ANTIDEPRESSANTS: Four Soldiers From the 1451st Transport Co. Kill Themselves

NOTE FROM Ann Blake-Tracy (www.drugawareness.org): How many soldiers do we need to lose to suicide before we wake up to the fact that the FDA has warned about increased suicide in those in this age group who take antidepressants??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Paragraph 38 reads: “Even if a veteran seeks out that help, it might not be enough. It wasn’t in Blaylock’s case — or, for that matter, in any of the cases of the four members of the 1451st who came home and committed suicide. Each of the four made at least some effort to get help from the VA, and each was prescribed an antidepressant.”

http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090902/NEWS/909020387

Day 4: ‘Where’s the line between people’s rights and enforcing help?’

Military, VA confront host of thorny issues in trying to prevent veterans’ suicides

By Konrad Marshall

Posted: September 2, 2009Read Comments(6)RecommendE-mail Print ShareA A If there is something that might help returning soldiers better adjust to civilian life — something that might help tame the inner demons of war — it is mandatory, intensive and long-term counseling.

It wasn’t required when Sgt. Jacob Blaylock and three other soldiers in the 1451st Transportation Company returned home nearly 2 1/2 years ago and later ended their own lives. Although some are receiving more counseling now, that follow-up work still is not required and, for various reasons, might never be.

There are numerous obstacles, but these are foremost: It’s difficult to determine how likely someone is to commit suicide — an issue made more difficult because soldiers often don’t seek help or acknowledge and discuss problems. Also, requiring extensive screenings and follow-ups could infringe on the rights of veterans who are now civilians.

The military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are left to perform something akin to mental health triage — a focus on the most obvious and severe cases. For the rest, it’s a quick assessment and an along-you-go, hope-for-the-best.

That works fine for many. But the VA and military have no effective way to monitor and counsel those whose anguish is more subtle — or purposely masked — whose depression deepens over time amid the nightmares of war and troubles at work or at home.

The military puts most of its effort into its demobilization process, required of all returning soldiers. The process is designed to prepare soldiers for a return to civilian life and to assess their physical and mental health.

When Blaylock and his comrades in the 1451st demobilized at Camp Atterbury, it was a three- to five-day process. Today, it’s a five- to seven-day process in which soldiers undergo mandatory reintegration briefings and one-on-one sessions with mental health counselors.

But it is also during demobilization that two competing interests emerge. Mental health workers want to make sure soldiers are OK. Soldiers want to go home.

“They ask you, ‘Do you have any issues?’ You say, ‘No,’ because a soldier wants to get home,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Mullis, an active-duty commander with the 1451st in Boone, N.C. “All these things they ask you about, the answer is ‘No,’ because you want to get home. Then you get home and you have medical issues or employment issues, or you figure out maybe you should have had counseling.”

Lt. Col. Timothy Holtke, director of Personnel and Civilian Affairs at Camp Atterbury, said the Army understands that and is getting better about probing each soldier’s mind-set.

“We want to dig a little deeper than ‘Hey, soldier, how are you doing?’ ” Holtke said. “If they’re having an issue, we want to pull it out of them.”

That said, Holtke and others acknowledged that soldiers will try to placate clinicians in order to finish faster.

“We know soldiers do that,” said Dr. Marsha Rockey, the only psychologist with the Department of Behavioral Health at Camp Atterbury, where more than 7,000 soldiers are processed each year. “Do we catch 100 percent of them? I’m sure we don’t. But we tell them: ‘Our goal is not to keep you; it’s to keep you safe.’ ”

Staff Sgt. Brian Laguardia is a national advocate for returning veterans and one of five former soldiers who did a national public service announcement with Tom Hanks for the group Welcome Back Vets. He also was a member of the 1451st and a friend of Blaylock’s.

Recalling the 1451st’s demobilization at Camp Atterbury, Laguardia said, “They did as little as they could to hold us back, to keep us from going home. Really quickly, they had us out of there. There’s a real need to make the transfer slower, more than a couple of weeks even.”

But there is a practical concern: Bringing troops home earlier to give them more time to demobilize would require calling up other troops more quickly.

Holtke said that already is a problem.

“Nobody anticipated that these contingency operations would go on as long as they have,” he said. “You have reserve soldiers going on third and fourth tours, which was just inconceivable 20 years ago.”

