Life is harder than combat
Veterans battle suicide epidemic the way they fought insurgents in Iraq: together
Story by Ryan OConnell | Staff Writer
EVERY JULY, when the weather is warm and perfect for hiking, Ashley Slack walks across the close-clipped lawn of the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery and places a green can of Moose Drool beer in front of her brother’s gray marble gravestone:
US MARINE CORPS
JAN 2 1984
OCT 22 2013
“It’s difficult,” Ashley said. “He was my only brother. It’s hard not having him as an adult, drink a beer, swap stories about service.”
The Slacks are the quintessential Marine Corps family, and Brandon and Ashley were initiated early. Their parents met while stationed in Virginia before being transferred to Japan and then Hawaii. Their Marine father, who served 10 years, would punish Brandon’s transgressions by making him dig holes and fill them up again. Their Marine mother, who served 13 years, once had Ashley, 4 or 5 years old at the time, perform a finger-counting song to a platoon she’d just chewed out so the Marines could sing it back.
So it couldn’t have surprised anyone when Brandon enlisted on New Year’s Eve 2002, just two days before his nineteenth birthday. He served with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment as a radio operator in Fallujah and Ramadi. Ashley followed in Brandon’s footsteps, arriving at Parris Island for boot camp the day after her nineteenth birthday in February 2006. Brandon left the service a year later, and Ashley followed suit in May 2011.
Less than three years later, Ashley buried her brother.
Now, Ashley interns at the University of Montana’s Veterans Education and Transition Services (VETS) office as she studies for a bachelor’s in social work. She’s quick to laugh and prefers, “What the fuck do you want?” to “How can I help you?” Her coworkers are thrown off if she isn’t wearing her black ball cap or a beanie. Plastic army men peek around her computer, just like they did in Brandon’s apartment.
She’s at VETS because she wants to help veterans transition into the civilian world by catching them before they get lost in the system. Her year is measured in memorials and anniversaries of veterans who have, like Brandon, taken their own lives.
According to Veterans Affairs’ National Suicide Data Report 2005-2015, more than 20 current and former military members die by suicide each and every day; more than 80 percent of these deaths are veterans. The female veteran suicide rate has become especially alarming, having increased 62.4 percent from 2001 to 2014, twice as fast as the rate for males.
Montana has one of the highest rates in the country, according to a January 2018 analysis by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Office of Epidemiology and Scientific Support. Montana’s veteran suicide rate is 70.4 deaths per 100,000, more than twice the nonveteran suicide rate of 29 percent. Veterans comprise 13 percent of people who are 18 years and older, but account for 20 percent of suicides.
Why the suicide epidemic among veterans? According to suicide researcher Martha Bruce, from the department of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, “Military service increases the risk of [physical and psychological] injury, which in turn increases the risk of long-term disability, which serves to increase the risk of depression, joblessness and social isolation — all of which together increase suicide risk.”
Chris Cataldo, a veteran friend of Brandon’s who fought in Iraq, is less clinical than Bruce. “Life,” he said, “is much harder than combat.”
It’s not as if the U.S. government is ignoring service members’ suffering. Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado, introduced a bill in December 2017 directing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to emphasize veteran-to-veteran counselors, including hiring additional women to work with female veterans. The bill passed the House and is currently in the Senate being reviewed by the Committee On Veterans’ Affairs.
Veterans also are referred to the Veterans Crisis Line through white business cards with the organization’s phone number, but the service is not immune to criticism. Though the crisis line has answered more than 3.5 million calls and 92,000 text message requests, according to its website, a February 2016 report found that during the previous November, 30 percent of calls went unanswered. A third crisis line center was opened in Topeka, Kansas, in June 2018. A bill, currently in the Senate, proposes conducting a five-year study on the effectiveness of the Veterans Crisis Line.
In January 2018, President Trump ordered the creation of a Joint Action Plan to provide service members transitioning out of the military with mental health treatment and suicide prevention resources. Surveys and programs have been created through the Joint Action Plan, and while some have gone into action, many won’t be in full effect until 2020.
The biggest problem is that 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide are not engaged in VA health services, according to a 2016 VA study. Many veterans live in rural areas without access to health services, and some have bad VA experiences: long appointment waits, impersonal staff, nonveteran counselors and red tape.
