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Virus shutdowns took a grim toll on amputee veterans who died by suicide, families say

Cpl. Rory Hamill stands for a portrait on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Dec. 21, 2017. Hamill died in May, 2020 of an apparent suicide at the age of 31.

MATT HECHT/NEW JERSEY NATIONAL GUARD

By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 22, 2020

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Not long before he look his own life, Marine Corps veteran Rory Hamill posted a photo of himself on a stoop, baring his alloy leg as he stared defiantly.

Nearly a decade earlier, Hamill was on his second tour in Afghanistan, leading junior Marines on patrol in the violent Taliban citadel of Marjah. His heel burrowed into the mud and onto a pressure plate bomb, thrusting him into the air and severing his right leg.

His life became a blur of surgeries and recovery, and in moments of darkness, he had contemplated ending it all, he later said.

But Hamill renewed his spirits as a motivational speaker and advocate for other veterans, many of whom became part of a legion of social media followers drawn to his gritty determination.

His post on April 19 had a different tone.

"My own personal hell has been reignited," Hamill wrote on Instagram. "This pandemic, although viral in nature; alludes to what happens to us as human beings, when we are stripped of our outlets, and are deprived of our ability to socialize."

Hamill died two weeks later of an apparent suicide at the age of 31.

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As coronavirus restrictions unfurled a dangerous mix of depression and anxiety, the scourge of suicide cut through a tiny community of amputee veterans in recent months, claiming at least three in a group where isolation is already a potent risk factor.

The reasons for suicide are complex and not always known to those left behind, often involving mental health issues, alcohol and substance abuse, financial issues or relationship troubles. But family and friends of the veterans said they believe isolation, triggered by the pandemic, played a role in the three deaths.

The men had found second acts by doing things like helping fellow veterans, public speaking and returning to school. Those pursuits, which helped them rediscover purpose and mission, ended abruptly for each of them — and accelerated those veterans into tragedy, friends and family said in interviews with The Washington Post.

Andy McCaffrey, a former Army Green Beret who lost his arm in a 2003 explosion Afghanistan, helped keep his post-traumatic stress in check by being active and championing veteran causes, his brother Steve McCaffrey said. But the pandemic scuttled nearly everything that kept him going.

"Not having that probably killed him as much as anything else," he said.

People with traumatic amputations have higher levels of anxiety and depression, according to a spokesman for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where amputee service members and veterans have received physical and mental care.

But the hospital doesn't record suicides among former patients, many of whom frequent it for years to repair artificial limbs or receive new models. It also doesn't track how many troops lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Norris Agnew, a hospital spokesman. The Army, citing the Pentagon, said it was more than 1,500 in 2018.

The suicides have shocked current and former staff members at Walter Reed, where patients can spend years in rehabilitation, forming tight bonds with doctors and physical therapists.

The news of Hamill's death came a week after Army veteran Brent Hendrix took his life in April. McCaffrey killed himself four months later. It is not clear if the veterans knew one another, but many staff members knew all three of them.

"There's a huge sense of remorse. They become extended family members," said a health-care provider at the hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media. "It's a huge disservice if we're not checking in with our patients to see how they're doing."

He and another provider have been at the hospital for years and both knew all three veterans. They said three suicides in that time span appeared to be an unusually high number for the community and pointed to shutdowns and closures as a factor.

Kristal Franciose, Hamill's ex-wife, echoed that sentiment. Hamill was living in Lakehurst, N.J., and was focused on school and working out between public-speaking engagements. He had not experienced a mental health episode in years, she said.

"When all that got stripped from him," she said, "he was just different."

Matthew Miller, the director of suicide prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said it is too early to determine the pandemic's role in veteran suicide because it can take more than a year to collect data from states.

"We do know that living under quarantine can have potential negative psychological impact," Miller said, though he stressed that VA hospitals have not seen an uptick in emergency room visits or suicides during the pandemic. But he cautioned that suicides have increased following a lull in other challenging times, including economic depressions and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said the pandemic could be one reason the service has seen a rise in suicides compared with last year, "because it disconnects people," he said Tuesday.

