Mothers find camaraderie in shared experience of sons' suicides
As military grapples with alarming number of suicides, mothers find it hard to cope.
January 18, 2014|By Bill Landauer and Emily Opilo, Of The Morning Call
The shared experience isn't the only thing that binds the three women. Guilt connects them too. The three mothers believe, no matter what well-meaning friends tell them, that they could have done something. Intervened in some way. Pried the guns from their sons' fingers.
Lynda Gehris wonders why she didn't argue when her son assured her he'd be fine in Iraq. She'd even signed a release giving him permission to join the military a year early.
Anna Rodriguez is plagued by the choice she made in 2011 not to fly to Los Angeles. That would have been her last chance, she believes, to save her son's life.
Nancy Smith looks back at the sleeplessness, drinking and anxiety her son experienced when he separated from the military as an equation she never solved.
Between 2008 and 2012, their sons — three Marines from the Lehigh Valley — committed suicide. Gehris, Rodriguez and Smith are members of a club whose ranks have grown larger than ever — mothers of U.S. service members who have taken their own lives. "Nobody knows exactly how we feel except us three," Rodriguez said. "Nancy, Lynda and I have a different, special bond because of the way our kids died." While they and other parents grapple to understand why their service-member sons and daughters committed suicide, there is no simple enemy to blame. Classic scapegoats such as post-traumatic stress disorder have been found by military researchers in a minority of suicides. The majority of victims never served overseas. But for reasons the military is still trying to determine, U.S. service members are taking their lives in greater numbers than they were 10 years ago. In 2012 alone, 350 servicemen and women took their own lives, a record number. Last year, for reasons no one seems to understand, the numbers dropped, the Defense Department says.
On Dec. 14, 2008, Lynda Gehris said goodbye to her son, Christopher Thomas. He was driving back to the home in North Carolina he'd bought for himself and his wife, from whom he was now separated. The next night, Gehris was sitting at the computer in her Coopersburg home Christmas shopping when someone knocked.
Marines were at the door. Gehris rounded the corner and looked at them. They looked at her.
Had Christopher been in a car accident?
Nobody said anything.
"I don't think they ever told me," she said. "I knew."
She would later find out that after Christopher arrived at the empty house in North Carolina, he opened photos on his laptop computer. Next, he wrote a letter. Finally, he went to his bedroom, took out his Glock and shot himself. He was 22 years old.
On March 1, 2011, Anna Rodriguez looked up from her work at Famous Footwear in Whitehall and saw her fiance, Michael Geiger, coming through the door. He said nothing. The look on his face told her everything.
"Get away from me!" she yelled. Customers stared. Rodriguez wept. "I don't want you here! Get away!"
Uniformed Marines were waiting at her Whitehall Township home.
At 6:30 that morning, Geiger and her son Nick had spoken on the phone. Twenty minutes later, Nick stood in his bathroom at Camp Pendleton and shot himself once through the heart. He was 23 years old.
Two days earlier, Rodriguez had weighed flying to California to visit Nick. She wanted to confront him about his strange behavior and his drinking. What had happened to him in Afghanistan? Maybe if he leveled with her, they could find an answer together.
But she decided not to go.
On Nov. 5, 2012, Josh Smith dead-bolted the front door of his sister's house, where he lived.
Whatever kept him up at night and caused him to put the bottle to his lips, he had kept locked within himself since his return from Afghanistan a few years earlier. He never before, however, bolted the front door.
Inside the front door, Josh had hung up his dress blue uniform and laid out his medals, his mother and sister saw upon entering with a key. Up the stairs, they were stopped by Josh's bedroom door, also locked.
He'd borrowed his father's gun to protect himself from a break-in that he feared could happen after Hurricane Sandy had knocked out power in the area. Behind the locked door, his mother and sister found his body. He was 27 years old.
Sgt. Christopher Thomas
In the weeks and months that followed her son's death, Gehris sought answers. And feared them.
It seemed unfathomable. At Palisades High School, Chris had been smart and sensitive. IQ tests showed superior intelligence, with a special gift for language, Gehris said. She knew he could carry a tune, but she was shocked when he got the lead in "Godspell" — floored when he was good.
The terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, angered him. He was 15 at the time and began a strict regimen of sit-ups and push-ups, charting his progress on a clipboard he kept in the kitchen. So sure was Chris that the Marines were for him, he asked his mom to allow him to join early. She signed a release, and at age 17, Chris became a fighting man.
Gehris had been ambivalent.
"He was a very sensitive kid," she said. "So to be killing people and hating people … it wasn't really in his nature."
In Iraq, his ease with language served him well. A Nov. 24, 2005, article in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes refers to Chris as "a self-appointed cultural ambassador in western Iraq."
But Gehris came to realize her son kept her in the dark about what he'd seen during his three tours. The military called once to tell her an improvised explosive device had gone off near him. He'd sustained a concussion.
Later, during the funeral, Marines told her that Chris had witnessed friends' deaths.
"I think he was more afraid of upsetting me. If he talked to people, he might have maybe talked to his father," she said. "He didn't want to see the drama, he didn't want to see me get freaked out."
Still, Chris' comrades told her his final months in the military had been free of tragedy.
He'd told her he'd been seeing a psychiatrist, but he hadn't told her the details. He had faced problems at home; he'd gotten married, it hadn't worked out and there was some unpleasantness between him and his wife.
When he came home for Thanksgiving in 2008, Gehris could sense his pain. He was tense and quiet. He exchanged angry text messages with someone.
Gehris didn't know how deeply troubled Chris was until it was too late.
After the funeral, she camped at her computer. She emailed everyone she could think of. She wanted the suicide note, photos and answers. Xanax calmed her nerves. Booze calmed her further. When, after eight months, a folder arrived from the Marine Corps containing Chris' suicide note, Gehris opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. She finished the bottle and half of another and called all of Chris' friends.
"It just crushes a family," she said. "It rips them apart."
Looking for answers
The reason seems obvious — war is hell. But as the military deals with the problem, it has discovered it's not that simple. A Defense Department-funded study released last year found that deployment or military-related factors did not create an increased risk for suicide. Between 2001 and 2008, 83 participants in the study — a massive examination of service members — committed suicide. The reasons were linked to depression, manic-depressive disorder, heavy or binge drinking, and alcohol-related problems. Battle experience or deployment weren't issues.
The military launched the Millennium Cohort study in 2001 to evaluate the long-term health effects of military service, including deployments. Nearly 150,000 men and women in a variety of military roles are participating.
The researchers speculated that the increased rate of suicide in the military "may largely be a product of an increased prevalence of mental disorders in this population." The study said the stress of military life, both at home and abroad, may account for the prevalence.
Suicide is "one of the most urgent problems facing the department," said Army Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a Department of Defense spokeswoman for personnel and readiness. "The Department of Defense has a comprehensive suicide prevention program," Wilkinson said. "Over the past year we have worked extensively with the [Department of Veterans Affairs] to educate service members and their families." During the past three years, the department has increased the number of its behavioral health-care providers by 35 percent, embedding more of them in front-line units. It expanded its military crisis line — a mental-health hotline for service members — to Europe, Afghanistan and Korea.
Lance Cpl. Nicholas Rodriguez
The family gathered at Anna Rodriguez's home.
When Nick's identical twin brother, Tony, walked through the door, Rodriguez wrapped her arms around him.
"It's like seeing Nick," Rodriguez said, "but it's not."
They had wanted to join the military since they were so young that even Rodriguez couldn't tell them apart.
In 2008, Nick joined the Marines. In 2010, he shipped out to Afghanistan. Tony promised he'd follow, soon.
Two different Nicks returned to Rodriguez over the years.
First there was Nick, the Marine. Thirteen weeks of Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, S.C., in 2009, hastened adulthood. He held doors for her. Then, in 2010, a different Nick returned on leave from Afghanistan. Outwardly, he was the same. The Marines had chiseled him a bit, of course, and there was the crew cut. But post-Afghanistan Nick was quiet. He evaded questions. Some nights, she'd wake up and search for him, then find him sitting outside. Smoking. Drinking beer.