While the VA hustles to prove itself capable, more and more veterans are taking ownership of the suicide crisis and building their own support networks, both online and in person.
Veterans, it seems, can give each other what government agencies and tangled policies cannot: camaraderie and understanding. “We’re all enjoying the suck together,” Ashley said.
In late September, Missoula VFW Post 209 hosted a gathering of community members and veterans to raise awareness of veteran PTSD and suicide. Men and women chatted at tall tables and sipped Bud Light and mixed drinks, occasionally glancing at the late-season baseball game on TV.
Three service dogs lay under the tables. John “Mac” McAfee wore his brown leather leash over his right shoulder, like a makeshift bandolier. He calls it “an electrical hookup” to Fury, a Belgian Malinois with short, oak-tree brown fur.
Fury leaped up, stretched her thin frame and put her front paws on Mac’s chest. He bent down and lowered his head to nuzzle her. It looked as if she was giving him a hug.
Mac was part of an 18-man reconnaissance platoon in Iraq. In three months, he said, he was blown up three times. A mortar strike flung him head-first against a wall. A rocket-propelled grenade detonated on the front of his truck. Another mortar deposited shrapnel in his back, a souvenir that still makes airport metal detectors beep. Each time, he said, he got up and finished the mission.
Mac and Fury were paired by the nonprofit group Leashes of Valor in February 2018. Leashes of Valor was started in 2017 by three veterans—Danique Masingill, Matt Masingill and Jason Hagg—to provide veterans with service dogs. These highly trained canine companions mitigate the symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, which in turn can reduce the incidence of veteran suicides.
The nonprofit flies veterans out to Virginia to introduce them to their service dog and provide training. The veteran works with the dog for 16 days straight, six to eight hours a day, starting with bonding and learning the dog’s command cues. The conditioning intensifies as the days progress. As part of the training, Mac and Fury went to a restaurant. Mac sat with his back to other diners, while Fury faced them. It was tough. “It’s okay to walk out,” he said. “But you always have to go back in.”
Hagg, CEO of Leashes of Valor, was there when Mac and Fury met. Hagg served in the Marine Corps as part of an infantry battalion, eventually rising to the rank of Captain. It was after his first tour in Iraq that he noticed something was off. His first flashback happened the day he got home, in a restaurant with his wife and child. He didn’t notice the waitress had come up behind him. All he remembers is flipping the table, then, nothing.
Hagg estimates he’s experienced about a thousand flashbacks since. He deployed to Iraq for a second time and to Afghanistan after that. He sustained traumatic brain injuries from explosives and was wounded by machine gun fire before coming home for good. He tried prescribed medication, physical therapy, talk therapy, group therapy, hyperbaric chambers, acupuncture, equine therapy, and even “fucking drawing” to relieve the physical and mental pain.
In 2012, Hagg applied for a service dog and that September, he met Axel, the German Shepherd who sat beside him at the VFW, at the perfect height for a pat between his black ears. Hagg credits Axel with saving his life and he has helped put leashes into the hands of 300 veterans. Only one has died by suicide. “I’ve put too many people in the ground just from the war at home, and I’m not going to let it happen anymore,” he said.
The University of Montana’s VETS office is a converted home above two single-car garages, one marked with a metal placard reading, ”Reserved Combat Wounded,” and styled with a Purple Heart portrait of George Washington instead of a wheelchair. A flat-screen TV above the reception desk scrolls events and programs: National Guard, Troops to Teachers, Veteran Fire Corps, group meditation, an outdoor gear sale, suicide prevention. Another TV is hooked to a PS3—Fallout: New Vegas is in the tray, Madden ’09 and NCAA ‘09 compete on the sidelines. Red gun locks packaged with signs-of-suicide cards are free and easy to grab. There’s a long fabric couch, computers and the coffee is always on.
The VETS office provides a space for veterans who feel disconnected on campus. Approximately 230,000 service members leave the military each year and transition into civilian life, which is like starting all over again, said VETS Director Shawn Grove. The little things are frustrating. Six-dollar haircuts are now $15. Dentist and doctor appointments, which had been scheduled by the military, are now veterans’ responsibilities. Only 4.5 percent of enlisted men and women have a university degree, according to a 2008 Department of Defense survey.
