Death of Alabama former Marine inspires fight against veterans’ suicides
By MIKE CASON | (Birmingham) Alabama Media Group | Published: August 27, 2019
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — John McGregor worked in street outreach for Firehouse Ministries, looking under bridges, in parked cars, crack houses, and any place he could find men in need of a meal, a blanket, and a kind word.
It was not a job for the skittish, but McGregor was a former Marine who had served in Iraq twice. Seedy parts of Birmingham didn’t faze him.
“He wasn’t scared. And he felt like it was his call and duty to help all homeless, but specifically those who were veterans,” Firehouse Ministries Executive Director Anne Wright Rygiel said.
“He had a remarkable way of connecting with them, where they were, not where they should be.”
McGregor’s blend of compassion and strength was a perfect fit for Firehouse, where he worked from 2014 to 2016. But those close to him knew about his own struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and related problems.
That struggle ended in February 2017, when McGregor laid across railroad tracks not far from his mother’s house in Hoover. He was 32.
He had gone missing the previous day and a group of fellow former Marines and others had searched the area until dark.
One of those former Marines, Neil Rafferty, later would run for the state Legislature partly because of his friend’s death and the larger issue of veterans who take their own lives.
Rafferty is now a first-term lawmaker from Birmingham. In May, the Legislature approved his resolution to create the Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide.
“I’m still trying to find him, in a way,” Rafferty said.
The nine-member task force will examine what drives veterans to suicide and will search for solutions to a problem that is evident in Alabama.
In 2016, 128 Alabama veterans took their own lives, a rate of 34.2 per 100,000 people, far above the rate of 20.5 for the overall population.
Nationally, the suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than for nonveterans.
The task force will hold public meetings in cities across the state and will report to the Legislature.
Rafferty said the idea is to bring experts and advocates to the table and to pool their knowledge and resources. The work will begin with information gathering and talking to veterans, he said.
“Figure out what it is they need and what would bring them into services,” Rafferty said.
Rafferty happens to be the only openly gay member of the Alabama Legislature and is married to another former Marine, Mike Rudulph, who was McGregor’s best friend and who had organized the search that day.
Rafferty and Rudulph have advocated for fellow veterans since leaving active duty. They started a student group for veterans at UAB about a decade ago.
20 suicides per day
This year, the two men connected with Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis to build support for the legislation. Davis already knew the issue would be a priority for him when he became head of the state agency six months ago. He knew the chilling statistics: On average, about 20 veterans per day take their own lives in the U.S.
Davis carries a personal connection. His father, Joe Davis, a Woodlawn High and Auburn University graduate, was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, spent nine months in an Army hospital and was disfigured and disabled for the rest of his life.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, even though they didn’t call it that then, that he suffered severely from PTSD,” Davis said. “Night sweats, waking up screaming in the night. I heard it as a kid. My mom would tell stories about it.”
Davis appointed Paulette Risher, a retired major general who served 34 years in the Army and worked as a psychologist for the Air Force, to chair the task force.
Risher is CEO of Still Serving Veterans, a Huntsville-based organization that has helped 2,700 veterans find jobs the past three years.
Risher expects to call the first task force meetings in the next month or so, after all the appointments are finalized.
For now, Risher is gathering information and rounding up experts to advise the panel. Her advocacy for veterans has taught her that the factors leading to suicide are complex.
For Vietnam-era veterans, their war experience compounds the problems common to getting older. For example, many face illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the war that has been associated with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, neuropathy, and other medical conditions.
“People are older, sicker,” Risher said. “Many of them are not working. They’re alone. They’ve lost a spouse.”
For many veterans, including those who have served since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the challenge is squaring the conflict between their sense of morality and things they saw or did in combat, Risher said.
The Mayo Clinic defines post-traumatic stress disorder as a “mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”
“What I’ve seen in a lot of the PTSD people I know is their recurring nightmares, the ruminations, the recurring thoughts,” Risher said. “Those ideas that intrude upon their lives are often related to whatever that was that they saw or heard or experienced.”
Firehouse Ministries’ Anne Rygiel said John McGregor didn’t talk much about his war experiences. But she saw changes in his mood, especially after he heard that veterans he had served with had taken their lives.
