Veteran's suicide leaves family with unanswered questions
By WILLIAM L. SPENCE | Lewiston Tribune, Idaho (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 9, 2015
It's been more than a year since Ian Michael Curtis committed suicide, but the people who loved him still struggle to understand why.
They all have theories about what drove him to take his own life. Some think it was an accident, a spur-of-the-moment mistake. Others say it was the drinking, and everyone cites the horrors of war.
The 24-year-old Army veteran didn't leave a note, so no one really knows what was going through his mind the evening of July 10, 2014. He was at home with his wife and child, watching the movie "Lone Survivor" by himself. He'd been drinking, but went to check on his 15-month-old son when the boy woke up. His wife asked if he was coming to bed. He said it was too hot and returned to the living room.
Later that night, he shot himself.
Curtis had nightmares and likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In many ways, though, he was the last person most would think of as a suicide risk: He had a wide group of friends and doted on his little boy. He was an Eagle Scout and outdoorsman. He had a decent job at ATK. He'd even discussed the issue of suicide with family members and firmly dismissed it as a possibility.
"It wasn't swept under the rug," said his mother, Gail Estes. "We talked about it. We had the conversations - but that didn't save him."
Suicide rates for veterans and active duty military personnel have doubled over the past decade, so learning how to identify and save people who are at risk of self-harm has become a subject of intense scientific study in recent years. While some of the increase can be attributed to more accurate reporting of death statistics, experts say it's also something new: Similar spikes were not seen following Vietnam, World War II or other major conflicts.
What happened to Ian Curtis is happening to thousands of soldiers each year, and researchers are trying to figure out why.
Decision to join the military came as a child following 9/11
Estes, a woman of strong religious faith, has found some level of peace since her son's death. She isn't angry or burdened by guilt, and she doesn't blame the military.
"I always thought the military was the best thing for him," she said. "There's honor in serving your country. I felt it was an opportunity for Ian to be the best version of himself."
Curtis' father died in a boating accident when he was 5 months old. After Estes remarried, the family moved to Lewiston in 1994. Curtis was active in 4-H and scouting growing up, but school never agreed with him. He didn't like doing homework and hated the structure.
"He bucked," Estes said. "He pushed the limits. He was like that from the age of 3."
Curtis was in the sixth grade when the 9/11 terrorists attacks occurred. He was watching TV at home with his mother when the second plane hit the south tower.
"I sent Ian to school that day," Estes said. "Before he left he looked at me and said, 'Mom, I want to join the military so people don't fly airplanes into buildings.' "
Although he occasionally wavered from that goal, Curtis enlisted in the Army during his senior year of high school. He graduated in June 2008, and started basic training July 5. Six months later he was in Iraq.
"He never told me where he was in Iraq or Afghanistan," Estes said. "He never shared a lot of stories. He'd say, 'Mom, you don't need to know that stuff.' But I know he was affected. He saw horrors no one should experience."
Curtis was in a field artillery unit, but he also cleared houses and did other infantry tasks. He was promoted to sergeant during his second deployment to Afghanistan.
Being a good soldier was important to him, Estes said, but after that second deployment he wasn't sure he had another one in him. Curtis was married by then, with a baby on the way. He was also having nightmares. His wife didn't dare knock on the bathroom door because his base had been mortared one time when he was in the shower. Firecrackers or unexpected noises could send him diving under a car.
"I really started to see changes in him physically," Estes said. "He got heavier, and he was self-medicating with alcohol. That was always his Achilles' heel. He decided to leave the Army. He could see a third deployment coming and didn't want to leave his wife and child."
Honorably discharged in August 2013, Curtis came home to Lewiston with his wife and newborn son. He shot himself 11 months later.
"I didn't see it coming," Estes said. "He knew he had PTSD, (but) he'd grown up longing to know his dad. He wouldn't pass that on to his son. He wouldn't do that deliberately. He'd tell me, 'Mom, I'm not going to leave my son. You know I'd never do that.'
"And he knew what he was to me. When Ian's dad died, he was my purpose; he's what forced me to continue to function. (As a teenager) it broke his heart to tell me he'd done something stupid again. But he didn't have a delay button. Ultimately, I think that's what happened the night of July 10. In the depth of my soul I believe it was one bad moment. He just didn't want to hurt anymore. He didn't hit the delay button."
Exposure to killing and death key suicide risk factor
Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, said the pace of operations today may be part of the reason why military suicide rates have doubled in the past decade. Prior to 2005, rates were significantly lower than for their civilian counterparts.
"With an all-volunteer force, only a small portion of the population goes into the military, so there may be something different about those who join now versus 40 years ago," he said. "And the tempo of operations has increased considerably, and a much greater proportion of military personnel are being exposed to killing and death."
