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Fighting veteran suicide gets personal for one Gold Star family

Patti and Hugh Best, although still grieving, have begun the search for a solution to the problem of veteran suicides that they say is plaguing this country.

KYLE PERROTTI/THE MOUNTAINEER (TNS)

By KYLE PERROTTI | The Mountaineer (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 17, 2017

When Sgt. Jared Best reenlisted to go to Afghanistan after having already done a tour in Iraq, he did so to be there for his guys, many of whom were inexperienced in combat.

But he never realized the toll that final deployment would take on him.

When Best finally got out of the Army and returned to North Carolina's Haywood County to tend his family’s farmland in Crabtree, he learned just how hard it can be to adjust to civilian life, and how hard it can be to forget the things he’d experienced. Last New Year’s Eve, alone and with too much time to think, the 26-year-old took his own life with a gun.

His mother, Patti Best, who lives in Canton, said suicide is becoming all too common among those who served with her son.

“He was the eighth young man in his unit that left us last year,” she said.

10 feet tall and bulletproof

Jared, who Patti endearingly said was always an “old soul,” entered the Army at only 17 after being homeschooled by his parents. Upon completing basic training and Infantry school, he was stationed with the 10th Mountain Division at Ft. Drum, in upstate New York.

He excelled immediately.

Before long, Jared was deployed to Iraq, where he made sergeant and held a leadership role. Patti said that under his direction, Jared’s infantrymen were regarded as some of the best-trained in the region.

“He was tough on his guys, but they were always ready,” Patti said. “They also always talked about how compassionate he was. He was always there to help them.”

Jared’s brother, Aaron, 35, also served in the Army as an infantryman. Toward the end of his career, when his younger brother was a sergeant at Ft. Drum, Aaron was a drill instructor. The two would swap stories and joke around, always arguing over which brother was tougher. Because the two looked so much alike, young soldiers fresh out of boot camp who had to deal with Aaron would arrive at Fort Drum, see the younger Best, and “turn white as a ghost,” Aaron said.

“He’d be like, ‘Guess what? I’m way worse than my brother,’” Aaron joked.

But all jokes aside, Jared impressed his older brother.

“He loved what he did and he was very good at it,” Aaron said.

When Jared neared the end of his contract, although he originally wanted to leave the service, he decided to re-enlist to deploy to Afghanistan.

“He said, ‘Mom, don’t get mad at me, but I resigned for another 18 months,’” Patti said.

Often in the military, a person gets an assignment they never asked for, a term many refer to as being “voluntold.” Patti said that not long after arriving in Afghanistan, her son was “voluntold” that he would be the personal assistant for the commanding officer, a duty that entails everything from being a personal body guard to aiding with logistical tasks to accompanying bodies of dead soldiers — soldiers Jared knew and cared about deeply — as they leave the country.

“He would ride in the helicopters back to Kuwait with the bodies,” she said. “That old soul could not get past that feeling he was responsible.”

Patti remembers her son fondly, and joked that when he came back from Afghanistan, he thought he was “10 feet tall and bulletproof.” But the problem, she said, is that that mindset makes people think they don’t need help, no matter how dire the circumstance.

To make matters tougher, Jared struggled navigating the Department of Veterans Affairs to find care. Aaron said that is not uncommon, and he usually recommends people make sure they are enrolled in the VA prior to separating from active duty.

“He just got so frustrated dealing with the VA that he pretty much just gave up … and I’ve seen that with so many of my friends who got out,” Aaron said.

Because Aaron, who is now medically retired and living in Georgia, also served in the Army as an infantryman in Afghanistan and also struggles with PTSD, he provides a unique insight as someone who both knew Jared personally, and also someone who understands the demons his brother was battling.

“It’s not what we saw, it’s not what we did that haunts us. It’s after the fact,” Aaron said. “It’s not being there that hurts. You turn on the news and see something that happens overseas or see that your buddy died. It’s that survivor’s guilt. You see something that happens to your unit, and you say, ‘I could have been there.’ And that’s something my brother really struggled with.”

Potential legislation

In the months immediately following her son’s passing, Patti Best grieved. But it wasn’t long before she became determined to do something to ensure those who leave the military get the help they need before it’s too late, even if they don’t think they need it.

“They’re not going to come forward and admit to needing help,” Patti said.

Congressman Mark Meadows agrees.

“Sometimes having it available doesn’t necessarily mean it will get used because of the peer pressure that may come with it,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to address.”

To highlight the crisis, Patti likes to cite a 2012 New York Times opinion column written by Nicholas Kristoff, which notes that, for every American killed in combat, 25 veterans take their own lives. Late last month, she reached out to Meadows to see if there is a potential legislative solution.