“That was the thing with John,” Rygiel said. “There was like a deep, impenetrable sadness from within, which was really sad, because when you want to talk about smart, he was so smart. And he was good-looking and he was athletic and he cared deeply. But he was fighting his own demons.”
McGregor was born in Mobile and grew up in Hoover. His father, Bob McGregor, was a prosecutor who worked in both the state and federal systems. His mother, Molly McGregor, worked for the YMCA for 30 years and was project manager for the city of Birmingham for the construction of CrossPlex, a multipurpose sports facility.
McGregor ran on the cross country and track teams at Hoover High School. His love for the outdoors helped him earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
He graduated from the International Baccalaureate Program at Hoover High School in 2003 and moved on to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., to study history and philosophy.
Molly McGregor talked about her son on a documentary about veterans’ suicides called “72 Minutes.” The title of the film by Phil Woolley refers to the average time span between veterans’ suicides in the U.S.
“He was a joy to be around,” she said. “He was immediately someone that people sought out to hang out with. He wasn’t boisterous. But he had a sense of humor that could have been packaged and sold.”
The film features interviews with about a half-dozen veterans who attempted or considered suicide. It includes interviews with Molly McGregor, Rudulph, and James Cargo, another former Marine who searched for McGregor on the day of his death.
During McGregor’s sophomore year in college he enlisted in the Marines, mainly to help pay for his education after his father had to quit working because of illness. He deployed to Iraq, returned and graduated from college, then went back to Iraq. His mother said he loved the Marine Corps, but the experience changed him.
“When he came home, he was different,” Molly McGregor said. “And he tried a number of different careers, waiting tables, and wanted to go to grad school and ended up at Samford law school (Cumberland School of Law) for a year and a half. It got to be too much for him.”
McGregor began working for an agency as an AmeriCorps volunteer. That led to his job with Firehouse Ministries, where he had a knack for building a rapport with the homeless.
“He would take them necessities, food, blankets that they needed, transportation to the VA, he would provide that,” Rygiel said. “And he would work through the issues that could be solved while they were living in the street and start to build that relationship until they were ready to come into the shelter.
“And then, later on in his career with us, he actually worked as a case manager here in the emergency shelter, so he was able to do a little bit deeper dive with people as they worked on their path to end their homelessness.”
Losing a sense of purpose
In Iraq, McGregor crossed paths with another Marine from the Birmingham area: Rudulph.
Rudulph joined the Marines in 2000, a year after graduating from Mountain Brook High School. He took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He returned about a year later during the battle of Fallujah.
Rudulph and McGregor were in a unit that escorted supply trucks, driven mostly by civilians, on four- and five-hour drives under threats of improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire.
Both men operated machine guns from turrets mounted atop Humvees. They saw and experienced a lot. Rudulph, like McGregor, had trouble readjusting after leaving the Marines in 2008.
“I definitely did have a lot of traumatic incidents,” Rudulph said. “I definitely do have survivor’s guilt in a lot of ways. I definitely do have regrets for decisions I made or decisions I didn’t make.”
But Rudulph is not certain his main problem was PTSD. For him, the biggest struggle was the loss of purpose and camaraderie that was such a powerful part of being a Marine.
“Regardless of what I do in my life, I really don’t think there will ever be a greater purpose than me fighting alongside some of the best men and women I have ever known,” Rudulph said.
“And that purpose when I was in Iraq wasn’t for weapons of mass destruction, it wasn’t to take over Fallujah, it wasn’t to successfully escort these convoys in and out of the battle zones. My sense of purpose then, and I will always see it this way, was to be sure that each one of my buddies made it back home alive.”
Rudulph said veterans need more opportunities to connect with other veterans and to hash out experiences like seeing friends die but having to plow ahead with no time to grieve.
“You swallow everything, every single situation,” Rudulph said. “But then when you get back, that’s when a lot of it comes out. And that’s why the sense of community is so great.”
Rudulph said therapists and social workers at the VA do important work and said his therapist has been “amazing.”
But he said more can be done for the post-9/11 veterans like McGregor who struggle against PTSD and search for a meaningful lives after the military.
“John really is kind of a perfect example of what I’m talking about with that whole sense-of-purpose thing,” Rudulph said.
