Soldier Suicides

Two Texas brothers fall in the war on terror—one in combat, one by his own hand

That's no surprise to Annie Joseph, the Dallas VA's suicide prevention coordinator. She was hired last summer to take calls made to the suicide hotline created by the VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In its first year, the national hotline received calls from more than 22,000 veterans. Joseph also tries to reach out to returning young vets who may be at risk. They're the most difficult ones to contact. "They don't call back or follow-up," she says. "They're young, and they're afraid they'll be ID'd and unable to get jobs."

The military faces a daunting question: How, when you've taught soldiers to kill and trained them to embody the ideals and mentality of powerful masculine icons, do you convince them to share their feelings and reach out for help?

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged the quandary in May when he announced that in an attempt to remove the stigma from mental health treatment, soldiers would no longer be asked on their security-clearance applications whether they'd sought counseling in the last seven years. Under the new policy, applicants who have been treated for combat-related problems can still get clearance.

Andrew was grief-stricken by the loss of his brother and showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he insisted on returning to war.
Andrew was grief-stricken by the loss of his brother and showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he insisted on returning to war.
Roy Velez hugs a friend after his son Andrew's funeral at Lubbock's Resthaven Memorial Park on August 4, 2006.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer
Roy Velez hugs a friend after his son Andrew's funeral at Lubbock's Resthaven Memorial Park on August 4, 2006.

Other Army efforts to reverse the alarming trend include increasing the numbers of mental health staff and chaplains, rolling out educational videos for troops and adding a new prevention program to basic training. The Army named the second week in September "Suicide Prevention Week" and implemented unit-by-unit training throughout the month.

Perhaps the most troubling barrier facing such efforts is this: A 2004 study showed that soldiers and Marines who screened positive for mental disorders were twice as likely as those who didn't to believe in the stigmas associated with treatment, says Alina Suris, associate professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center and a researcher at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The servicemen surveyed feared getting help would endanger their careers, cause them to be considered weak and decrease their units' confidence in their abilities.

That's precisely the mindset that Army officials like Colonel C.J. Diebold, chief of psychiatry at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii and psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, are trying to change.

The new programs, he says, teach soldiers to deal with stress, ask for help and notice any changes in their peers' moods and behavior. "We're trying to educate them that it's not a sign of weakness," he says. "It's OK to feel stressed. You won't be considered a bad person or a bad soldier."

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Andrew looked up to his siblings, and like them, he intended to make good on their father's efforts to give his children a better life. Roy Velez, a police officer from a poor Lubbock family, worked multiple jobs to support them after his wife left. According to Monica Velez, Freddy and Andrew's sister, one day in the late '80s her mother dropped the kids off in a parking lot, called their father to come pick them up and then took off. Monica was 7, Freddy 5 and Andrew 3.

From that day on, Monica watched over her brothers while her father was at work. The family moved in with Roy's parents, who lived in a modest home surrounded by cotton fields. The Velez kids would spend hours outside, swimming in the irrigation ditches and fishing for worms, playing GI Joe and pretending to be Transformers. There was an old, burned-out car frame on the edge of the property, and the three of them liked to climb inside and pretend to drive away.

Monica was determined to make sure they all did well in school and had the chance to get out of town after high school, so she helped the boys with their homework and attended their football and basketball games.

At the end of middle school, she and Andrew raised money to send Freddy—who was known as the sweet boy with the wide grin, unlike Andrew and Monica, who were fiery and mercurial—to the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, a well-known Latino leadership conference. The siblings fashioned a portfolio with Freddy's photograph and a summary of his plans, which included medical school, and carried it around the neighborhood knocking on doors. Monica made some phone calls too, and one resulted in a local businessman sponsoring Freddy's trip.

After she graduated from high school and started to take college classes, Monica helped Freddy with applications and essays for scholarships. "He was always concerned about stressing my father out with money," she says. He planned to take a year off, work for an ambulance company and go to college.

Then one Friday night, they were at Monica's apartment when Freddy made an announcement. He had enlisted in the Army and would leave after graduation.

"I threw a really big tantrum," Monica says. "It was too far away for me to take care of him." But Freddy said it would be OK. This was how he would take care of their family.

The summer of 2000, Freddy called his sister from basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He'd decided to join the infantry, he said. What is it? Monica asked. "It means I'll get to blow stuff up," he told her. "Shoot a .50 cal."

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