Mullis said another issue is the timing of demobilization. He advocates going home for two weeks, then being required to report to the demobilization site, “so you know what issues you’re facing.”

Dr. Cheryl Sweeney, who works every day with veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, understands this all too clearly.

“We live in a society that wants to be about peace and friendliness and understanding, and combat veterans — especially fresh combat veterans — are about protection and defensiveness and sometimes a lot of anger and hostility,” she said. “It’s hard to mesh those two realities.”

Rick Blaylock, Jacob’s father, and many others said they think there should be mandatory check-ins and behavioral screenings long after deployment, whether quarterly or every six months, to detect and treat symptoms that appear over time.

As it is, once they leave the military, the onus is on individual veterans to seek help.

And that’s not always the way of a soldier.

“When you come back from overseas,” Mullis said, “you’re a different creature than when you left. Things change in a year. It’s hard. Life’s hard. People see stuff. They experience stuff that changes them. There’s personal guilt.

“I think some don’t seek the help they need soon enough. Pride gets in the way. All your military life you’re told you’re strong enough.”

At Camp Atterbury, there are signs that try to cut through that culture: “Never Leave a Fallen Comrade: Buddies Can Prevent Suicide” and “Not All Wounds Are Visible.”

Laguardia supports the VA but thinks the Army should make it mandatory for soldiers to register there.

“Check in on them. That’s why you’re in charge,” he said. “Just like when you’re a sergeant and you come off mission and you say, ‘I know you’re exhausted right now, but you have to clean your weapons.’ I think there’s such a stigma on going to a mental health screening that they have to make it mandatory.”

But can they?

“In some ways, we do wish that we were able to do that,” said Jan Kemp, the national suicide prevention coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “In other ways, veterans have truly left the military, and their control over their own lives is important. I think we walk a fine line there.”

Sweeney, who is the Seamless Transition psychiatrist with the Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis, agrees.

“So where’s the line between people’s rights and enforcing help?” she said. “I wish there were no pain in the world. But philosophically — not to mention practically — you’re kind of stuck.”

Kemp noted that a number of systems are in place to help veterans through their problems, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has taken more than 150,000 calls in two years; the suicide prevention coordinators put in place at all VA offices; and the Seamless Transition staff designed to deal with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army has its own programs, such as the Yellow Ribbon campaign and Military OneSource — tools for checking up on soldiers and dealing with the issues they face. But all the programs are voluntary.

“That’s probably my biggest concern,” Rockey said. “I wish there was some system set up, because they don’t know what issues they’ll have in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days or 180 days.

“We try to tell them where to go, what their resources are, but when they’re coming through here (during demobilization), you see it — ‘La la la.’ ‘What do I have to do?’ ‘What’s my next checked box?’ — so how much they retain is a big question mark.”

Even if a veteran seeks out that help, it might not be enough. It wasn’t in Blaylock’s case — or, for that matter, in any of the cases of the four members of the 1451st who came home and committed suicide. Each of the four made at least some effort to get help from the VA, and each was prescribed an antidepressant.

Blaylock’s medical records indicate he was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and possible traumatic brain injury, and that he was talking and thinking about suicide. His father thinks that should have been enough to “keep him off the streets.”

Sweeney acknowledged that circumstances often suggest a suicide could have been prevented somehow.

“But how?” she asked. “The bottom line is that a veteran can only be forced into 72-hour supervised care if they are imminently suicidal. Not like, ‘Some day we think this could turn bad.’ More like, ‘Today. If we let you go home we’re afraid you’ll kill yourself today.’ ”

Although it may be difficult to know just when a soldier such as Blaylock becomes imminently suicidal, it was clear in his case that he had issues.

The psychologists at the VA knew. His friends, fiancee and members of his family knew. His fellow soldiers knew. He knew.

And it appears the Army knew, almost from the beginning of his service.

Blaylock entered the Army at age 17 and was discharged two years later after suffering from depression and being diagnosed with a personality disorder that was not discussed further in his medical records.

He was recalled for active duty four years later. But during training, more than one fellow soldier told Army mental health staff they had concerns about Blaylock’s state of mind.

