Why One Man's Death Is A National Tragedy

Post traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — hit home this week, but it's not an isolated issue.

Justin Eldridge, who served in the Marine Corps for eight-and-a-half years, including an eight-month stint driving wreckers in Afghanistan, died on Oct. 28, 2013. His death, a suicide, brought a final end to his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that had given him no peace, even though he returned home safely. 

He leaves behind a wife, Joanna, who was an advocate for him in his struggle to get the help he needed and who understood that when he returned home from battle, he would never be the same man he was when he left for deployment. He also leaves behind four children, who were in the house when he took his life. 

This is a tragedy that has hit home in so many ways. Since the news was first posted, I've heard from people from California to Long Island who want to help and we have cried together. But we also cry because this isn't just one family's story. 

From CNN: "In 2007, Daniel Somers was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War Syndrome, fibromyalgia and a host of other medical problems. He sought treatment through therapy, medication, music and film production, but took his own life on June 10, 2013. He left behind a powerful suicide note that went viral on the Internet after his family released it to local media."

But this isn't something that affects just one family or two. No. This is an American tragedy and it's being played out across the country. 

From AlJazeera America: (and yes, I recognize the source here will raise eyebrows but it's a well-reported article with links to sources that are solid). 

Last year, the Pentagon described suicide as an “epidemic." In February, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, compared with 18 per day in 2007. Last year, more active duty soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat, according to the Associated Press.

A recent survey from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA) found that 30 percent of respondents had considered suicide, and 43 percent said they didn’t seek care for mental health issues fearing that doing so would have a negative impact on their career.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), an advocacy organization that supports those who have lost family members or friends to combat-related deaths, released a statement saying that the results from the JAMA study were unsurprising, given the fact that "many service members are afraid to seek help when they need it."

What's Happening? 

On the field of combat, understandably, no one can afford to show weakness—and so no one does. But when our troops return home, they find life unchanged. It's not like it was during WW2, when the enemy was clearly defined and the battle affected everyone, with rations and air-raids and war bonds and munition factories, and we held ticker tape parades heralding peace in our time.

Now our troops return to the United States, one by one, and they're home in a matter of hours. They arrive with our thanks for their service, but without much support or understanding of what they've been through. The war they fought was far away and while they battled, our lives continued undisturbed. And as much as they want to get back to life as normal, they have no one to talk to about what life was like in these far-away combat zones and how being there changed them. But it did. 

What happened this week to one family in Waterford was tragic but until we become more attuned to what our veterans are going through, it won't be the last story written on the subject. The symptoms of PTSD aren't obvious to those who don't see the night sweats and nightmares, the insomnia, the mood swings, or the hyperawareness that comes with being in a combat zone. 

At the same time, this invisible illness has given rise to some very visible campaigns to raise awareness about PTSD. "Mohawk Man" has been walking across the United States from Illinois to Washington, D.C., as one man on a mission, with help from his friends, in the hope of saving lives by letting people know there is help available. 

"I’m literally wearing combat boots across the country," he said. "If you haven’t walked a mile in their boots, shut up." 

Mohawk Man's goal is to increase awareness of PTSD. He estimates he's buried 800 men and women who ultimately succumbed to PTSD in one way or another yet he's hopeful that by spreading the word that help is available, he'll save more lives in the long run. 

The first cover story I ever wrote was on how PTSD wasn't recognized and wasn't treated in Vietnam Veterans, and that was about 25 years ago. That I'm writing about it now, when we know so much more but the problems remain, is really tragic. But awareness of PTSD is far greater now than it ever was, and that gives me hope. 

Veterans who need help can find it at www.ptsd.va.gov//public/index.asp.

The VA developed fact sheets to share with family members of veterans who have made a suicide attempt. Products include guides for talking about a suicide attempt with children and are available in Spanish. Although these resources were created with military families in mind, the material includes resources and information that may be useful for civilians as well.
ElleJay October 30, 2013 at 10:22 AM
Great article, Jayne. It truly is a national tragedy. Thank you for helping to spread the word that our heroes need our love and support. Washington, pay attention!!
Kelley Stillman-Hamrick October 30, 2013 at 06:59 PM
Jayne, thank you for writing this follow up. Thank you for mentioning TAPS though quoted, since I personally am a peer mentor with them after losing my brother to suicide in 2009. He had served in the Air Force. We had lived in Jewett City and RI so Justin's story hits home for me. I was one of the people commenting on the original story hoping Joanna would see there is help. The young man mentioned via CNN was from here in Phoenix where I live now. The epidemic of suicides and tackling how to help our troops without the fear and stigma is one we are trying to tackle. In addition also finding a way/channel for family members to ask for help, as we are usually the first ones to know something is wrong, is another solution being worked on. The awareness is out there, conversations and dialogue are taking place, and thanks to people like you writing about it in a way that doesn't negatively affect the message, we continue to keep this issue at a forefront and as you say, not isolated and it truly is a National Tragedy.
Malia October 30, 2013 at 10:39 PM
This is going to come straight from the heart.... I know the pain and suffering that come with PTSD. I understand Justin Eldridge's pain. I liveJustin's pain as well everyday. This is a fight I fight everyday. There are so many not just military who suffer silently because they are ashamed of their illness and unfortunately it beats so many from the children bullied at school to the heros that fight for our freedom and everyone in between that gets this due to a tragic event or whatever triggers it. What makes Justin so special is that he is the father to my Ashton who is 10 years old now. We married breifly and anyways it was a mess and it remained a mess until now. I believe our sicknesses made it impossible to co exsist and made it hard for Ashton and his Dad to have a secure relationship. They did get to have 2 years together knowing each other and today Ashton honored his Father on my Facebook page with his picture reading " He whas a good marine" Ashton also suffers from PTSD, ADHD and bipolar so he is very aware of these feelings and thoughts but we work hard every day to surive. I just wish now in my heart that we could have used each other as rocks instead of enemies but I promise that I will take away from this in the most positve way and honor my ex husband the father of Ashton as the brave strong soldier and father he was. I hope that all of us get the support and help we deserve from this goverment! I will be a voice I we will turn Justin's tragedy into something good! Ashton looks forward to returning to Connecticut to say a final good bye to his father and seeing his brothers and sisters. This family can come together in peace. Thank you for honoring Justin and standing up for his family.


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