Finding civilian employment is more difficult than expected. Sixty-five to 80 percent of service members who left the military between 2014 and 2016 did not have employment lined up, according to The State of the American Veteran: The Los Angeles County Veterans Study. Translating military skills and experiences to potential employers takes some work. When the interviewer asks, “So, what did you do in the military?,” saying, “I took care of my soldiers,” doesn’t seem relevant. Persistence, reliability, conscientiousness and attention to detail are hard to market, according to academic researcher Anna Zogas, author of a report called U.S. Military Veterans’ Difficult Transitions Back to Civilian Life and the VA’s Response.
Once hired, many veterans begin at the bottom of the company hierarchy. Cataldo, a friend of Brandon’s and one of the administrators of the Marines of Fallujah Facebook group, describes it as peaking in your career at 19. You go from “strapping on a flak jacket and being the baddest motherfucker on the street corner,” to donning a vest and sweeping a storefront, he said.
Naomi Schware is a Jewish American who joined the Israeli Defense Force in 2011. She became a sniper and engaged terrorists daily. “I was really good at it,” she said.
But after leaving active duty, she felt a loss of purpose. Two years later, she became interested in visual storytelling. Now, she serves in the reserves, but typically looks through the lens of a camera rather than optics on a rifle. She uses a Canon 5D Mark iii or a Sony a7 iii as a documentary filmmaker and mountain climber.
Females make up 16 percent of enlisted personnel and 18 percent of officers in the U.S. military, according to a 2018 Council on Foreign Relations study. The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) works “to support, connect and advocate for service women past, present and future.” SWAN distributed a mental wellness survey in 2017, and 60 percent of respondents reported that “military service had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.”
Trauma isn’t always afflicted by the enemy. Almost half of women in the military reported “some aspect of bias, harassment or assault during military service had negatively impacted their mental health.” Recent legislation has invalidated “the good soldier” defense in sexual assault cases, so a service member can no longer use his or her military accomplishments and honorable services to defend their character. Legislation also has attempted to empower military sexual assault victims by quickening the reporting and discipline process.
But progress is slow, and female veterans are trying to fill in the gaps. Valkyries of Valor describes itself as, “an anywhere, anytime meetup group with no geographic restrictions.” Started in 2017, the organization targets women from all uniformed services, including first responders. “There are few women veterans, so we need to create meetup opportunities,” said Danique Masingill, CEO of Valkyries of Valor as well as President of Leashes of Valor. The Valkyries are known for hiking, camping and wilderness outings, but yoga or coffee breaks count, too, as long as no one bitches. “You meet people who are as messed up as you,” said Schware. “It’s great.”
Schware has benefited most from wilderness therapy, and she introduces it to other female veterans. Always active, she has embraced the wilderness and lives in Colorado, in a tent, 16 miles from Alma, the nearest town, where there is no cell service. “The declutter of material things,” she said, “declutters the mind.”
Brandon was tall, over six feet, and ripped. When he showed off a new chest tattoo, Ashley said, he didn’t lift up his shirt, he took it off. “My brother knew he was beautiful, and he would tell you he knew he was beautiful.” He would take pictures of himself or his weapons, helmet, packs — “gear porn” she calls it — and post them online.
Brandon would call Ashley just to scream, “Trogdor!” into the phone. “Trogdor” is a dragon with wings and one beefy arm from the online cartoon site Homestar Runner, and is known for “burninating” the countryside. Brandon named one of his rifles Trogdor.
He enjoyed hiking and taking photos along the Waterworks Hill trails in Missoula. In one photo, taken with a timer, his arms are spread, like DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic.
But after leaving the Marines, Brandon, like so many veterans, struggled to adapt to civilian life. When he stayed at his mother’s, he would wake up at night and clear the house with a loaded pistol. He battled homelessness. When his daughter was born, he regained a sense of purpose. He saved some money, and rented an apartment with an extra room for her to stay when she visited. He tried. He struggled. He avoided night terrors by slamming five-hour energy drinks and dipping tobacco.
