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Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, roughly twice as many Texas Army National Guard soldiers have died of suicide as in combat, an American-Statesman investigation has found.
Records on the Guard soldiers' cause of death also identified vehicle crashes as their top killer, claiming the lives of 54 since 2001, or 32 percent of all fatalities among Texas National Guard soldiers . Four Texas National Guard soldiers died of drug overdoses over that time.
The cause-of-death data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, includes soldiers who didn't deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who did, and it paints the most complete picture yet of how Texas National Guard soldiers have died during a decade of war.
According to numbers provided by Texas Military Forces, 27 Texas National Guard soldiers died of suicide since 2001, while 12 were killed in action or died of their war wounds. An additional five National Guard soldiers died in overseas helicopter crashes that officials classified as nonhostile accidents.
The suicide numbers have climbed since the cause-of-death figures were released late last year; the Texas Army National Guard now counts 30 suicides since 2001, with most occurring in the last five years.
"The numbers are devastating," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, chair of the Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. "This is our fighting force, the Texas National Guard. The number of suicides is very concerning. This is so tragic."
For veterans advocates, the numbers are another reminder that the most difficult battle for some service members has taken place on Texas soil, months or years after tours to the war zone have ended. A 2012 American-Statesman investigation into Iraq and Afghanistan veteran deaths found that 1 in 3 Texas veterans receiving disability benefits died of suicide or drug overdose, rates that far outpace their civilian counterparts.
Officials didn't provide an age or gender breakdown for the deceased National Guard soldiers, making it difficult to directly compare their death rates with the overall population.
Since 2008, Texas has ranked second among the states in Army National Guard suicides, trailing only Minnesota, which has 25 suicides over the last five years, according to a National Guard report obtained by the Statesman. Texas, which has the nation's largest Army National Guard force with about 20,000 soldiers, has had 22 suicides over that time, four more than California, which has the second-largest force. Texas has had more such suicides than Florida, New York and Georgia combined.
In recent years, National Guard suicides have helped drive overall Army suicides to record levels. In 2010, the overall National Guard suicide rate eclipsed that of active-duty soldiers and the civilian population; last year, about 1 in 3 Army suicides was of a National Guard soldier. Officials say about half of National Guard suicide victims nationally had never deployed, a trend that appears to hold in Texas.
Army National Guard soldiers differ from their active-duty counterparts in that before and after deployments they return to civilian communities and jobs while they drill once a month. As a result, National Guard soldiers can face unique challenges, ranging from abrupt transitions after deployments to difficulties getting mental health care.
Motor vehicle crashes have also been a concern of Texas military and civilian authorities, especially among combat veterans. The 54 Texas National Guard vehicle deaths, which included 15 motorcycle crashes, echo elevated crash death rates of active-duty Fort Hood soldiers and veterans nationwide.
Last year, a dozen Fort Hood soldiers were killed in vehicle crashes, despite extensive safety training, which National Guard officials say they also give to their troops. A recent study by insurer USAA found that accident rates rose 13 percent among service members following deployments.
The 2012 Statesman investigation of veterans' deaths found numerous veterans had engaged in risky driving behavior: 70 percent of motor vehicle deaths were the result of single-vehicle crashes, many of which involved speed or alcohol. Experts have said that reckless driving can both be an expression of driving skills acquired in the war zone -- avoiding the edges of roads, not reducing speed -- that keep troops alive in a world of improvised explosive devices. But some have also posited that reckless driving in some cases is the result of suicidal behavior.
Texas National Guard officials point out that vehicle crashes are also the leading killer of Texas civilians under 35.
The Texas Guard didn't provide names of soldiers who died in auto or motorcycle crashes, making it hard to obtain crash information, though local news reports show the devastating impact of speeding on at least some crashes.
In August 2011, a 28-year-old Texas National Guard soldier crashed into a San Antonio guard rail at close to 100 mph, police told the San Antonio Express-News. A year earlier, another National Guard soldier died after driving his pickup into the back of a tractor-trailer, also at nearly 100 mph, according to Dallas police. That soldier deployed to Iraq twice with the National Guard and was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, relatives told the Dallas Morning News.
