Despite Army Efforts, Soldier Suicides Continue
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FORT HOOD, Tex. -- At 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday in August, Specialist Armando G. Aguilar Jr. found himself at the end of his short life. He was standing, drunk and weepy, in the parking lot of a Valero station outside Waco, Tex. He had jumped out of his moving pickup. There was a police officer talking to him in frantic tones. Specialist Aguilar held a pistol pointed at his head.
This moment had been a long time coming, his family said. He had twice tried to commit suicide with pills since returning from a tough tour in Iraq a year earlier, where his job was to drive an armored vehicle to search for bombs.
Army doctors had put him on medications for depression, insomnia, nightmares and panic attacks. Specialist Aguilar was seeing an Army therapist every week. But he had been getting worse in the days before his death, his parents said, seeing shadowy figures that were not there, hallucinating that he heard loud noises outside his trailer home.
"He wanted help -- he was out there asking for help," said his father, Armando Aguilar Sr. "He just snapped. He couldn't control what he was doing no more."
Specialist Aguilar was one of 20 soldiers connected to Fort Hood who are believed to have committed suicide this year. The Army has confirmed 14 of those, and is completing the official investigations of six other soldiers who appear to have taken their own lives -- four of them in one week in September. The deaths have made this the worst year at the sprawling fort since the military began keeping track in 2003.
The spate of suicides in Texas reflects a chilling reality: nearly 20 months after the Army began strengthening its suicide prevention program and working to remove the stigma attached to seeking psychological counseling, the suicide rate among active service members remains high and shows little sign of improvement. Through August, at least 125 active members of the Army had ended their own lives, exceeding the morbid pace of last year, when there were a record 162 suicides.
"If the test for success is our numbers and our rate, then clearly we have not been successful," said Col. Chris Philbrick, deputy director of a special task force established to reduce suicides.
Colonel Philbrick said that more soldiers were seeking help for psychological problems than ever before -- it was the leading reason for hospitalization in the military last year -- but that the number needing help had also grown at a rapid pace, a natural consequence of nine years of combat deployments. So even though the Army now has 3,800 therapists and psychiatrists, two-thirds more than it did three years ago, there is still a significant shortage, he said.
Advocates for veterans say the shortage of therapists means that Army doctors tend to rely more on medication than therapy. They also say the Army screens too few soldiers for mental problems after deployments, placing the burden on the soldier to seek help rather than on officers to actively find the damaged psyches in their corps.
"The military still blames the soldier, saying it's financial stress or family stress, and it is still waiting for the service member to come forward," said Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.
In July, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, ordered that all soldiers returning from combat be evaluated by a mental health professional, either face to face or by video conference.
General Chiarelli and other top commanders have argued that the roots of the rise in military suicides are complex and that blame cannot be laid solely on repeated deployments. The majority of soldiers who have committed suicide -- about 80 percent -- have had only one deployment or none at all. Another factor is that after years of war, the Army is now attracting recruits already inclined toward risky behavior and thus more prone to suicide, according to a 15-month Army review of suicides released in July.
A close examination of some of the suicides at Fort Hood shows that they are as individual as fingerprints. Some of the soldiers who committed suicide were receiving treatment but took their lives anyway. Others were reluctant to seek help for fear of being labeled cowards or malingerers.
The commanders at the base have tried hard to change the never-show-weakness culture of the Army. They have trained more than 700 noncommissioned officers and chaplains to spot suicidal soldiers and refer them to counselors. Since April, more than 17,000 soldiers have participated in an exercise in which actors play out scenarios involving suicidal people.
Beyond the role playing, the base's commanders have also employed a comedian who talks about the suicide of his brother and have compelled all soldiers to watch two training films about suicide -- "Shoulder to Shoulder" and "I Will Never Quit on Life." A former commander of the base, Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, even established a holistic "Resiliency Campus," where soldiers can do things like take tai chi and yoga classes, get massages or see family counselors.
One of the those who received the training was Josh Roum, a recently retired sergeant who still works on the base. On Sept. 25, Mr. Roum came home after spending the night with a friend and found his new roommate, Sgt. Timothy Ryan Rinella, sprawled in a hallway. A veteran of four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sergeant Rinella, who was 29, had shot himself in the head with Mr. Roum's pistol.
Mr. Roum said Sergeant Rinella showed none of the classic signs of being suicidal. He had talked about plans to rebuild an old car and had bragged about his four children. "He seemed like he had a level head on his shoulders," Mr. Roum said. "It was like a total shocker to me."
