.”
Little has started making regular trips to Washington to introduce himself to lawmakers. He has gotten positive feedback within the Navy on his efforts. A few have started to show some interest. This month, he landed an internship with a New York state senator’s office, a lawmaker who has tackled veterans legislation in the past.
Maybe he can build that into hearings and some action.
And, he said, maybe prevent suicide No. 10.