Blaylock was deemed fit to serve, however, and by all accounts served his country well.

Ultimately, the more difficult question may be whether Blaylock was fit to return home. The timing of the explosion that killed his two friends — and left him riddled with guilt — couldn’t have been much worse.

In Iraq, he had developed close relationships with people he thought understood what he had been through. He was especially close to those, like himself, who were members of the Individual Ready Reserve — soldiers who were brought back to fulfill military commitments.

Leaving Iraq meant leaving the war, but it also ripped a fragile, sensitive young man from the people he trusted most — his IRR brothers — at a time when he needed them the most.

Sgt. Riley Palmertree, 29, served in the 1451st and was a friend of Blaylock’s. He is building a library of material for a documentary about the suicides. He has heard people ask whether it would have been prudent to keep the unit in Iraq for a month or two after the deaths of Sgts. Brandon Wallace and Joshua Schmit so close to the end of their deployment.

He even answers the question as part of a treatment he wants to submit to magazines:

“We could know the future no more than we could have stayed together forever in Neverland. I know for some it must be hard to understand, how such a hellish place could be likened to that, but it wasn’t the place; it was the IRR. We were the place. I do know that with us, Jackie was safe. Of that I am certain.”

Palmertree likened the situation to “boys at camp.”

“I think Jackie craved that as much as I did, as much as the rest of us did,” Palmertree told The Star. “He loved it, every moment of it, every time we wrestled with him. He was like a little dog nipping at our heels.”

Sweeney said there is no simple solution to the problem — that keeping a unit together for the sake of one at-risk soldier, even for a few weeks, could put other soldiers at risk.

“Who’s to say the best thing for a given soldier might not be to go home?” Sweeney said. “That’s the challenge that command faces.

“You’ve got to keep in mind you’re dealing with millions of people, and automatically that means you’re dealing with thousands of answers. What’s right for one person is going to be the worst possible thing for someone else.”

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ANTIDEPRESSANTS: Soldier Commits Suicide: Switching from One SSRI to Another

Paragraph nine reads: “Wilson’s wife had left him the previous week, but he was about to start group therapy in Charlotte. He was getting over the physical pain caused by repeated roadside blasts and getting ready to switch from one brand of antidepressants to another.”

http://www.indystar.com/article/20090901/NEWS/909010369/

Day 3: ‘In their minds it’s never gonna go away. The war is still there.’

By Konrad Marshall

Posted: September 1, 2009

The body of Jacob Raymon Blaylock was buried in Houston National Cemetery in a field of patchwork sod, with a pond and fountain nearby.

Blaylock rests in plot S1 151, among his brethren — Armed Forces personnel who died the same day. In the grave to his right is Dennis Dildine, who had a career in the service followed by one as a church pianist, until diabetes claimed him in his sleep at 56. To his left is Louis Macko, a World War II veteran and ham radio operator whose body gave out at 87.

Born on June 13, 1981, Sgt. Jacob Blaylock was 26 years old when he died. Eight months after an explosion on a highway in Iraq killed two of his friends — Sgts. Brandon Wallace and Joshua Schmit — Blaylock took his own life with a pistol.

The young musician and artist was buried one week before Christmas 2007. His best friend, Damon Lyden, Indianapolis, was among the pallbearers — six parcels of muscle and bulk poured into black T-shirts and blue jeans, white orchids pinned to their chests.

The mourners did what they had to. They buried their boy. Then they went to a strip club — friends and family, young and old, men and women — and got drunk together.

“The funeral was a huge party,” Lyden said. “Why? Because Jackie partied, man. We weren’t driving, so why not raise a glass to him and put him in the ground?”

The following day, another member of the 1451st Transportation Company would be put in the ground.

The day after Jacob Blaylock took his own life, Sgt. Jeff Wilson was in Lincolnton, N.C., coming off an overnight double at the BI-LO grocery store.

Wilson’s wife had left him the previous week, but he was about to start group therapy in Charlotte. He was getting over the physical pain caused by repeated roadside blasts and getting ready to switch from one brand of antidepressants to another.

He spent the day reorganizing his home, painting his bathroom, shifting furniture. His mother, Elaine Hefner, helped. She didn’t know her son had secretly swallowed a consequential amount of antidepressants, not until he slipped into a violent seizure.

