Veteran's widow struggles to carry on after husband's suicide
By RYAN MASTERS | Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 18, 2017
BOULDER CREEK, Calif. — On the morning of Oct. 24, 2014, Bernetta Hutchinson woke up in the California home she shared with her husband, Terry. Wandering sleepily out to the living room, she found a note on the table. It began, “Bernetta, I am sorry. Call the VA.”
As she finished the short note, she went to their grown daughter’s bedroom, fell to her knees and prayed she was misinterpreting the suicide note; that somehow her husband was still alive.
And then, Hutchinson said, God guided her out the door and 50 yards into the redwood forest behind their home where she found her husband of 29 years and 7 months seated against a tree with his head bowed.
The 67-year-old Vietnam veteran had shot and killed himself with a Glock handgun, becoming another casualty of the war to heal warriors after they return from the battlefield.
Kathie Dicesare, who runs the Wounded Times web blog and has been working on PTSD since 1982, said the VA reported 20 veteran suicides a day in 1999 — the exact same number of veteran suicides a day in 2016.
“In the 2000 Census, there were 26.4 million veterans; in 2014, there were 21,369,602. That’s the same number of reported suicides despite 5 million less veterans,” said Dicesare.
What those statistics do not reflect are those who have been left.
Bernetta Hutchinson met her husband in 1982. He was her landlord on Park Place in the Beach Flats neighborhood of Santa Cruz. They married three years later.
Terry “Hutch” Hutchinson grew up in a military family in San Francisco. He enlisted in the Medical Specialist Corps branch of the U.S. Army in July 1964; arrived in Vietnam in August 1966; and served in war-torn field hospitals for 11 months, 24 days.
Hutchinson detailed the horrors of the experience in a written account submitted to the VA before his death. He described the sights and sounds, the constant fear — how it felt to carry armloads of body parts; to x-ray badly-wounded men; to treat crippled and maimed Vietnamese children; to helplessly sit through mortar attacks; to watch men die.
To the best of his memory, Hutchinson wrote, he logged in 10,000 casualties during his tour as an x-ray specialist and combat medical corpsman. He also earned a slew of decorations — the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze service stars, a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
“I refused to throw away blood-covered fatigues. They were my proof of what I was doing,” wrote Hutchinson. “I still have a bloody fatigue jacket in my closet.”
For five years after the war, Hutchinson could not control his rage, which affected his closest relationships. Over the following decades, he suffered from survivor’s guilt, depression, memory impairment. He was easily startled and couldn’t hold down a job for long.
Yet in the 1990s he found solace in the Freedom Chapter of the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club, men he called his “brothers,” Bernetta said. He was also an advocate for POW/MIA issues.
“He campaigned to get the POW/MIA flag on every flagpole in California,” Bernetta said.
Yet, privately, he continued to entertain suicidal thoughts, according to VA medical records released to Bernetta after his suicide.
“The VA never told me. I would have made sure there was never a gun in the house,” said Bernetta.
Bernetta believes that the VA system failed her husband and should be held responsible for his death. It’s an argument she has articulated in a 72-page attachment to the Standard Form 95 Claim she submitted in January.
“I don’t want another family to have to go through this,” she said.
In his suicide note, Hutchinson told his wife, “Sell everything and start anew.”
Unfortunately, that’s impossible. When her husband died, the disability and social security benefits stopped coming.
Today, Bernetta is five months behind on the mortgage of her home and has piled up $30,000 in credit card debt. While she is hopeful the VA will not dispute her claim, Bernetta is prepared for the worst. She is also actively seeking employment.
At 60 years old, Bernetta is a certified paralegal and notary, a real estate broker, and a project manager. She also spent seven years as office manager and field representative for Sam Farr when he served in the State Assembly.
Of course, two years after the death of her husband, the pain remains fresh.
“It’s like he transferred all that trauma on to me,” Bernetta said Friday as she sat in her home, listening to the stream of Gospel music emerging from her stereo speakers.
Kathie Dicesare of Wounded Times has heard stories like Bernetta’s far too many times. Unfortunately, she said little has changed in the three decades she has studied Combat PSTD.
“All these years of Congress writing bills and people doing push-ups and other stunts to raise awareness? Useless. The American public is aware of suicidal vets. What they need is help; they need to be directed to services that can help them,” said Dicesare.
If you know a U.S. military veteran exhibiting suicidal behaviors, Dicesare recomments contacting the VA. If the VA cannot be reached, she recommends calling 911 and asking for the fire department.
©2017 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
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