Tough old soldier battles new enemy: Suicide epidemic

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 31, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes keeps pictures of the dead in his pockets.

They're the faces of young soldiers whose eyes stare out resolutely from photocopied pages worn and creased by the ritual of unfolding them, smoothing them flat and refolding them.

They're the faces of men who, haunted by problems at home or memories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the dead children, the fallen comrades and the lingering smell of burnt flesh — pressed guns to their heads and pulled the triggers or tied ropes with military precision and hanged themselves.

The pictures remind Rhodes of how close he came to joining them and how, sometimes when the sadness presses in dark and suffocating, he still mentally pens suicide notes.

"How many times have I written that letter in my head?" he said. "I still think about suicide, but when I start thinking about it I have to think, 'What's the impact on everyone I care about?' "

It's been roughly five years since Rhodes came home from his third tour in Iraq, and despite a highly-decorated 29-year career in the Army, a new book, more than a hundred speaking engagements and praise from the likes of Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, for his efforts in suicide prevention, Rhodes still wrestles with his own demons. When he speaks to crowds and gently holds up the photos of fellow servicemen who've committed suicide, it's as if he's holding up a mirror.

"It's not about me," he tells soldiers. "Every one of us can tell our own story. Start telling it. Change the culture of silence."

Rhodes is among a small cadre of senior non-commissioned officers and officers who're opening up about their journeys back from the brink of suicide — efforts that top military commanders applaud as they battle a suicide epidemic. The open support from the military's uppermost ranks for openly discussing a topic long considered taboo is a revolution triggered largely by both greater awareness and pressure to curb record-high suicide rates.

This month, the Defense Department reported that there were 160 reported active-duty Army suicides in 2009, up from 140 in 2008. Of these, 114 have been confirmed, while the cause of death in the remaining 46 remains to be determined. The increase in military suicides includes men between the ages of 18-30, mid-career officers and, increasingly, women.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military leaders have said the increase is likely related to repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the stigma long associated with seeking treatment for mental health problems. Many soldiers are embarrassed to seek help and worried that doing so will hamper their prospects for advancement.

In response, the Pentagon has poured millions of dollars into new suicide prevention programs and thousands of hours on helping soldiers suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Through programs such as the Real Warriors Campaign, with its catchphrase of "Resilience. Recovery. Reintegration," the military encourages soldiers to help others by sharing their stories of sorrow.

Veterans such as Rhodes put a different face on grief.

"The one thing that I've found when talking to soldiers and leaders, a lot of the response has been, 'this is the first time we've had a senior leader who has dealt with this talk about it,'" Rhodes said. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much money we put into this system to change policies and whatever else. At the end of the day, it's leadership."

For Rhodes, 49, who grew up in Ringgold, Ga. and lives in the shadow of Fort Benning, near Columbus, Ga., where he once commanded troops, the Iraq war was a greedy ghost that stole him away for 30 months and gnawed at his marriage and his sanity.

He lost both during his third tour. Rhodes' sky cracked open in April 2005.

"The first hundred days, we didn't have a boy get a scratch. Then we lost two guys when their suits caught on fire. It started then. Then a couple days later we lost a few more."

Then the unit lost two captains — younger men with children and career aspirations.

"We arrived at the scene, and that was the first time I saw a human body in so many dismemberments. A young private walked over to me with a hand and said, 'What do I do with this?' I took his ring off and said, 'Put this over in that bag.' "

In all, he watched 37 soldiers die during his time in Iraq. Rhodes pushed on through heavy fighting, fatigue and a grief so deep that it threatened to swallow him whole.

Then one day, everything went dark.

"I woke up on the helicopter, and a young soldier put a card in my pocket and said, 'You've been serviced by Angel Flight.' "

Rhodes was flown to a military hospital in Baghdad and was diagnosed with PTSD. He made what he calls "a deal with the devil" and was offered an opportunity to slow down and receive counseling.

He was also prescribed medication for depression, which he rarely took. Soon he started sleepwalking.

"I'd tie myself to my bunk at night. One time I was found on top of my bunk and was brought back down."

Back home, his wife, Carol, found that she could relax only after 10 at night, figuring that the Army would never bring her news of her husband's death any later than that. His son, Sam, dropped out of college and joined the Army in the hopes of fighting alongside his father in Iraq.

That November, Rhodes was sent to Fort Benning to help lead a brigade. By day, he was a stalwart commander, barking out orders and in full control. At night he'd go back to his now empty apartment — he and Carol had divorced — drink and think about whether in death he might find some sort of respite from the nightmares and the overwhelming guilt he felt because he'd survived and others hadn't.

"I went to a friend's house, a retired veteran, I got a gun from him with bullets, and the next day I was trying to figure out when and where to do it."

Col. Charles Durr, the brigade commander, sensed that Rhodes was having problems and pulled him aside.

"He spent the day with me, and he recognized I was having issues; he didn't know I was considering suicide," Rhodes said. "It was just a very positive day. He told me I was doing a good job. When somebody says something positive to you and reinforces you're doing good things, it makes it seem better."

Slowly, painfully, Rhodes found his way back.

He met Cathy, a friendly Army IT specialist who made him feel new. They married in a small, spur-of-the-moment ceremony in Fort Benning's chapel, then dashed off for a whirlwind honeymoon in Las Vegas.

It was willfully impulsive, and it was the closest thing to normal he'd felt in a long time.

He also rediscovered a love of horses and found catharsis in stoking their smooth coats and silently unburdening all his troubles on his quiet, gentle companions.

Rhodes also came to realize that his father, William Rhodes, a highly decorated World War II veteran who'd saved the life of future Georgia governor Marvin Griffin in combat, also suffered from PTSD and drank to deal with his demons.

Fearing a generational curse, Rhodes told his son, who's currently serving in Iraq, about his own and his grandfather's problems, and he prays that the military's changing attitude about mental health might help spare Sam his father's and grandfather's fate.

He decided that he might be able to help others, too. So one day, following a presentation on suicide prevention in the Army, Rhodes went up to the facilitator and said, "I think I can help."

He has. Rhodes receives hundreds of e-mails every week from soldiers who pour out their hearts with secrets they don't feel they can tell their spouses or their commanding officers. He encourages them to get help, and every once in a while they do.

"The other week, we were at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, and we were walking into the building, an old theater, this E-7 (Sergeant 1st Class) was sitting there with his sunglasses. (Rhodes) said hi to him 'cause the guy looked disturbed," Cathy Rhodes said. "People came up after the presentation. This one soldier came up to him and had taken off his sunglasses, and he said, 'Sergeant Major, I want to thank you.' That really touched my heart."

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