When Wilson came out of it, he was combative with paramedics. He had another seizure on the way to the hospital. He regained consciousness but was angry and had to be talked down by police. He had additional episodes throughout the night but eventually slept.

His family visited the next morning, having worried about him all night.

Wilson, 31, had joined the National Guard as a senior in high school, served three tours in Iraq and came home to coach Little League and volunteer for the Special Olympics. But relatives had seen how his time with the 1451st had changed him, how he, too, cried over Wallace and Schmit, how he, too, believed their deaths were somehow his fault.

Wilson was nearby when they died. Part of a convoy coming from the opposite direction, he tried to warn them they were headed for a firefight. He didn’t realize they were headed for a bomb buried in the roadway.

“He never talked about Iraq until the end,” Hefner said. “But it was building up on him.”

As family members scrubbed their hands near noon at the hospital, Wilson went into cardiac arrest. The trauma damaged his kidneys. He had dialysis three times that week and was put on a respirator.

“He was on life support until Sunday,” Hefner said. “He died at 4:45 that afternoon.”

Sgt. Jeff Wilson was buried in Roseland Baptist Church Cemetery in North Carolina, where his grandparents rest.

First Sgt. Roger Parker, his former commander, was there for the funeral and the wake. Parker, 41, was a platoon leader with the 1451st in Iraq and worked in the tactical operations center.

“He knew every one of his soldiers by name — if they were married, if they had kids,” said his father, Lawrence Parker, 70. “Every time he found out something about someone, he put it in his computer and kept it there.”

He felt proud of their successes and responsible for their failures. So when Wilson died, Parker, who also lived in North Carolina, came to pay his respects. He brought a bracelet that commemorated Wallace and Schmit, and put it on Wilson’s wrist before the casket was closed.

Parker concealed it well, but he was dealing with the same problems that Wilson and Blaylock had faced: physical pain, psychological troubles and problems in his relationship. Once a month, he made the hourlong drive from Tryon to Asheville to pick up a prescription of lithium and attend counseling sessions at the VA.

Then one summer evening in July 2008, Parker called his dad to talk about a new lawnmower. The father and son had spent the day at the beach together, but after a day in the sand and surf, Parker now sounded distant.

He didn’t tell his father he loved him, which he always did. And he didn’t tell him things had turned rotten, which they had. At 3:15 in the morning, the elder Parker heard the doorbell ringing and answered in his shorts.

“It was the police,” he said. “They got inside and said the words that changed my life: ‘Roger Parker hung himself.’ ”

Parker was the third member of the unit to take his own life since returning from Iraq.

For the 1451st Transportation Company, suicide had become the leading cause of death.

A ceremony was planned to bring together those suffering, for a time of peace and mourning. Members of the 1451st realized what was happening, and they intended to pause and reflect.

But in September 2008 — just two months after Parker hanged himself — that optimistic calm was shattered.

The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office received a dropped 911 call from Fox Winkler Road in Lenoir, N.C. — the home of Larry Wayne Brucke Jr., who had changed his name to Skip Brinkley after he returned from Iraq.

Brucke, 32, was a police officer before joining the National Guard and serving with the 1451st in Iraq. He was now busy setting up a place for himself, his fiancee and her three kids on 37 idyllic acres.

When Deputy Adam Klutz arrived, he discovered a distressed fiancee who said Brucke had headed into the surrounding pasture and woods, possibly armed. The 25-year-old deputy began to search the area.

As backup arrived, Brucke shot Klutz in the head.

A second officer, Lt. Christopher Martin, arrived and was shot three times in the chest with the same .223-caliber rifle. Klutz died, and Martin lived — saved by his vest.

Brucke wasn’t especially close to Wallace or Schmit — or to Blaylock, Wilson and Parker, for that matter — but Iraq took a toll on the unit as a whole, said Lyden, no matter who your friends were.

“People changed over there,” he said. “I mean, Brucke killed a cop. Hell, Brucke was a cop.”

Brucke vanished, and warrants were issued for murder and attempted murder. A statewide search began, involving the FBI and U.S. marshals, and a $20,000 reward was offered for information leading to the capture of a 5-foot-8, blond-haired, green-eyed, goateed veteran, last seen in a gray Carhartt T-shirt and Farm Bureau hat. An FBI alert said the fugitive was a man who liked training mules and horses, was a proficient heavy machine operator, and was perhaps unstable and taking Zoloft.

