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Navy widow hopes viral video will help prevent PTSD-related suicide

By MIKE HIXENBAUGH | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 7, 2015

PORTSMOUTH (Tribune News Service) —  The idea popped into her head during her business law class.

I just need to tell my story, she thought.

It was early September. World Suicide Prevention Day.

Stephanie Lembo, a 28-year-old widow, started scribbling in a notebook.

She wrote about the day she met her husband at a Wal-Mart in Mississippi 10 years ago.

About getting married six months later, with their first child already on the way.

About the struggles of being a young mom married to a military man.

About the darkness that eventually overtook her husband and claimed his life.

After class that afternoon, Stephanie propped a camera on a table, pressed play on a somber country tune, then recorded a video of herself silently holding up a series of handwritten notes.

She cried as she turned the pages, reliving a half decade of grief over the course of a few minutes.

She hit "save." Clicked "upload." Then headed out to pick up her children from school.

In the car, about 15 minutes later, she got a call from her sister:

"Stephanie, you've got more than 3,000 views on your video."

You're kidding.

Her story must have hit a nerve.

Soon, the number would grow to more than 23 million.

It's a totally modern phenomenon.

What is it about a photo, a video, a short story, that propels strangers to click "share"?

Cat pictures.

Sneezing pandas.

A grief-stricken widow.

In seconds, a social media post can spread across the world, briefly impacting the lives of millions. A short burst of emotion. A shared experience.

And then, nearly as fast, the attention fades.

But there's almost always so much more to the story.

This isn't a tale about a viral video.

It's the story of all that came before it.

The moment Stephanie first saw Anthony Lembo, she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.

That's how the story goes, at least.

Stephanie was 18, a college freshman wandering around a Wal-Mart with friends in southern Mississippi, trying to find cute older guys to buy them wine coolers.

Anthony stood in the electronics section with friends, probably looking at video games, a chiseled and tanned sailor from Hampton Roads, in town for training.

"No way," Anthony told the girls, assuming it was a setup.

A few minutes later, he and his friends walked out of the store carrying a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice.

Anthony and Stephanie chatted in the parking lot, then exchanged information. The next day, he called her and asked her on a date.

They flirted on the way to dinner. Her friend mentioned Stephanie could sing, and Anthony told her to prove it; she belted out a few lines of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You."

"Oh my God," he said. "Can I marry you now?"

They both laughed.

He was so much fun back then.

Serious, but fun.

That's how she likes to remember him.

After a positive pregnancy test a few months later, there was no hesitation: Anthony told her to leave school and move in with him in Portsmouth.

"I'll take care of you," he said.

They married. She stayed home with their baby boy and helped manage rental properties. Anthony focused on his military career. As a special warfare combatant-craft crewman, he deployed often in support of special ops missions overseas and was frequently out of town for training.

Soon, a second boy was on the way.

"We had a normal life," Stephanie says. "Life wasn't perfect, but we were happy."

It's hard, even now, in hindsight, to figure out exactly when things changed.

When did the good times turn bad?

The signs were there.

Often subtle, sometimes less so.

But she didn't know to look for them.

The summer of 2009.

Maybe that's when it started.

Anthony was on his second deployment in Germany, a base for the secretive combat missions that consumed his daily life. She was pregnant with their third child. He'd been an only child and loved the prospect of having a big family.

But when he called home that summer, he often wanted to talk about politics. He'd become obsessed with conspiracy theories.

She knew he couldn't talk much about his work, but she'd hoped to hear more about how he was doing. She knew deployments were hard on him.

Stephanie had struggles of her own.

She dropped the boys off one day with Anthony's parents -- they lived up the street in Portsmouth -- and went in for an ultrasound.

She was 17 weeks pregnant, far enough along to learn the gender.

But the technician's face looked pained as she moved the wand over Stephanie's abdomen.

There was no heartbeat.

When Stephanie finally reached Anthony in Germany, she wept as she told him the news.

At first, he refused to believe it: "They're wrong!" he shouted.

And then: "What did you do?"

The words felt like a punch to the gut.

There was something different in his voice.

It seems almost impossible given all the attention focused on service members and mental health over the past decade, but Stephanie insists it's true: She knew very little about post-traumatic stress disorder back then.

"I was a young mom," she says. "It's not something I was really aware of, and nobody in the military ever brought it to my attention."

Not even in December 2009, a few months after the miscarriage, when one of Anthony's chief petty officers -- a senior enlisted member of his command -- committed suicide.

Stephanie remembers sitting at the funeral, feeling heartbroken for the man's wife and kids.

During the memorial, she tried to imagine what they were feeling.

A few weeks later: Christmas Day.

Stephanie had asked to skip traveling that year. After losing the baby and the long deployment, she just wanted a relaxing day at home with her husband and boys.

Everything, finally, seemed OK again.

Then, as she prepared their holiday dinner, she heard agitated voices blaring from computer speakers in the other room.

Anthony was listening to one of his fringe political programs.

