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."

When Becca emerged some from her initial shock, she picked up the phone and called TAPS, whose number she'd been given a few days after the funeral. The first person she spoke to was Kim Ruocco, the nonprofit's director for Suicide Postvention and Survivor Support. As Becca poured out her story, Ruocco said, over and over, "Oh honey, I know."

Ruocco, too, is a suicide survivor. Her husband of 15 years was U.S. Marine Corps Major John Ruocco, a decorated Cobra helicopter pilot. He hanged himself in 2005, while awaiting redeployment to Iraq.

When Ruocco's husband died, she says, "I felt like my loss was different than anyone's." The first time she went to a TAPS event, before she joined the organization, a woman approached her. She was making a quilt of pictures of military personnel who'd been killed in action.

"How do I get my husband on there?" Kim asked her. The woman asked a couple questions about John's death. Then she looked Kim over and said, flatly, "This quilt is for heroes."

"I felt my heart breaking," Ruocco says.

She was eager to share her story with Becca, though, and to let her know that she'd made it through, and that she was, "OK, to a point," as she puts it. It's especially important to discuss that, she says, because the risk for someone who's just lost a loved one to suicide to harm themselves is very high.

"You can survive this," Ruocco told Becca, in those early days. "Other people out there will help you do it."

Becca's been sitting on her couch for a long time, talking and remembering, and she's starting to look exhausted, leaning deeper into the couch. Soon she'll drive to her mom's house, to eat dinner and recharge. Her therapist compares each day's emotional challenges to a pie. "You can only have one pie a day," Becca says. "If it all gets depleted, you're wasted. You have to do things to put the pie back." Doing interviews about Ian takes a lot of pie out of her.

Three months to the day after Ian's death — just weeks after earning her master's degree on time — Becca started telling his story publicly. The first time was onstage at the Defense Centers of Excellence's annual suicide-prevention conference. The DCOE is a government organization that provides psychological help to service members. Becca got onstage in front of an audience of thousands of military medical professionals and told them, as calmly as she could and in great detail, how their system had failed Ian.

"She really wanted the military to understand what they had lost by not helping him," says Kristen Keller, one of Becca's closest friends. "They'd invested a lot of time and money into training him, but they couldn't invest an hour into diagnosing or treating him properly?"

Becca says she tried to talk to Ian's flight surgeon but has never been allowed to. She doesn't even know his name.

"All I wanted to do was talk to him and no one would let me," she says. "I didn't want to kill him. I just wanted to talk to him about how important his job is. How many lives he has in his hands." She has been told by other soldiers on the base — but hasn't been able to confirm– that the flight surgeon now keeps a picture of Ian in his office.

Over the last couple of years, as the military has tried to step up its suicide prevention efforts, Ian and Becca's story was suddenly timely. Ian's photo was everywhere, handsome in a gray dress uniform with gold buttons, his wedding ring shining. Becca flew to New York to take part in an equine therapy program for soldiers there, where she spoke to a local paper about the healing power of horseback riding.

But the stories tend to stop where Ian died. Becca has found herself portrayed, over and over again, as a pretty young widow, sad in her big empty house, dispensed with in a sentence or two. "You aren't what has happened to you," she says. "It's not who you are. It shapes you a little bit. But I'm not suicide. I'm not widow personified. I just keep moving forward."

Some people couldn't understand why she kept talking so openly about her husband. A few months after the equine therapy story came out, a woman who worked for the program left a nasty comment on Becca's Facebook page.

"Let your husband be dead and buried," she wrote. "Stop digging him up for publicity."

"Nobody talks about it, especially like I've been talking about it," Becca says. "You just drop off the face of the earth after you lose someone. I'm still here, and still fighting. It's a battle every day." The main things that have helped her, she says, are TAPS and her suicide survivor support group.

"You feel like you're insane, you know?" she says, speaking slowly, trying to put it into words. "Like you're the only person in the world that this has ever happened to." TAPS especially, she says, "helped me to feel human again."

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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


@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.