‘Good to be alive’
The tragic ending in February 2017 was not McGregor’s first brush with suicide. After an earlier attempt, Molly McGregor said her son was treated at the VA Hospital in Birmingham. McGregor was diagnosed with PTSD and received counseling. But she worried that it was not helping her son.
She remembered John said that the intern psychologist working with him did not ask him the right questions.
“And I was like, ‘John, write the questions down for her. Tell her what you want to let go of.’ He just wouldn’t let go,” Molly McGregor said.
She urged him to fight to get better.
“I kept saying stuff to John like, ‘You have to live for the guys that you left behind.’ The last time I said that, he said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to hear it.’ It was really sad.”
Glimpses of what made McGregor happy are captured in the “72 Minutes” documentary. The film includes video McGregor made with his cellphone during a backpacking trip to Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina after his suicide attempt. Molly McGregor said that was her son’s favorite place.
Accompanied by his dog, McGregor marvels at the beauty around him. Overlooking a deep gorge, he notes that his state of mind has improved. “It’s hard to believe two months ago, I would have been game for taking a nose dive off this,” he said. Later, he says, “It’s good to be alive.”
But Molly McGregor said her son’s struggles continued. She said his drinking and erratic behavior reached a point at which she could not allow him to live with her.
When the end came, McGregor was living with the family of a close friend from high school and borrowed an old truck. He wrecked it and suffered a minor injury. His mother brought him home from the hospital, fed him, and told him she had received word that he would be charged with DUI. She said he did not want to face the consequences.
The next morning, a Saturday, he bolted from her house in Hoover, and disappeared into the woods. Molly McGregor said she knew he was suicidal and she called the Hoover police.
Before the end of the day, she also called Mike Rudulph, who rounded up eight Marines and three others who searched all day Sunday. Darkness came and they called off the search for the day.
Molly McGregor said she figured her son probably had hitchhiked. She went to dinner with a neighbor and later went to bed.
Rudulph went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that he knew McGregor had attended to see if anyone had seen him. While he was there, he got a text message from one of the other Marines with a link to an article on AL.com about an unidentified man being struck by a train.
Rudulph feared the worst. Those fears were later confirmed.
Molly McGregor said she got a call about 3 a.m. from the coroner’s office, asking whether she could identify her son’s body.
‘They shut it away’
Rygiel said McGregor’s death left her and others wondering what they could have done.
“John was an absolutely remarkable person,” Rygiel said. “He was a remarkable soldier. He gave a lot of himself to the community. And I think that the people he left behind, everyone from me, who’s an employer, certainly to his friends and his family, all wondered what could have been done different. And I don’t know if we’ll ever have an answer.”
Molly McGregor said she’s proud of Rafferty’s efforts in the Legislature. Like Rudulph, she’s convinced that veterans need more organized opportunities to talk to other veterans in settings that encourage them to share their experiences in ways they can’t with family members.
“What happens is people come home and they shove it,” Molly McGregor said. “They shut it away, they don’t talk about it. And they really need to talk about it with their fellow veterans.”
Rudulph said that although the task force will focus on suicide, he believes it will lead to programs that help veterans in a much broader way.
“If you implement good legislation to do everything you can to prevent veterans’ suicides, then that legislation, in effect, is also going to be bettering the lives of veterans across the board if they’re suicidal or not,” Rudulph said. “And that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Rygiel wonders whether McGregor found it comforting to help others because he was not able to resolve his own problems. She said no issue deserved more attention than finding ways to help veterans like him.
“People are putting their entire lives on the line to serve our country and then coming back and their country is failing them,” Rygiel said. “And I don’t care what side of the spectrum you fall on, that is not acceptable. And we’re losing our young men that are the best and the brightest — because they are not getting their needs met.”
Molly McGregor said the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which happened while John McGregor was in high school, pulled on his patriotic side and he fell in love with the Marines.
She heard about the close calls and dangers he faced in Iraq, like when he was knocked unconscious by an IED but was not hurt seriously.
But he told her other stories that let her know that war did not take away his generous nature, like passing out Gatorade to Iraqi children and singing campfire songs to calm kids on a school bus after a tense encounter with a convoy.
“That’s who he was,” Molly McGregor said. “He was a man who had to go to war, not a warrior. He was a gentle spirit.”