One week later, as the funeral for the slain police officer began, other local law enforcement officers stood in a remote, wooded area a few hundred yards from Brucke’s residence.

Before them lay an M4 assault rifle with scope, two pistols and a cache of ammunition. There, also, was the body of Larry Wayne Brucke Jr.

He was seated in a ravine, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

One month later, in October 2008, Rick Blaylock, Heidi Plumley and Damon Lyden gathered with 150 mourners in the high country of North Carolina, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in front of the National Guard Armory in the town of Boone, named for Daniel Boone.

The three of them — the father, the fiancee and the friend — were there to pay tribute to Blaylock, Wilson, Parker, Brucke, Wallace and Schmit.

They listened to the opening prayer, “The Star Spangled Banner” by loudspeaker and a live rendition of “God Bless the USA.” The ceremony was held in the newly minted memorial garden of the 1451st — the first thing you see when you approach the armory. The flower beds, filled with petals of red, white and blue, are bordered by four Bradford pear trees and six marble benches. A 5-ton boulder serves as a memorial to soldiers everywhere who have given their lives for freedom.

Blaylock, Plumley and Lyden stared at a statue and a walkway covered by two white sheets. Removed, they revealed a bronze battlefield cross, plaques for Wallace and Schmit, and commemorative bricks in honor of Blaylock, Wilson, Parker and Brucke.

People wept and hugged. Heads fell onto shoulders. Arms reached around backs. Hands were wrung in front of chests. The event did not involve the state or the wider public. The 1451st wanted it as personal as possible, for the soldiers and their families.

Rick Blaylock said he was touched “beyond words” by the event. Heidi Plumley, Jacob Blaylock’s fiancee, found it tough to stay strong. But for Lyden, the ceremony was merely a continuation of a sad fellowship, observed this time over too many drinks back at the hotel.

“We had our memorials in Iraq. We went and saw the families after we got back. We went to Houston and buried Jackie,” he said. “I don’t put much stock in a brick with a name on it. The guy’s still dead.”

But for others, it was an opportunity for the unit to close the matter. Almost one year later, no one else from the 1451st Transportation Company has died.

Lyden still lives in Indianapolis. He works for Artistic Skin Designs in Noblesville, and if you ask him what he thinks of the Army, he points to a tattoo on his right hand — his saluting hand — that reads “F.T.A.” He likes to remember Blaylock as his little buddy, a happy but fragile kid, everyone’s baby brother.

Plumley still lives in Houston. She used to wake up to the sound of the gunshot that ended Blaylock’s life. Now she dreams about the two of them sitting on a porch — him scuffing up the white nose of her Chuck Taylors, because Chucks weren’t cool unless the front was dirty.

Rick and Jacqueline Blaylock remain in Lowell. On a cold day in March, they sat stiffly on a loveseat in their attic, huddled on a John Deere fleece. Rick sparked a Newport. Jacqueline took a sip from a can of Busch Light.

She said she likes to play the happy songs her son wrote. She said she remembers the way he would embarrass her by putting on a British accent when they went shopping together. And she said she worries about other mothers, because of their sons.

“In their minds, it’s never gonna go away. The war is still there,” she said, tapping her head. “No doctor can read what they’re going through. They carry it home. All of it.”

Rick said he likes to hold the objects his son left behind: an old guitar, a new watch, the bandanna and goggles he wore on missions, the video camera he strapped to his M-16.

And he likes to look at two paintings Blaylock put on canvas when he was 17, a decade before he died. The first shows a calm ocean, a lighthouse, cliffs and a golden sunrise. It makes Rick smile.

But when he looks at the second one, he wonders whether his son somehow saw all the pain coming, for himself and for the men of the 1451st.

The painting hangs above a narrow carpeted staircase. It is all darkness — swells of water rising and falling, stormy skies above and a little rowboat with three figures inside: two gray phantoms and an infantryman in green.

“Jacob painted that for me, before he even went into the Army,” said Rick, shaking his head. “See? Two soldiers — ghosts — and one still alive, paddling by himself.”

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