Meadows, who runs for office on a strict fiscal conservative platform, has come to grips with spending large sums of money on such an initiative.

Although he knows the seriousness of this issue, Meadows has a of couple concerns about roadblocks that could derail legislation on mandatory counseling, including the high cost of implementation.

“It can be one of those difficult situations where you want to support your veterans and you want to make sure they have the resources necessary to thank them for their service and yet you do see the fiscal constraints that are there,” he said.

Meadows ultimately downplayed this concern, saying that caring for the men and women who have served is a top priority.

“There are casualties of war,” Meadows said. “And sometimes those casualties of war are not only the physical wounds we can see, but also the mental wounds that are just as severe. Just like we provide proper appropriations for handling the physical wounds, we need to do the same for those wounds that may not be able to be see, but are no less perilous in terms of the diagnosis.”

Patti agreed that money can’t be a limiting factor in finding a solution.

“I say, ‘You know, what’s expensive is losing our nation’s most precious resource at a rate of 22 per day,” she said.

However, Meadows’ bigger concern is coming between a person and their rights when it comes to medical care.

“I think the biggest pushback that we’ve got so far is not as much the cost as it is how do we make sure we do this in a manner that does not trample constitutional rights for individuals,” he said.

Meadows did note there may be one way around that issue.

“We can potentially make it happen if it’s a condition of enlisting,” he said. “So, you say that if diagnosed with this particular PTSD particular illness when discharged, you will be required to seek a certain number of hours of counseling.”

To find solutions, Meadows is working every angle he can.

“I’m committed to find a way to address this,” he said. “We’ve got a military advisory group that I meet with on a very regular basis on a number of very hard and complex issues, so this particular issue will be on the agenda for our next military advisory group back in the district, and I’m optimistic that we will find some type of solution.”

In addition, Meadows wants to work with the Department of Defense to explore further options.

“I have not personally talked to [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis on this matter, but we’ve let his office, at very high levels, know,” he said. “I was with the chief legislative affairs individual with the White House today. We’re making sure every avenue is explored at the very highest levels of the executive branch.”

Although Meadows sounds confident in Congress’ ability to conjure up a solution, Aaron is not quite as hopeful.

“Right now, mental health falls under three different categories in the Department of Defense, and there’s no oversight,” he said.

He added that previously proposed solutions have hit a wall in Congress, largely due to earmarks that are thrown into bills — earmarks that almost always keep one party or the other from supporting the legislation.

“I think that’s one thing that hinders a lot of bills that could help us,” he said.

Patti’s husband, Hugh, wanted to remind people Congress is responsible for making sure those who served their country are taken care of when they come home.

“It’s Congress’ job to see to the welfare of the soldiers, and they’ve dropped the ball there,” he said.

Other solutions

The other Best siblings aren’t waiting for Congress to act. They want to take matters into their own hands.

Aaron is in the process of starting his own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is hoping to begin a walk across the country in May to raise awareness and funds for combat-related PTSD.

“Having PTSD is not an illness or a defect, it’s an injury,” he said.

Patti’s daughter, Chelsea, 30, who lives in Buncombe County, has ideas of her own. Because she likes to ride motorcycles, she wants to start a nonprofit that provides motorcycles as a therapeutic outlet. Because Chelsea, who works as a paramedic, lost an EMS friend to a PTSD-related suicide, she wants to extend her service beyond just veterans.

“I want to focus on both veterans and first responders,” she said. “I’m hoping to have it up and running next fall.”

Both siblings are also working on masters degrees to become certified PTSD counselors in hopes of preventing further unnecessary deaths of those who have been through traumatic events.

Along with trying to ensure no one suffers the same fate as her son, Patti likes to look back fondly on her son’s life and the people he touched. She recalled some of the men who served with him coming down from Ft. Drum to attend his funeral, adding that many shared stories of their own.

One soldier talked about a training exercise near Yuma, Arizona, during which the men were marching on a narrow goat trail. On one side of the trail was a steep bank that ultimately led to a large cliff. Despite his best efforts, the soldier slipped and began to slide down the bank.

“He said, ‘Best was the only one who broke rank and grabbed me before I went down,’” Patti said. “And we’ve heard a lot of people say things like that.”

Although fond memories preserve her son’s legacy, Patti said nothing can take away the pain of losing a child.

“Those soldiers all said, ‘He was my best friend.’ My son says, ‘He was my best friend.’ My daughter says, ‘He was my best friend.’ My husband says, ‘He was my best friend,’” Patti said. “But to me, he was my baby.”

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