Soldier Suicides

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

"There was just a lot of screaming and crying. I couldn't understand much of what he said," Monica recalls. Someone from Fort Irwin, where Andrew's unit was based, explained to her and her father that Andrew would escort his brother's body home to Lubbock and arrange the funeral. "I never understood what it was for Andrew to bring Freddy's body home. There was nothing I could say; I just let him scream." One thing she gathered in those conversations was his rage at the way the corpse was being handled, tossed around like a duffel bag in a plane full of dead bodies.

Once he returned to Lubbock and began organizing the funeral and practicing with the color guard, Andrew didn't talk much. If someone mentioned his brother's death, he'd change the subject. According to an account from his father in The Dallas Morning News (Roy Velez declined to comment for this story), Andrew would say, "Fred's OK, Dad. Be a man." The rare times he said more, he seemed to be convinced that if he had been there with Freddy that day in Shuhada, his brother would somehow have survived.

After the funeral, Monica noticed changes in her little brother. He was anxious and short-tempered, always in a hurry and on edge. Someone bumped him at a club one night, and he looked like he wanted to fight. Then he started laughing, as if to say, "'I could kill you in a split second, and it's not worth it.' He seemed aggressive and frustrated," Monica says. "If someone didn't answer him fast enough or do something fast enough, he'd get upset."

Carmen and Roy Velez show photos of the sons they lost to the War on Terror—one to the invasion of Fallujah and the other to suicide, which is on the rise in the Army.
Joe Don Buckner
Carmen and Roy Velez show photos of the sons they lost to the War on Terror—one to the invasion of Fallujah and the other to suicide, which is on the rise in the Army.
The body of Army Specialist Andrew Velez, 22, arrives at the Lubbock airport after his suicide in Afghanistan.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer
The body of Army Specialist Andrew Velez, 22, arrives at the Lubbock airport after his suicide in Afghanistan.

While at his father's house in Lubbock, and later at Fort Irwin, he often had trouble sleeping. It was too quiet, he'd tell his sister. He had nightmares. There was the one about unzipping his brother's body bag and another in which he would be at home with his wife and then walk out the front door and immediately be transported back to Iraq.

At one point in Lubbock over the holidays, he went sprinting around the house clutching an imaginary rifle, yelling for his family to take cover and shouting, "I don't wanna die! I don't wanna die!"

Back at Fort Irwin, he would call Monica, who studied psychology and worked as a counselor, to share that he and Veronica were having marital problems. They had three children now, Jasmine, Jordan and Jacob. Sometimes, Monica would answer the phone to hear Veronica's voice (Andrew's wife couldn't be reached for comment).

"She would call crying and say, 'Andrew's having a hard time,'" Monica says. "I told her to take a deep breath and asked where the kids were. I would hear him in the background, yelling and throwing things around." Andrew would just be sitting on the couch or eating dinner and suddenly find himself in a flashback. "I'd ask her what he was doing," Monica says, "And she'd say, 'He's on the ground yelling, 'Incoming!'"

Monica talked to her brother about post-traumatic stress disorder and suggested he see a chaplain or counselor. "He didn't want anyone to know," she says. "He worried he wouldn't get promoted or the guys would think he was crazy." She recommended finding a therapist off the base, but he refused. "There's nothing they can do," he would say.

In March 2006, Andrew deployed with his unit to Afghanistan. In his calls and e-mails home, he told of missions in the mountains and Taliban fighters. He also mentioned the nightmares, the one about his brother's body and a new one, in which Veronica and the kids died in a house fire. His marital problems had worsened. Monica was concerned that he wasn't sleeping enough. "He grew more distant in Afghanistan," she says. "I could tell he was fighting something that I couldn't really understand."

Then the calls stopped. One Saturday in July, Monica visited Veronica and the kids, and her sister-in-in-law announced that she wanted a divorce.

"I knew he'd take it hard," Monica says. "I wanted to call the Red Cross and have them put him on suicide watch, but I decided to wait. I thought he'd never talk to me again."

The following Tuesday her father called.

"Andrew's gone," he said.

Monica was silent, dumbstruck.

"Who did it?" she asked.

"Nobody did it. You remember the gun Freddy used to carry? Andrew put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger."

————

Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan—some 300,000 people—report symptoms of PTSD or major depression, yet only half of them have sought treatment, according to a RAND Corp. study released in April. Of the troops who did get help, only around 50 percent received what the researchers deemed "minimally adequate treatment."

Like Andrew, many soldiers resist seeking help because they are convinced they can take care of themselves and fear damaging their careers or looking weak. Chad Barrett, the Fort Carson soldier who overdosed in Mosul, wanted to continue his military career so badly that he fought to be deployed for the third time and won, The Denver Post reported, even after military doctors recommended he be discharged because of mental problems.

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