Several early studies examined whether multiple deployments increased suicide risk, but they reached conflicting conclusions. The consensus now is that deployment alone isn't an issue; however, exposure to killing and death seems to be a key risk factor.
In one recent study, for example, Bryan found that soldiers exposed to some type of traumatic experience during their deployment were 43 percent more likely to kill themselves.
"Next we want to understand why exposure leads to increased suicide risk, so we can develop better ways to treat people," he said.
A major difficulty with suicide prevention, however, is identifying the individuals who are truly at risk.
"The reality is, most people who die by suicide don't say much about it," Bryan said. "They don't leave notes, they don't talk about killing themselves. If you ask them explicitly whether they're thinking of suicide, about two-thirds will say no. Some conceal it deliberately because they don't want you to intervene, but others honestly aren't suicidal at that moment."
There are clear differences in the "trajectory of risk" for those who verbalize thoughts of self-harm and those who don't, he said. People who talk about suicide tend to have clear ups and downs - when they aren't doing well, it's very obvious, which makes it easier to intervene and provide treatment when needed.
Individuals who don't talk about suicide, on the other hand, "tend to have less fluctuation," Bryan said. "Even if you know they're going through a bad time, they appear stable in their level of distress. They look OK."
Consequently, trying to detect risk factors that otherwise can't be observed has become a major area of suicide research. Bryan and others, for example, are trying to develop questionnaires to help determine an individual's state of mind - not just whether they're feeling positive or negative about life, but how they feel about the future.
"Suicidal people have a code language," he said. "They're very unlikely to say they want to kill themselves, but they give verbal clues about how they're feeling. We have to learn to pay attention."
Having a very negative self-perception is common for suicidal individuals, Bryan said. Insomnia also seems to be an important indication of risk - "maybe a better predictor even than depression."
Identifying each individual's risk factors is key to providing them with effective treatment options. Sometimes it's as straightforward as helping them remember the times when they had a sense of hope and purpose in life.
"The traditional approach in suicide research has been to ask why people kill themselves," Bryan said. "We're looking at why people choose to live, even if they sometimes want to die. What we're finding is that those who choose to live are better able to remember happy times and articulate why they want to live."
Seeing the love he had for his son 'was amazing'
Elayna Curtis doesn't have to think long to choose her favorite memory of her husband.
It was in 2012, shortly after they found out she was pregnant. They were at the doctor's office to see if it was a boy or a girl.
"I really wanted a girl, but Ian wanted a boy," she said. "When we found out it was a boy, he squeezed my hand so tight I thought he'd break it. He was so excited. He was going to get his son. Everything was perfect."
After she gave birth, Elayna was in the hospital room with Ian.
"He was holding Brycen," she said. "He wouldn't look away. He'd talk to me, but he wouldn't look away. To see that love was amazing."
The couple met their junior year in high school, sharing a zoology class. They started dating six months later. He proposed to her by phone, when he was still in Iraq. They were both 19.
"He called up and asked my father's permission," she said with a smile. "He was a very traditional guy. He said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me and have kids."
They got married in October 2009, barely a month after he returned from Iraq. A week later they moved to his duty station at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, near Fairbanks.
"I'd never moved before," she said. "It was negative-10 (degrees) the day we got there, and it would drop to 45- or 50-below for weeks at a time. The highest temperature it ever got to while we were there was 82. That was for one day, and people were still jumping in the lake."
Alaska and the military were something of a culture shock for Elayna. Being away from family and friends was difficult as well, particularly when Curtis was deployed to Afghanistan.
"It was rough not having someone there to love and hug on," she said. "But I knew I was secure with Ian. He wouldn't let us fail. I felt so safe with him."
That began to change after Afghanistan, when the family got transferred from Fort Wainwright to Fort Hood in Texas. Curtis lost the tight camaraderie he'd had with his former unit. Then, shortly after Brycen was born, he began training for a third deployment.
"That's when I threatened to divorce him," Elayna said. "I wanted help raising our son."
Curtis took an early discharge and came home to Lewiston. Although he had issues with the military, it was familiar. He knew he'd get a paycheck twice a month no matter what, knew his wife and baby would have medical care.
"Outside, life was harder," Elayna said. "And his personality was different. He started drinking more and was angry. We fought way more than any married couple should."
Still, the possibility of suicide never entered her mind.
"Ian was always so head-strong," she said. "He'd tell me people don't just give up on their families. You do what you can to make things work."
Scoutmaster: Curtis would push the limits, but you could count on him in a jam
Dan Luper chuckles when he thinks of Curtis' head-strong attitude. He observed it first hand as the boy's scoutmaster.
