When I was interviewed during the investigation surrounding my husband’s death I was told “Suicide is something the Army has been trying to get its arms around for years.”
And yet, once every seventy-two minutes a military service member kills themselves. According to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) there were 36 National Guard suicides, 27 reserve suicides and 56 active duty suicides in the second quarter of 2017.
Despite the millions in funding designated to research and prevent military suicide, each year the numbers continue to rise and military falls short. But why? Why do soldiers continue to suffer in silence until it kills them. Why, when they do decide to seek help, do they have to wait too long for help to come? In my husband’s case, he requested a medical referral to seek mental health treatment and had been waiting nearly three weeks for a response. That’s twenty-one days of precious time that wasted away leading up to December 23rd.
Two weeks before my husband took his own life we had a conversation about him following-up on his referral and it went something like this;
M: Why won’t you call to follow-up on your referral, you’ve been waiting for weeks?!
H: If I call and follow-up, they’re going to think it’s an emergency and admit me somewhere. I’d lose my security clearance, probably get a medical discharge, we’d lose our insurance, ect.
M: Fine, then will you let me call and follow-up on it? I’ve had to get a referral before, it shouldn’t be taking this long.
H: I wish you wouldn’t but you’re going to do whatever you want anyways.
M: No, I won’t. I trust you and respect you to make the right choice and if you don’t want me to call, I won’t. But I wish you would.
The night my husband took his own life we had gotten into an argument about him following-up and it went something like this;
H: This is pointless, no one cares enough to help me.
M: Sean, I’ve been here for you the best I can, begging you to follow-up on your referral and you won’t and I don’t know what to do anymore.
H: I’d rather be out free, living and being treated as a person than be locked up admitted somewhere and lose my job, our insurance and our livelihood.
M: But you’re not-
H: *Throws glasses and yells* I’m not what?! Not a fucking person!?
M: *Yells back* That’s not what I said, and you need to calm down because I’m pregnant and Luke is in the house. I’m saying you’re not free, you’re miserable, trapped in your own mind and I don’t know how to help you, so I need you to help yourself because I don’t know what to do anymore.
H: *Gets up and uses restroom, then starts to put shoes on*
M: Where are you going?
M: So, you’re just going to leave then?
M: That’s nice, thanks, Sean.
And that was the last thing I ever said to my husband before he walked twenty minutes to the Seagoville reserve unit where he was stationed, let himself into the weapons vault, put one bullet in an M9 and shot himself.
Initially I thought that he might have left to take a walk and cool down, he’d done that before, so I didn’t think much of it. I made myself and Luke some dinner and we sat down to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A short time after Sean left, I heard his phone ringing and thought “Oh nice, he left without his phone” and checked it, seeing that it was a Wisconsin number which I recognized as Ft. McCoy (where the vault security company is located) but again, didn’t think much of it because they always called Sean when anyone had accidentally left the vault unsecured because we lived five minutes away so he could get there quickest to close it properly. I thought to myself that this was not out of the ordinary, that someone must have been wrapping up at the unit before the holidays and left it open by mistake. After about an hour Sean still hadn’t returned and I began to think that he might have walked to the bar around the corner. I called the bar and provided a description of what he was wearing and was told that there was no one at the bar matching that description. At this point I began to worry and checked the jeans he had worn the day before that were left discarded on the floor of our bedroom and found his wallet and keys still inside.
Still trying to think rationally, I knew that Sean wouldn’t have gotten far because wherever he was, he walked and that he wouldn’t have gone to a bar or a hotel because he didn’t have his ID or credits cards. I checked Sean’s phone again and saw multiple text messages from another soldier stating “Call me. It’s an emergency” “Ft. McCoy is blowing up my phone.” “You we’re the last one to access the weapons vault at 1800.” This struck me as odd, because Sean hadn’t left the house until about 1820.