He'd become more obsessed with conspiracies since returning from overseas. And he'd started buying a lot of guns.

For one day -- for Christmas -- she'd asked that he not talk politics.

She yelled for him to turn it off. Maybe he didn't hear her. She raised her voice.

"Anthony, I deserve better than this," she said finally, growing emotional.

Suddenly he was face to face with her, his powerful hands squeezing her neck.

A few seconds later, he backed away.

Stephanie sobbed: "I don't know what's inside of you."

Neither did he.

They spent several months apart after that, even started seeing other people.

But eventually they agreed to work it out.

"We were soulmates," Stephanie says. "I didn't want to be with anyone else."

They went to counseling. Anthony promised to get his temper under control. Stephanie promised to be more supportive.

They were living together again by the following November, when

Anthony left for a weeklong training mission in North Carolina.

He called her after the first day, sounding upset.

He wasn't getting any sleep, he said. And the training demanded long, late hours.

"You've got this," Stephanie told him. "Everything is going to be OK."

He called again the next day, sounding worse.

Something didn't seem right.

Stephanie didn't know it, but Anthony also called his mother that week.

"Mom," he'd asked. "What's the best way to die?"

The next few days were a roller coaster.

Stephanie has replayed certain moments in meticulous detail, searching for missed opportunities.

Finding new ways to blame herself.

What if she hadn't dropped off the kids with his parents after Anthony returned from training that Friday night and taken him out with friends?

He wouldn't have lost his temper with her and gotten them kicked out of the bar.

Would that have changed anything?

How about the next day, when her notoriously spendthrift husband suddenly suggested she spend as much money as she wanted on a new outfit at the mall.

Was that a warning sign?

And on Sunday afternoon, when they sat in their car at City Park in Portsmouth talking about their future. Could she have steered the conversation in another direction?

That's when he told her that the military had changed him and he didn't know how to fix it.

"I'm just better off not here," he said.

Through tears, she begged him to get help.

He got defensive: "No!" he shouted. "I'll lose my security clearance. You don't know what they'll do to me."

Maybe if she hadn't taken "no" for an answer.

Maybe if she'd called the police or someone at his command.

"You can spend the rest of your life second-guessing yourself," she says.

That night, Nov. 7, 2010, Anthony was inconsolable.

He paced through the house, chain smoking -- a distant, disturbed look in his eyes.

Stephanie feared he was scaring the kids. She asked her father-in-law to take Anthony home with him and help him get some sleep.

His parents had also noticed the changes in their son and had been urging him to see a doctor.

A few hours later, Anthony returned alone, still erratic, like he wanted to cry but couldn't.

She told him she was scared, that she was calling the police.

He snatched the phone from her and threw it.

Stephanie remembers pulling him onto the couch and grabbing him by the face: "Look, Anthony, I love you, but you have to leave. You have to get sleep. I don't know how to help you."

Finally, he threw his hands up, as if giving up, then walked out the door.

He texted her after midnight: "I love you."

Three hours later, as his elderly parents begged him to calm down and started to dial 911, Anthony Lembo, a petty officer first class in the Navy, pulled a gun out of his hoodie and shot himself in the head.

He was 27 years old.

Stephanie dropped to her knees when she saw the police officer at her door the next morning.

"Why, why, why?" she screamed.

Hours later, she sat down with her boys, ages 4 and 2, for perhaps the hardest talk of her life.

"Look, Daddy is not here anymore," she told them. "Daddy loves you very much, but now he's in heaven."

Sometimes little boys grow up too fast.

"It's OK, Mommy," the 4-year-old said. "I'll be your Daddy. When I grow up, I'll take care of you."

Anthony would have been so proud.

Five years.

Is that how long it takes to redeem a tragedy?

Stephanie wants to use her husband's to help others, she says;

That's why she made the video.

Maybe his story will persuade a soldier to see a therapist.

Or maybe it will encourage a spouse to insist her husband gets help.

Millions watched her video, which asked people to donate to a group called Carry The Fallen, a national movement to prevent veteran suicide. Stephanie's video raised more than $64,000 -- money that will help build a retreat for veterans and service members.

"I'm stunned by the response," she says, although not all of the reactions were positive.

An ugly side of being the widow of suicide: Some people blame you.

"That's why widows are hesitant to tell their stories," she says. "That's why I'm nervous about doing this now."

She returned to school and is studying nonprofit business management while raising her children back home in Mississippi.

She hopes to start her own charity to help veterans someday.

"I wish I could go back and change things," she says. "But since I can't, I'm going to dedicate the rest of my life to this cause."

As her video ended, Stephanie held a final slide.

"Thank you for watching and hearing my story," it read.

She dropped the paper, clutched a photo of her dead husband to her chest, then started to cry.

A moment later, she reached toward the screen and pressed stop.

She hadn't said a single word.

She'd said enough.

___

(c)2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

A video screen grab shows Stephanie Lembo, the widow of Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony Lembo, telling her story.
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