"We had about 16 kids come in over a two-year period, and 13 or 14 of them made Eagle Scout," Luper said. "Ian was on the younger side of the group. He might have been 11 (when he joined). My first impression was he was someone I'd need to keep an eye on. He never did disappoint me on that."
Curtis had something of a stubborn streak, which played out on one camping trip when he stuck a squirt bottle full of gasoline in his pack. His stepdad had told him to take it out a couple of times, but he kept sneaking it back in. When he squirted it on the fire, it went up with a "Whoomp." Nobody else was hurt, but he ended up with burns on his arm and leg. Luper made him teach the new boys fire safety for two years before he'd let him near a stove or campfire again.
"In the end, he did an outstanding job of teaching, using himself as an example," Luper said. "He'd push the limits, but if I got in a situation, if I had a broken leg or something like that, I knew Ian would be one of the ones who would get me out."
The two became very close over the years, and Curtis kept in touch after he joined the Army. He didn't tell Luper much more about his experiences than he did his wife or mom, but they had a few conversations.
"He didn't really like to talk about it," Luper said. "It was a job he had to do, and he wanted to do it for pride in country. But there were things he had to contend with. He didn't like the death part. Seeing people with a medic, trying to get them out - knowing they weren't going to make it, but telling them to hang in there anyway - that part was tough for him."
Still, suicide in many ways is the antithesis of everything scouting represents. Scouts learn about responsibility and leadership, about how to handle situations.
"It doesn't make sense," Luper said of Curtis' death. "He and the bottle were the only ones up that night. I think that's how he lost the battle. That's the only thing I can come up with as far as why. I'm sure he's looking back now saying, 'Yep, I kind of messed that one up.' "
Families shouldn't be afraid to ask questions
The first medical theory of suicide, developed in 1897, suggested it was a response to an individual's relationship with society. Potential triggers included being cut off from the community or experiencing a sudden disruption in daily life.
Peter Gutierrez, a psychiatry professor with the University of Colorado-Denver and co-director of the Department of Defense Military Suicide Research Consortium, noted that suicidal people frequently experience relationship problems or legal troubles. They may have mental health or substance abuse issues, as well as trouble sleeping. Their "executive function" abilities - the ability to organize, make decisions, plan for the future - may be diminished as well, which makes it difficult for them to deal with their own treatment needs.
"Once we identify what's driving their negative thoughts, we can target that with treatment," he said. "That fine-grained tailoring of intervention to the drivers of suicide is where we have a good possibility of reducing suicide rates. We're still not at a point where there's a test that tells us when someone is likely to engage in self-harm, but we're doing a better job of matching at-risk individuals to the available intervention options."
Gutierrez said it's important for family members to be aware of the different risk factors, and to be part of the monitoring process.
"Don't be afraid to ask questions," he said. "It's not going to increase the risk, or put ideas into their head. The more people involved in monitoring, the better - and the more individual patients who understand the risk, the better."
Having those conversations may not be enough, though, as was the case with Curtis.
"With so many psychological, biological and neurological factors interacting in unique and complex ways, it's difficult to determine exactly what drives someone to suicide," Gutierrez said. "At the end of the day, dying by suicide requires individuals to reach a point where the combination of factors contributing to their decision to die overwhelms their desire to live. They're in unbearable physical or psychological pain, which eliminates their ability to believe they can end the pain in any way, other than by killing themselves. Ultimately, someone dies by suicide the same way they die by cancer: They reach a point where nothing more can be done. They reach their limit and have to stop the pain."
'He had no idea the lives that he touched'
In the opening line of her son's obituary, Gail Estes wrote that "in a moment when memories of war mixed with alcohol proved to be too much to bear, Ian was unable to see tomorrow and took his life."
"That first line just appeared on the page," she said. "To me, it was just part of his truth: He had bad war memories, he drank and he just didn't stop for two seconds."
More than 400 people showed up for his funeral vigil.
"Oh, Ian. He had no idea the lives that he touched," she said. "He had no clue the church would be filled like that, the friends who would come."
Now Estes has a table full of memories of her son: a young Ian with his face smeared with spaghetti, wearing a tuxedo at his first communion photo. Catching his first steelhead, posing with his first deer. The well-worn New Testament he carried with him to Iraq and Afghanistan. His last Mother's Day card: "Happy Mother's Day, from the kid who kept your life entertaining."
"I miss his face," she said. "Sometimes I hear him talking to me. 'Don't cry, Mom, don't cry.' He could never take me crying.
"I lost his dad at 24 and him at 24. They were within a month of each other's age. But he's OK. We hurt for the loss, but he's not in pain any more. He's at peace."
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.