Despite the high number of motor vehicle deaths, much of the U.S. military's focus has centered on the confounding problem of suicide, which last year rose to levels never before seen. Top National Guard officials say the suicides in their ranks have relatively little to do with military service; instead, they say, National Guard members' suicides track an overall uptick in suicides among civilians. But for many soldiers, suicides do indeed follow a tour to the war zone.
'Why is this happening to me?'
Something happened to Spc. Cory Brown in Iraq. But he never told his mother what it was.
The two were inseparable during Brown's childhood outside of Dallas. Paula Brown-Nichols raised her only child as a single mom for most of his life, and Cory shared everything with her, even those secrets usually reserved for father-son chats. He joined the Texas National Guard soon after graduating from high school, knowing he'd surely be sent to war. "He said, 'I need to do something with myself,'" Brown-Nichols said. He was nervous about deploying, but tried to hide it. Deeply religious, he told his mother God would protect him and her.
She saw her first glimpse of the changes in her son when he came back for a mid-tour leave in the spring of 2009. They attended a musical as part of their regular "mommy and me" outings, but amid the clapping and laughter around them, Brown had a panic attack. "He monkey crawled to get out," Brown-Nichols remembered. "His face was beet red. I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' No one told me what to expect."
Things got worse when he returned for good from Iraq with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Brown had become angry and aggressive, his mother said. His worst moments were after dark. "In Iraq, he worked at night, that's when the IEDs went off," Brown-Nichols said. "I saw the fear in his eyes at night. I hated it when the sun went down."
He sought treatment from the VA and received prescriptions for a number of psychiatric drugs, including Xanax and Klonopin, Brown-Nichols said.
Brown began to abuse his prescription drugs as well as illegal substances, in an effort, his mother says, to self-medicate his pain. Brown-Nichols said she tried desperately to get him into a residential PTSD and substance abuse treatment program at the VA, but no beds were available. Instead, he saw a VA counselor once a month, receiving more prescriptions. At one of those visits, he grew angry and left the building. His mother, who always accompanied him on his trips to the VA, followed him outside and found him sobbing: "He said, 'Mom why is this happening to me?'"
Brown-Nichols said she tried to enlist the help of his National Guard supervisors and told them that her son was suicidal, but said her pleas fell on deaf ears. "He was just dropped through the cracks, that's all there is to it," she said.
When Brown returned, he skipped a two-week demobilization session at Fort Bliss because his grandmother was undergoing surgery, perhaps leading him to miss a chance to be flagged for intensive treatment. And once back, Brown was returned to his original unit, not the one he had deployed with. As a result, when he resumed his monthly drill exercises he was among soldiers he hadn't shared war experiences with. And Brown told his mother that he worried he would be viewed as weak if he went public with his psychological struggles.
Army officials and veterans advocates say the nature of National Guard duty back home makes it more difficult for soldiers to get the mental health care they need. "In active duty, their front-line supervisor can look them in the eye and sense that something's not right," said Dave Lewis, a retired Air Force colonel and president of the Veterans Resource Coordination Group, a Lubbock organization that seeks to connect rural veterans with services.
That kind of interaction is more difficult in the National Guard. "Our challenge is that we see our soldiers one weekend a month, and you have just a few minutes to touch base with them," said Lt. Col. Alba Villanueva, director of joint family support services for the Texas Military Forces, who spoke generally about suicide in the Texas National Guard. "Our biggest challenge is that in the Guard you only have that limited amount of time."
Researchers are also investigating the role that identity plays in the growing number of suicides, especially among the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard. Unlike active-duty troops, who return to military installations and live in communities long used to the rhythms of war, National Guard soldiers return to the civilian world where the transition from war is far more abrupt.
"That sense of integration, belongingness in the community is a powerful predictor of depression or even suicide," said Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, who is conducting research into the issue. "We think there is something about wearing that uniform every day, and continuing to function in the military environment: How does that affect the sense of who I am, the meaning of what I've done and my job going forward?"