McCaffrey held a grenade in his right hand when it exploded in Afghanistan in 2003, severing his arm below his elbow. He fought the Army to return to combat, becoming the first amputee to do so. Misconduct shuffled him out of the military years later, his wife, Karen Barefield, said, but he kept busy competing in Paralympic-style games.

His suicide capped a years-long effort to overcome his trauma, she said. His brain was rattled by the grenade explosion and countless other blasts from his time as a combat engineer, she said, and he dealt with decisions he made in war that violated his sense of right and wrong.

McCaffrey, 48, appeared to be on the right path, Barefield said, though he still experienced periods of sadness and anxiety. He had been looking forward to Memorial Day events and other gatherings.

But then, cancellations began to pile up, and he reached more and more for whiskey, culminating with tragedy in the early morning of Aug. 19 in Arlington, Va.

"In one minute, he was just overwhelmed," she said. "I absolutely believe the shutdowns chipped away at the armor he built up over 20 years."

Hendrix's leg was sheared off above the knee in an IED explosion in Iraq in 2006. At 6 feet 7 inches, he was an imposing but friendly figure during his three-year stay at Walter Reed, cracking jokes between dozens of surgeries for his wounds and treatment for his traumatic brain injury.

But the Army veteran's demeanor masked deeper issues that sent him on a profound search for connection, said Steve Lee, a longtime USO supporter who met Hendrix through an event.

Hendrix's mother took her own life when he was in treatment, and his father died soon after. Lee said Hendrix, who went by Hoss, became his surrogate son and was embraced by the veterans community in Cincinnati.

"He drew energy from others, and he gave energy back. He thrived on being helpful and having purpose," Lee said. "When he got shut down from covid, and he was isolated from all that love, I feel that is what led him to taking his own life."

Michelle Rogers, his sister, is less certain about why her brother took his life at the age of 35 in April. He had just bought the truck of his dreams, a Ford Raptor, and was planning to see her and his nephews the day before he was found dead.

He had an infection and was in a wheelchair from recent surgery. At one point, he barricaded himself in his apartment and was up late talking to himself on Facebook, she said.

"The most confusing thing I can't wrap my head around is why," Rogers said. "He promised me he'd be OK. But he wasn't."

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they text to 741741.

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In a December, 2017 photo, Cpl. Rory Hamill works out in the base gym on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.
MATT HECHT/NEW JERSEY NATIONAL GUARD

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Part 1 of 3. “These are the times, that try men’s souls.” • For the past month or so, I’ve sat back and watched human beings make sense of the world’s current predicament; and how it correlates to, and affects, their daily lives. I have watched many attempt to make sense of all of this. Inspire their peers across a variety of platforms, justify everything they perceive as they see fit. I’ve watched multi-million dollar earning business owners blast their inspirational speeches, and give their tools for motivation. I’ve watched actual entrepreneurs, to include some of my closest and dearest friends, suffer, as they watch their dreams get suffocated by the current state of affairs and all of its ironies. I’ve observed and listened to all the ‘loudest (men/women) in the room’, tout their recipe for success, only to succumb to the gravity of our current hardships with a parting whisper. There is a harsh reality that most of us have finally realized, that transcends our current socioeconomic environment. One that many, though still afflicted, shrug off because of stubbornness. That they ignore. That they pretend doesn’t exist outside their small bubble, in their day to day lives. Yes, we’ve all been stymied during what should be a period of growth; springtime, a source of new beginnings and hope. Coming out of the ever inevitable depression and seclusion of winter, this following season seems to be some cruel universal joke played upon us as a species. Compounding these present set of circumstances, there are those of us who live in the grips of mental illness or injury. Living in a veritable prison of sadness, fear, devastation, and utter agony. Day in, and day out. I began writing this at 03:46 in the morning, on April 19th, 2020. I’ve been drunk on red wine since the previous night. I haven’t slept. I haven’t stopped suffering. My own personal hell has been reignited, in light of present circumstances affecting us all. This pandemic, although viral in nature; alludes to what happens to us as human beings, when we are stripped of our outlets, and are deprived of our ability to socialize.

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