Who's Left Behind When a Soldier Commits Suicide?

Becca Morrison's husband came home from Iraq and killed himself. She's "still here, and still fighting."

Anna's fears — that Ian would get in trouble for attempting suicide — weren't unfounded. For young soldiers still working their way up the chain of command, admitting a mental health problem isn't seen as a wise career move.

In 2010, a former Marine named Lazzaric Caldwell was given six months in the brig, dishonorably discharged and court-martialed after he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists while on a base in Okinawa. Although his conviction — for bringing "discredit on the armed forces" — was overturned, it was still an undeniable message to many active-duty service members and veterans.

"I didn't want him to get in trouble if it wasn't true," Anna says. "I thought maybe he accidentally did something and he'd get in trouble if the Army thought he'd tried to. I didn't believe that he killed himself."

Anna, who also grew up in a military family, says there's also a stigma in the ranks for military members who admit to having mental health issues. "It's pride," she explains, "and a fear of your peers picking at you. In the Army, the group of guys you're close to are like your brothers. There's a fear you'll get picked on."

Becca's parents arrived soon after the Toqueros did. Everyone quickly went into crisis mode, closing ranks around Becca. She kept flashing back to the scene in their bedroom. The next morning one of her professors from her grad school psychology program came over. She did a type of rapid-eye movement therapy called EMDR, which is believed to help calm PTSD symptoms.

"All Rebecca could see was the blood all the time," Pam says. "It was a vision that kept coming. She'd shudder and shake. You could see it."

The first few weeks after Ian's death were a strange, horrible, heavily medicated fog, punctuated by emergency counseling sessions and people trying to get Becca to eat and sleep. "There were about two weeks where a whole bunch of people were surrounding me and I was just in limbo," Becca says. She started taking Ambien regularly. "My friend said when it kicked in, I'd start talking about suicide." When it wore off, she never talked about harming herself. After a few weeks, she stopped taking medication.

"I don't think it was planned," she says of Ian's death. "I think it was Ambien and PTSD and no sleep." Despite his anxieties, she says, "He was normal and wonderful till the day he died."

It also didn't fit her husband's character, she says. "Ian could not handle watching me cry. He couldn't handle it when I was upset. He would do anything." A couple weeks before, they'd had a minor argument. She started to cry and he came over, picked her up, and asked, desperately, "How can I fix this?"

The night he died, Becca says, "I know he was out of his mind. He never would've wanted that. That I found him. The trauma and the pain that it caused me." She still declines to discuss the scene in her bedroom, saying only, "What I saw was traumatic. I've only discussed it with my therapist. There's no benefit in telling the gory details. It doesn't help me and it doesn't help anybody who hears it."

After her own experience with the drug, Becca believes the Ambien played a role in Ian's suicide. Ambien's package insert warns that in "primarily depressed patients," the drug can cause "worsening of depression, including suicidal thoughts and actions (including completed suicides)." In people exhibiting symptoms of depression, the FDA recommends the drug be administered "with caution." Although there are no longitudinal studies yet on the links between Ambien use and suicide, a 2012 Scripps Health study found a five-fold increase in the risk of early deaths among heavy users of sleep aids, including Ambien. People who took 18 sleeping pills or fewer per year were still at risk, they said, about 3.5 times higher than the control group. (Sanofi, the company that makes Ambien, has called the drug "safe and effective.")

But Becca also blames the military. "He tried to get help six different times," she says. "He was a captain, a West Point graduate, an Apache pilot. Pilots never ask for help. Officers never ask for help, and he was. That should've been 5,000 red flags, and it wasn't. He'd never been sick before, never asked for time off."

For the first time, she sounds bitter. "He got really terrible treatment from the Army, and that's why he's not here. If anybody had given a damn about him, he'd be here. He left his wife and he had so much to live for. He was not the kind of guy that wanted to die."

When she finally looked at his phone, she saw this it was full of plans, including a scheduled trip to play golf with a friend, and an appointment the following week to get Invisalign braces.

"He got really sick and he just didn't have anyone to take care of him," she says. "He just felt like he wasn't going to get any help." (Officials at Fort Hood declined to comment.)

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bvckvs topcommenter

I couldn't understand what went wrong in his mind - until I read that he was a militant Christian.

It must be very hard to reconcile God's prohibition against killing, with the Evangelical passion for warfare.

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

War Criminals ... doing society a favor.


Well done.  Thanks for the fine story.

Kristin Haggard
Kristin Haggard

Rocky Top Therapy in Keller offers equine therapy through their Horses for Heroes program. Great program for DFW-area vets. Ask for Brooke.

Danni McCarthy
Danni McCarthy

That is so horrible and I haven't even read it yet!

Anna Merlan
Anna Merlan

Thank you guys so much for reading. Becca also wanted me to mention that TAPS operates a national helpline for suicide survivors in crisis: 800-959-TAPS. She says, " If you are in crisis please call. Get help. Reach out. You are important."

Genevieve Kissinger
Genevieve Kissinger

I haven't read something that hit me like a ton of bricks like this in months..

Brian Whitson
Brian Whitson

damned shame. Too many are going this route. War is hell. Esp. a sham like Iraq. R.I.P.

Joshua Jennifer Faught
Joshua Jennifer Faught

This is why Pathways, www.createagreatlife.org , and "Soldiers Serve with Heart" have such an interest in helping those who return home to bring them ALL THE WAY HOME.

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

NVRS 5/5 well done, a sad story to read for sure.  And sad to hear this is your last story for the Observer.  Good luck you in your endeavors and let us know where you go.  We must never let the Vagina rating die.  I can only imagine what the new vagina writer for the observer will think the first time she sees that rating

mcdallas topcommenter

@bvckvs Wow, you are so militantly anti-Christian.  I assume that extends to all other religions.  But thanks for at least being sensitive about it.

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@bvckvs ... and that his soul in now burning in Hellfire for eternity for the heinousness war crimes he participated in.

... or for gross hypocrisy. 


@ScottsMerkin She'll have to decide, as I did, whether to be offended or amused. I'm glad I went with the second one.