Rodriguez sat with him. What's wrong, she'd ask.
Everything's OK, he'd assured her.
What had happened in Afghanistan?
Nothing, he'd tell her. He said his unit spent most of its time far away from any fighting, burning poppy fields. He said he'd never seen combat.
During a Fourth of July party, Nick stood outside and poked at the fire pit, avoiding conversations with the family.
A firework popped. Nick fell to the ground.
"He totally reacted," Rodriguez said recently. "That was my first instinct that there was something more … I think there was something more to Afghanistan than he was saying."
One morning, he attacked a woman delivering a newspaper to his parents' home, chasing her and jumping on the hood of her car. Nobody pressed charges. Rodriguez was able to calm the woman down. Somehow, Nick managed to explain it away. Rodriguez had heard of post-traumatic stress disorder before but knew little about it.
After Nick died, the therapist from whom Rodriguez sought help told her about the ailment and its symptoms. She recognized some symptoms in Nick. Answers from the military came slowly. It took a year and a half for the military to officially rule Nick's death a suicide, Rodriguez said. There had been no note. What triggered it was a mystery.
She badgered the men who knew him for anything they could tell her. Slowly, she learned that Nick's stories of Afghanistan, that his unit hadn't seen combat, weren't true. She heard new, disturbing stories.
In one, Nick and his comrades were standing in a bombed-out shelter when a 12-year-old Afghan boy appeared out of nowhere. He fired at the Marines with an AK-47. Nick killed the boy.
In a separate incident, one of Nick's friends had been killed, according to one of the men who served with him.
Rodriguez tried to imagine how it felt.
"Afghanistan or not," she said, "I know that had to weigh on him."
As the family struggled to move on, Tony seemed to face some of his brother's demons. At first, Tony had been stoic. But when he first saw the body, "he just lost it," Rodriguez said.
He'd enlisted in the Navy, and after Nick's death, they wouldn't deploy him. He struggled through one more year, then quit. His personality changed. He began to drink heavily. He was arrested for drunken driving and fired from two jobs.
On Dec. 21, 2012, Rodriguez helped collect toys for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. Tony saw a uniformed Marine at a function helping her. He reacted violently. He took a baseball bat to a wall of military mementos Rodriguez had collected. Police were summoned. Tony spent that Christmas in jail, charged with aggravated assault.
"I had to go through Christmas without both of them," she said.
About 80 percent of service members exposed to a traumatic incident never develop PTSD. And fewer than 10 percent of military suicides are committed by service members with PTSD, according to the recent Defense Department study.
When exposed to traumatic events, the human brain goes into protective mode. For some people — as much as 8 percent of the general population — the effects of trauma can linger. Sufferers may develop hyper-vigilance (feeling uneasy in crowds), substance-abuse problems and nightmares.
Christy Rothernel, a psychological therapy coordinator at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, said while the disorder is rare, it should be taken seriously because it often goes hand in hand with a predilection for suicide.
Rothernel says families should watch for warning signs. Some are easy to see, such as making statements about harming oneself or taking pills. Others are subtle, such as personality changes, silences and irritability.
"It's really a sensitive topic," she said. "It's hard to broach mental health with anyone."
Color Sgt. Joshua Smith
The Marine Corps form that Nancy Smith found among her son Joshua's things gave her clues.
"During your deployment, did you experience any of the following. Blast or explosion/IED" — Yes, he answered. "Vehicular accident or crash" — Yes. "Your symptoms" — "irritability, headaches, sleeping trouble …
"Problems sleeping … nightmares … flashbacks … depression," Smith read from the form during an interview with The Morning Call nearly a year after her son's death. "And this is all stuff that he was noting before he was discharged. Why have them fill out the paperwork? Is it something they review then, or is it just, OK, he filled that stuff out and it's not really even looked at."
Josh joined at 17. His father, Brian, had been a Marine, and Sept. 11 cinched the deal.
Just before joining, Josh suffered a tragedy. During his senior year, Chris Gore, his close friend and co-captain on the Salisbury High School soccer team, died in a car accident.
