Franklin James Cook

Suicides in Guard Unit Emblematic of Army’s Dilemma

In Prevention on August 1, 2009 at 11:20 pm
090802_SgtBlaylock

Sgt. Jacob Blaylock was praised as a good soldier during his tour in Iraq.

Reporter Erica Goode, writing for the New York Times, tells in intimate detail the story of a National Guard unit, the 1451st Transportation Company, in which four soldiers killed themselves after returning from Iraq — all within less than a year.

The four suicides, in a unit of roughly 175 soldiers, make the company an extreme example of what experts see as an alarming trend in the years since the invasion of Iraq.

At the heart of the story is the suicide of Sgt. Jacob Blaylock.

Blaylock’s family and fellow soldiers, as well as records of his military service and treatment in the veterans health system, show that his tendencies toward depression and self-destructive behavior were longstanding and clear. But while friends and others who cared about him tried to help, his vulnerability was missed, or minimized, by many of the people whose job it was to intervene.

Sergeant Blaylock’s case particularly raises questions about the way the military screens those it sends to war. Discharged several years earlier for mental health problems, he was called back up in late 2005, when the Army was desperate for troops to combat rising violence in Iraq. And he was deployed even though at least three other soldiers had warned mental health screeners about his instability.

But as the story notes,

“Suicide is a complex act, a convergence of troubled strands. Researchers who have examined military suicides find not a single precipitating event but many: multiple deployments, relationship problems, financial pressures, drug or alcohol abuse.”

And “three of the four men who would later commit suicide had a direct connection to” the combat deaths of two of their fellow soldiers in Iraq, less than two weeks before the 1451st’s deployment was to end.

Guilt is a common theme in the narratives of soldiers haunted by war. The bonds of loyalty and shared obligation the military instills to forge an effective fighting force can, in the aftermath of battle, curdle into obsession with failures, real or imagined. The bomb that killed Sergeants [Brandon] Wallace and [Joshua] Schmit — planted by an unseen enemy on a dark road — left Sergeant Blaylock and many others in the 1451st feeling that the deaths were, in some way, their fault.

Sgt. Blaylock died by suicide on Dec. 9, 2007 at the age of 26.

On Dec. 16 … Sergeant [Jeffrey] Wilson, 31 … died after taking an overdose of antidepressants.

Sergeant [Roger] Parker went to Sergeant Wilson’s wake in December … Seven months later, on July 19, 2008, Sergeant Parker, 41, hanged himself at his home in Saluda, N.C.

On Sept. 19, Specialist [Skip] Brinkley, 32, shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy who responded to a 911 call from his home in rural Caldwell County, N.C. After a five-day manhunt, he was found in a remote area of his property, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Goode’s story chronicles Blaylock’s (and some of the other suicide fatalities’) visits to VA health care after his return from Iraq as well as some of the difficulties he experienced in his personal life, both before and after he saw combat duty. But whatever one can say about his mental health or his problems in living,

Sergeant Blaylock was a good soldier, promoted three times in 15 months. His M-16 was immaculate. He was brave on the road, serving for months as the gunner in the scout truck of the third platoon’s third squad, surviving three attacks with homemade bombs.

The story leaves one with only unanswered questions: Should people with Blaylock’s history be sent to war? Is the Army’s screening for mental health problems adequate? Is the VA’s care for soldiers after combat dealing effectively with the trauma they’ve experienced. Is suicide nothing more than another of the many tragic but unavoidable costs of war? And it leaves one with the feeling that there are many more unanswered questions — all of them difficult and none of them having simple or straightforward answers.

[The abridged URL for this post is  http://tinyurl.com/ArmyDilemma .]

Related SPNAC post: “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides” at http://tinyurl.com/StigmaMilitary

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