Ashley said Brandon was diagnosed with PTSD after he left the Marines, and eventually with paranoid schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. She called the Veterans Crisis Line in 2012, concerned about her brother. The responder said, unless the individual calling is the person suffering, nothing could be done. The only option was to have Brandon committed or, if Ashley felt unsafe, calling the police and having him arrested.
In October 2013, Brandon and his mother were on the University of Montana’s campus, where she worked. She recently had surgery and walked in a plastic boot and with crutches. Brandon was in a rough spot. He had been having bad nights—a recurring nightmare about a woman in a red dress—and it had been a bad day. His phone had fallen in the sink while he shaved, and he was out of medical marijuana and money.
Absent-minded students skittered across campus. As Brandon and his mother navigated their way through the crowds, he became more and more irritated each time her crutches were kicked or a door was closed in her face. When a student cut them both off, Brandon shouted at him, and cursed the student’s disrespect. His mother had to talk Brandon down before he hurt the student. He went home to his apartment, his thoughts and his pistol.
Ashley was in Georgia. She got the phone call at 1:30 a.m.
“Are you feeling suicidal?” Anton Johnson said the words naturally, directly. He asks that question regularly as a counselor at the Missoula VA office. Just four words greatly reduces the likelihood of death by suicide, he said.
The reasons veterans choose suicide are the same as the general population’s, said Johnson, only more. Finances, family strain, divorce, deaths of people and pets, unemployment, loss of purpose. The difference is that veterans often have ready access to firearms, they typically also carry a higher trauma load, and after deploying to a war zone, they may have an intimate relationship with death. The VA speculates that up to 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. Twelve percent of Gulf War veterans and up to 30 percent of Vietnam veterans are affected. At some point, disorder becomes routine.
The Army’s recruiting slogan from 2001 to 2006 was “An Army of One.” The individualistic phrase was dropped in favor of the more encompassing “Army Strong,” but its echo remains. “That’s the worst mentality to have when it comes to mental health issues,” Johnson said.
“In Montana, our [suicide] rates are atrocious,” said Tina Barrett, executive director of the Tamarack Grief Resource Center and senior consultant for the National Military Suicide Prevention Seminar. Barrett said if a person said they aren’t suicidal, or brushes the question off, it’s okay to ask again and explain why a person in their position may feel suicidal.
Asking can be frightening, and the question’s response may be overwhelming. Barrett said to stay with the person, to listen and begin connecting him or her to people and programs experienced in suicide counseling.
“We can’t be complacent,” she said.
Marine Lance Corporal Brandon Slack’s funeral was live streamed by the Marines of Fallujah Facebook group, where Brandon had been one of four administrators. The other three traveled to Montana from California, Oklahoma and New York. Only one had ever met Brandon, but their boots had stamped the same Fallujah sand. They’d all supported one another and become friends through chat windows and phone calls. “Nothing had to be said to know we were going to Montana,” Cataldo said, who served as a Marine infantryman.
It was late October in Montana, and the day of the funeral was cold. Cataldo said the mountain scenery wasn’t there that day and neither was the big sky for which Montana is known. The day before, yes, and the day after, but that day, October 29, “The world was taking a minute and being somber.”
Brandon’s funeral was the moment the Marines of Fallujah Facebook group went from publicbanter and private messaging to a mission of outreach. Admins have posted their phone numbers and encourage their comrades to call. Public memorials for Marines lost to suicide are posted. “We just want people to stop dying after leaving the battlefield,” Cataldo said.
The summer after Brandon’s funeral, in 2014, Ashley started SlackTacular. During the now annual July event, many family members and friends of Brandon’s come to Montana. Ashley places a can of Moose Drool at his gravestone, and everyone goes river rafting and drives deep into the woods near Florence to shoot Trogdor and Brandon’s other weapons. Then they hike the Waterworks Hill trails, where his ashes were scattered, and take a group picture, arms spread, in the exact spot where Brandon froze his vibrant eyes and perfect teeth, the warm sun at his back — king of the world.
The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, anonymous and confidential service available to anyone, even if you aren’t registered with Veterans Affairs or enrolled in Veterans Affairs health care. Visit www.veteranscrisisline.net or call 800-273-8255.