Slipping through the cracks
Cory Brown's behavior became increasingly erratic, and, in April 2011, he fled his monthly drill when a drug test was announced. His National Guard commanders initiated the process of kicking him out of the Army with an other-than-honorable discharge, which could limit his ability to receive some medical services from the VA. His mother insists that instead of trying to discharge her son for going absent without leave, his commanders should have intervened and helped get him more intensive in-patient treatment.
In September 2011, shortly after an argument with his new wife, who was then seven months pregnant, and about a week after his mother says his medication was changed at the VA, Brown killed himself with a gunshot to the head. His son, Elijah, was born two months later.
A National Guard investigation into Brown's suicide concluded that his command "acted properly in its dealings with SPC Brown" but suggested there were structural problems. "There is no mechanism in place at (Brown's unit) to positively account for and/or track a soldier that may show signs of mental health issues," the report stated. "While SPC Brown's first-line leaders were aware of sporadic issues, because no one individual possessed all the information about SPC Brown's behavior over time, then no definitive action was taken."
Texas National Guard officials say that since Brown's death, a number of changes have been implemented, including more intensive suicide prevention training for supervisors and behavioral health case managers who act as liaisons between soldiers and available mental health help. In 2010, the Texas National Guard implemented its peer-to-peer counseling initiative, and since then more than 800 National Guard troops have been trained to identify warning signs of mental distress and refer soldiers for more intensive care. State and military leaders say the program, and similar state-funded versions for veterans who have left the service, is one of the more effective ways to reach and help at-risk veterans and service members.
And the National Guard has strengthened its Yellow Ribbon reintegration program aimed precisely at catching soldiers like Brown who struggle after returning. Under the program, returning units gather 30 and 90 days after homecomings for mental health screenings and to learn about available services.
The Office of the State Army Surgeon also conducts periodic screenings annually and before and after deployments. Paula Brown-Nichols said that stands in marked contrast to her son's experience. "Not one person checked on him when he got home," she said. "He didn't see anyone for three months, until his first drill." By then, she said, she was "beating down the door" at his unit. "If a mom is calling, begging for help, somebody better help. They didn't," she said.
Barriers to mental health care
Finding and getting mental health help can be a struggle for some National Guard soldiers, especially those who live far from the behavioral health resources at military hospitals or at VA hospitals. Complicating the situation, the Texas National Guard currently has just one full-time clinical psychologist to serve about 20,000 troops dispersed throughout the state. (Van de Putte said she will push for state funding for an additional four clinical psychologists during the current Legislative session.)
Because of that, the National Guard depends heavily on community mental health authorities. But in Texas, where authorities spend less per capita on mental health than in nearly every other state, observers say that in too many cases the reality is isolation, especially for those in rural areas.
"The more rural you get, the more difficult it is to access those programs," Lewis said. "We're good at recruiting rural folks for the military. But the reality is that when they return to those communities, when they are done with their service, then who is helping at that point?"
State leaders say they are striving to eliminate barriers to mental health care for veterans and National Guard soldiers in the state. In January, they hired former state legislator Suzanna Hupp to lead a multiagency effort to strengthen services for veterans. "There are some excellent programs available to veterans, but there does seem to be a huge gap in their ability to seek out those services," Hupp said. "A lot of state agencies are offering services, but there is a lack of coordination between state agencies on the services we do provide."
Hupp said the state is also suffering from a lack of good data on how many veterans and their families are seeking out mental health services. "I don't want to create a whole new bureaucracy to figure all this out," she said. "But we can do better to gather and track these numbers to allow us to make decisions as a state."
Despite her frustration with the National Guard over her son's suicide, Brown-Nichols has become an active volunteer in the family readiness group of her son's former unit. The group supports family members during deployments and offers resources to soldiers in need. "It gives me some comfort," she said. "But I still have some anger toward (the National Guard). Since he died I have been overwhelmed with help."
Her goal is to do whatever she can to spare other families her pain. "I would hate for another mother to go through what I have been through," she said.
It's a goal that has proven elusive. Since her son died, five more National Guard soldiers have killed themselves.