"It was just devastating," Smith said.
Months later, Josh joined the Marines and embarked on a career that took him to California, Hawaii and South Korea. The Marine Corps made him a color sergeant, an honor that had him holding the American flag at state ceremonies.
He spent 2005 to 2006 in Afghanistan. He didn't tell his parents much about his experiences. While he was in Afghanistan, Josh told them, he'd been part of a convoy that had encountered a roadside bomb. The explosion hit the vehicle in front of his, killing one of his friends. It also jolted him hard enough to cause the traumatic brain injury for which Josh sought treatment. When he was in Hawaii, he married. The couple had a daughter, Keira, then divorced. There was a court battle. Josh retained partial custody.
He left the military in September 2011 and moved in with his sister in Salisbury Township. He flirted with college for a while, hoping to become a police officer. Then he started having financial problems. He drank. He took prescription drugs. He sought help from Veterans Affairs, which treated him for PTSD. Later, however, he heard that a diagnosis might interfere with his hopes of becoming a cop. That made him less enthusiastic about seeking treatment.
Josh took anti-depressants. He coupled them with alcohol.
"Looking back on it now, I can see how things started coming apart for him," Smith said. "And going to the VA, their treatment a lot of time is medication. And when he was on the medication, he didn't feel well. He didn't feel it was helping.
"It sucks what PTSD does," she said. "Not only to the vets but to their families, you know?"
Lynda Gehrisasked the Marine Corps to send her photos police took of the scene of her son's suicide. They sent her a sealed envelope. She has never opened it; it sits among photos of the smiling blond boy with whom she once struggled to keep pace. When Chris deployed, she became an active member of the local chapter of Blue Star Mothers — moms of deployed service members. She marched in parades and helped assemble care packages to be mailed overseas.
Since Chris' death, she's thought about creating a memorial for service members who have taken their own lives.
She is now a Gold Star mother, the title given to mothers who lose a child as a result of war. On her front door hangs a gold star.
"It's a group I don't want to grow," she said.
Nancy Smithstays busy. She and her husband work with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and other groups that help families like theirs. Smith also works with Gold Star Mothers.
And in August, she and a team of friends ran in the Wounded Warrior Run/Walk at Lone Lane Park in Upper Macungie Township. They wore fluorescent yellow shirts that said, "Yeah, buddy," Josh's favorite expression.
"It helps," she said.
Anna Rodriguezis an active member of Gold Star Mothers — she attends state and national events, marches in parades, fights to make sure combat veterans and suicide victims are properly memorialized.
Sometimes she feels she has to put off grieving for her son to help his brother.
Tony negotiated a plea deal that spared him time in jail for the baseball bat incident. He is receiving treatment through a veterans mentor program in Lehigh County.
"When I get Tony comfortable and calmed down, then I start to grieve again," Rodriguez said. "It's like a non-stop grieving process for me." At 50, Rodriguez found herself visiting a tattoo parlor. She asked the artist to draw a design, and soon she had Nick's name above her heart.
"I'm dealing with the guilt that I did not fly to California," she said. "And the fact that I've lost him."
Once a month, Rodriguez pays a $25 bill for an account she can't bring herself to close. It gives her a number to call, where she can hear a familiar voice on a recorded greeting.
It is Nick's cellphone.
"It's all I've got," she said.
Thomas Dye, director of the Lehigh County Veterans Affairs office, urges service members who have recently come home to check in with their local Veterans Affairs clinic, such as the Allentown VA Outpatient Clinic at 3110 Hamilton Blvd.
"The first thing is go over there and register," he said. "That gets you into the VA health care system."
He said veterans should check in with a VA mental health care professional even if they don't feel they have problems.
Lehigh County Veterans Affairs: 610-782-3295; lehighcounty.org
Northampton County Veterans Affairs: 610-559-3199; northamptoncounty.org
Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs: 800-547-2838;dmva.state.pa.us
Veterans crisis hotline: 800-273-8255, press 1
Coaching into Carehotline for concerned family members: 800-823-7458