Two deaths in Idaho put spotlight on military suicides

BOISE, Idaho — During the year that U.S. Army Pfc. Erik Jorgensen spent in Afghanistan sweeping roads for makeshift bombs, a U.S. soldier died every 36 hours from injuries suffered in improvised explosive device blasts. More than nine troops were injured each day.

Sweeping for IEDs was dangerous, tedious and tension-filled work, said Army Sgt. Bryan Heidkamp, who served with Jorgensen at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., and deployed with him to Afghanistan. It could take a terrible toll physically and mentally. Seeing four soldiers they served with die added to it, Heidkamp said.

"It was really rough," he said.

After Jorgensen finished his enlistment, he returned to the United States and joined the Idaho National Guard. Jorgensen's fellow Guard members were part-time soldiers, and Heidkamp suspects that they didn't really understand what Jorgensen had gone through in Afghanistan.

And he figures that Jorgensen -- like many soldiers, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to his family -- didn't really relate to them and their civilian lives.

Jorgensen died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head; his body was found outside the National Guard's training complex earlier this week. He had been reported missing late Thursday and his family feared he might be suicidal.

He was one of two service members to die recently in the Treasure Valley. On Tuesday evening, an airman from Mountain Home Air Force Base was found dead in his car in a Boise parking lot. Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson said all signs point to suicide in that case as well, something he finds troubling.

"We've had two military deaths in the last 72 hours," Masterson said Wednesday. "It really brings the seriousness of the matter of depression into focus."

The New York Times reported in May that a record 350 active-duty service members killed themselves last year. That number was twice as many as a decade before and surpassed the number of troops killed in Afghanistan and in traffic accidents in 2012.

Military suicides occurred at a level that was much lower than the civilian population's rate in 2002, but now the incidences are nearly the same, at more than 18 per 100,000 people.

The military rate was 10.3 people per 100,000 in 2002, the Times reported.

"I think the economy is affecting people the same as in the civilian population. I think that may be a factor," said Col. Tim Marsano, spokesman for the Idaho National Guard.

The most recent Department of Defense annual suicide report said 301 service members killed themselves in 2011. Nearly 89 percent came from the regular armed forces, with 7 percent from National Guard units and 4 percent from the Reserves.

Another 915 service members tried to kill themselves but did not succeed.

The Guard stresses to its soldiers the importance of mental well-being long before troops are deployed for active-duty assignments overseas. The soldiers are asked to keep an eye on their fellow troops and to point them to Guard psychologists, chaplains and other support members if they feel they are troubled, Marsano said.

Attention is also paid during the deployment and during a weeklong debriefing after troops return stateside.

"We tell them to watch and care for their buddies," Marsano said. "We tell them to care for them and don't leave them alone if they're having troubles."

The Air Force has similar programs, said 2nd Lt. Rebecca Ennis, spokeswoman for Mountain Home Air Force Base.

Jorgensen's death was especially troubling for Marnie Bernard, president of the Boise-based Idaho Veterans Network. Her group could have paired him with a combat veteran mentor who could have assisted him, she said.

Since 2005, the Idaho Veterans Network has sought out struggling active-duty personnel and veterans. She said those service members who are depressed are better able to relate to someone with a similar military background.

"People are scared of going in for counseling but they're glad to talk with another combat veteran," Bernard said.

The group, which has 355 members, has helped save a dozen veterans who were considering killing themselves, she said. One had already put a gun barrel in his mouth before network volunteers were able to talk him out of it, Bernard said.

And there is no cost for services.

"We know we're making a difference," she said.

Maggie Haswell-Sheppard, a former military police officer who searched for Jorgensen after he was reported missing, said she was disappointed by the response by Boise police.

She said a missing-person case involving someone with PTSD should be treated differently than an overdue hunter or hiker. And she said she didn't think police took the report seriously enough and instead treated it as though someone had left for the weekend and was expected back at a certain hour.

"He could have been saved," said Haswell-Sheppard, who has acted as the Jorgensen family's spokeswoman since Jorgensen's body was identified. "The right protocols were not in place."

Masterson said that in most cases, a person who is reported missing returns home without incident.

In Jorgensen's case, a Boise police officer tried to track him. He contacted officials in Ada County and Boise County, where Jorgensen was most likely to visit some of his favorite outdoor places. He tried to contact Jorgensen by cellphone. He also arranged to be notified if another police agency ran a check of Jorgensen's pickup truck license plate.

Police in Shoshone County ran the plate, but it turned out that check was done by another law enforcement officer seeking information about Jorgensen's disappearance, Masterson said.

Masterson said he would like to call together representatives from a group of veterans organizations and assistance groups to examine the last days of Jorgensen's life and the airman's life, to try to formulate better plans for dealing with veterans in need.

He would like to do that within the next 10 days, he said.

"We have to redouble our efforts" to try to prevent this from happening again, Masterson said.

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