Sergeant Rinella had sought counseling from an Army psychologist for panic attacks, even though he feared that a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder would ruin his career, his wife, Sarah Rinella, said via e-mail. He believed that the counselors would relay what he said in private up the chain of command.
The deployments had been hard on the marriage, Ms. Rinella said. Sergeant Rinella left for Iraq just 13 days after their wedding and spent more than half of their eight-year marriage abroad. He missed the birth of his first son.
"How are you supposed to have a family life with that many deployments?" Mr. Roum asked.
The day Sergeant Rinella killed himself, he was facing another separation from his family, Mr. Roum said. A few days earlier, his wife had moved with the children to Richmond, Va., to take care of an ailing parent.
Several of the soldiers who recently committed suicide had faced marital problems. Sgt. First Class Eugene E. Giger was informed by his wife, Yolanda Giger, last October that she was filing for divorce. He was still in Iraq, doing his third tour abroad in six years.
"It did cause a chasm between the two of them," said Helen Giger, the sergeant's mother. "He felt bad because his kids were growing up without him being there."
On June 15, two days after his 43rd birthday, Sergeant Giger hanged himself in his apartment in Killeen. His parents said their son had always been a taciturn man and had given close relatives no hint that he was depressed. Nor did he mention panic attacks, nightmares or other emotional disorders.
But his former wife said in a telephone interview that she had tried to warn his superiors that he was deeply troubled after his deployments, despite having served most of his time abroad in a relatively safe desk job as a personnel officer. "I made outcries to everyone, and no one listened," she said, declining to say to whom she had spoken for fear of losing Army benefits.
Others did seek help. Master Sgt. Baldemar Gonzalez, 39, an airborne combat veteran in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, began seeing a therapist at Fort Hood a year ago and received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffered nightmares, insomnia and flashbacks, said his wife, Christina Barrientes. He had planned to go to school for engineering on the G.I. Bill when his enlistment ended this year.
Army psychiatrists prescribed antidepressants, sleeping pills and a tranquilizer -- a cocktail of five drugs, she said. He started taking them in mid-March, and his personality changed. Always an athletic, outgoing man, he became listless and quiet, sleeping much of the day and avoiding his friends.
On Sept. 25, he dropped his daughter off at a football game at her high school, then returned home and told his wife he was going to work on some homework in the kitchen. She found him upstairs later in the day, dead in their bedroom closet, having apparently hanged himself.
"I blame the medication," Ms. Barrientes said. "You go and try to get help and all they do is put you on medication."
Specialist Aguilar, who shot himself in the Valero parking lot, also had plans to go back to school once his enlistment was over in November. A guitarist and songwriter from a working-class family, he had enlisted partly because the Army would pay for music school after his military service, his family and friends said.
But by the time he came back from Iraq in July 2009, his nerves were on edge, his relatives said. He had become severely depressed in Iraq after a good friend in his unit, Pvt. Eugene Kanakole, shot and killed himself in a latrine. Specialist Aguilar had also lived through several terrifying explosions -- including five in one night -- while working as a combat engineer, friends said. Army doctors prescribed antidepressants even before he left the war zone.
Once he returned to Texas, he frequently drank too much and twice nearly overdosed on sleeping pills and painkillers. His medical records show that Army psychiatrists diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and he had been seeing a therapist every week for months. At the time of his death, he was taking two antidepressants, a sleeping pill and a drug used to treat alcoholics.
He married a young woman from Waco early this year, but the elation of the honeymoon did not last long. They fought often over his behavior, and they began seeing a marriage counselor within months, friends said. The night before he died he drove to Waco to visit his in-laws. He took a gun belonging to a close friend who was out of town.
The police say Specialist Aguilar ran into the yard of his father-in-law's house and fired shots around 3:15 a.m., then took off in his pickup truck. His mother, Amelia Aguilar, said his wife had told her they had been drinking and had a fight.
A local police officer spotted Specialist Aguilar's truck and followed him to the Valero station in Hewitt, just south of Waco. He tumbled out of the moving truck, letting the vehicle roll into a ditch, then put the gun to his head. The officer, Sgt. Robert Dillard, drew his own gun and started to plead with Specialist Aguilar not to fire, according to the police report.
He pulled the trigger anyway. He was 26 years old.
First Published October 11, 2010 2:00 am