I had been texting my friend from the time Sean left and when I told her about the texts I had just read, she called me and urged me to get in my car and go to the unit, call the police, something. I had no one to watch Luke so I packed him up in my car and drove immediately to the unit, taking Sean’s belongings with me. His phone rang again, I recognized the soldier who was calling and answered the phone, they asked to speak to Sean, I informed them that he had left without his phone and that I was going to take it to him and reassured them that everything was fine. Sean and this soldier did not have the most amicable relationship, so I was trying to keep from throwing him under the bus. But by the time I reached the unit, they had called again and asked if I knew where he was because he was the last access to the weapons vault around 1845.
And that’s when I knew in my heart that my husband was already dead.
I relayed this to the soldier on the phone and told them to get here immediately. In the meantime, the friend that I had been texting, her husband arrived at the unit first to put Luke in his car and, shortly after another soldier arrived and drove me to the back of the unit where the warehouse that contains my husband’s office and the weapons vault. We had to wait until the soldier that I had spoke to on the phone arrived and let us into the building. I was instructed to wait in Sean’s office until the higher-ranking solider that had sent the initial texts to Sean’s phone had arrived. The soldier that had called me to tell me he had opened the vault around 1845 stated that the last time they had spoken to Sean, he had stated that he was feeling better and working on some coping mechanisms. Due to the professional connection between my husband and this soldier, this shows me that this solider knew that something was not right, that Sean was not mentally sound, and was allowed to continue to have access to a weapons vault- more to come on this in the following paragraphs.
What continued to happen over the course of the next four hours is both perfectly detailed in my memory, and an indistinguishable blur. I was interviewed by multiple police officers, detectives, a slew of soldiers began to arrive. I started making phone calls to family and friends sitting in someone’s car outside the unit while everyone stared at me with their sad eyes through the windshield. Luke was still in my friend’s husband’s car as he had to stay and be interviewed as well because he was there when the police arrived to what was now a crime scene.
When they finally let me leave it was after midnight, Luke had already been taken to my friend’s house but was still wide awake, waiting for his questions to be answered because he had witnessed the police and ambulance arrive to where daddy worked, and I was now tasked with explaining to my child that his father is dead.
Thankfully, I have an incredible friend that volunteered to take that burden off my shoulders – you know who you are- and thank you again.
The Army provided a chance for our family to have excellent medical insurance, a stable livelihood and job security for my husband. But the Army also failed my husband, drastically. As a civilian, I’m obviously not well-versed in military policy but after the initial fall out of Sean’s suicide I was informed that the weapons vault is run in a two-soldier system specifically to prevent this exact situation from happening.
So, you can imagine my shock to learn that Sean had not only the security code to the weapons vault, but also to the safe where the keys to the ammunition locker are kept. Now, as the supply sergeant, it was his job to inventory sensitive items, so he knew precisely what was in the weapons vault and the amount of ammunition available. This, in combination with the fact that someone that worked closely with Sean on a daily basis knew that he was not himself and yet continued to permit him access to a weapons vault and ammunition spells gross negligence in my opinion.
For those of us that are left behind when someone we love takes their own life, there is an overwhelming sense of failure. Failure to not have seen the signs and acted quickly enough, failure to not have made them feel loved or understood enough. Failure to protect them and get them they help they so desperately needed in time. I was assured at the end of my interview with the investigating officer that the protocol breach had been corrected.
That’s fucking nice. I thought to myself. If only you people had followed your own rules four weeks ago, my children might still have their father and I might not be a 24-year-old pregnant widow.
Because, the thing of it is- is that it might not have stopped it from happening that week or this year, or stopped it from happening period. But it would have stopped it from happening the way that it did, and it would have been one less opportunity that was right there in his face.
It both sickens and saddens me that a dead soldier had to be the catalyst for change. The Army failed to protect my husband and now my family is left to bear the heavy burden of loss.
I’m not writing this to get anybody in trouble, or to rehash the gory details of what I went through that night or what my children and I will go through for the rest of our lives.
I’m writing this so that people can try to understand the fear that soldiers have seeking mental health treatment. So that maybe the Army will follow its own rules that they put in place to protect their soldiers. So that maybe one less military spouse will have to live with the pain of loss that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.