Memories of Iraq haunted soldier until suicide

April Somdahl holds a baby shoe and a portrait of her brother, Sgt. Brian Rand, who committed suicide after serving in Iraq.
April Somdahl holds a baby shoe and a portrait of her brother, Sgt. Brian Rand, who committed suicide after serving in Iraq. Randy Davey / MCT

WASHINGTON — Until the day he died, Sgt. Brian Rand believed he was being haunted by the ghost of the Iraqi man he killed.

The ghost choked Rand while he slept in his bunk, forcing him to wake up gasping for air and clawing at his throat.

He whispered that Rand was a vampire and looked on as the soldier stabbed another member of Fort Campbell's 96th Aviation Support Battalion in the neck with a fork in the mess hall.

Eventually, the ghost told Rand he needed to kill himself.

According to family members and police reports, on Feb. 20, 2007, just a few months after being discharged from his second tour of duty in Iraq, Rand smoked half of a cigarette as he wrote a suicide note, grabbed a gun and went to the Cumberland River Center Pavilion in Clarksville, Tenn. As the predawn dark pressed in, he breathed in the wintry air and stared out at the park where he and his wife, Dena, had married.

Then he placed the gun to his head and silenced his inner ghosts.

"My brother was afraid to ask for help," said April Somdahl. "And when he finally did ask for help the military let him down."

Since the start of the Iraq war, Fort Campbell, a sprawling installation on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, has seen a spike in the number of suicides and soldiers suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

In 2007, nine soldiers from Fort Campbell committed suicide — three during the first few weeks of October, according to a letter to base personnel by the 101st Airborne Division's commander, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser.

"As our soldiers fight terrorism, the sacrifices asked of them and their families have increased significantly," Schloesser said in the letter. "... Regrettably, under such circumstances, it is natural for our people to feel the stress of these demands and to be overwhelmed at times. Tragically, these pressures too often end in suicide."

Fort Campbell spokeswoman Cathy Gramling said post officials were unable to track the suicides referred to in the letter and declined to give additional suicide figures. The Pentagon said it does not track suicides by military installation.

Fort Campbell's suicide record tracks with a national upsurge — 99 active-duty troops committed suicide in 2006, the highest rate in nearly three decades, according to the Pentagon.

According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq.

A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.

Soldiers deployed from Fort Campbell have served up to 15-month stints and have fought in such heavy combat zones as Basra, Mosul and Al Anbar province. Some soldiers, like Brian Rand, have been deployed multiple times since the war began.

The Pentagon and the Department of Veteran Affairs have added mental health workers and staff to help families and troops cope with the effects of prolonged combat and to encourage deployed troops to support each other through a buddy system.

But sometimes soldiers fall through the cracks.

Rand's family says a culture that often attaches a stigma to troops who seek help and a stop-loss policy designed to keep soldiers on the battlefield ultimately led to his death.

"Truthfully I don't think Brian had a grip on why things were happening the way they were," said his mother, Janice Minnella.

For a while Sgt. Brian Rand enjoyed being assigned to Fort Campbell and working as a helicopter mechanic.

But that was before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the War on Terror.

Before Iraq.

As the war dragged on and Rand was sent first to Kuwait, then Iraq, he told family members that he felt torn about the things he saw.

Once while wounded soldiers were being evacuated by helicopter in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, Rand waved at a man he knew. The man turned and Brian saw that half of the man's face was ripped off.

Brian later told his sister he was shocked by how white the bones looked under the flesh.

Then one day, while standing guard near the Green Zone, Rand killed an Iraqi man.

"The spirit of the man that he killed didn't leave him, it kept harassing him," Somdahl said of her brother. "He said this guy is following me around in the mess hall, he's trying to kill me. I told him to leave me alone but he says he wants to take me with him.'"

To help ease his nightly terrors, April would log onto her computer and talk to her brother over the Internet until he fell asleep.

She ended every conversation the same way.

"Sleep well, baby boy. Tomorrow is a new day."

But when he returned from Iraq in 2005, Brian Rand was a different man.

His voice was distant. His jokes were morbid. He moved as if trapped in a nightmare.

At his family's behest, he finally sought counseling at a hospital near Fort Campbell. He later told his sister the waiting room was full of soldiers who went in for 10-minute visits with a psychiatrist and came out with prescriptions for pills.

The psychiatrist spent nearly two hours with him and wrote an evaluation that suggested he not return to battle, Somdahl said. But that paperwork never made it to his commanding officer. That Sunday, Rand was told his unit was deploying back to Iraq.

His widow, Dena, said the military told her it has no record of the psychiatrist's recommendation that he not redeploy to a combat zone or any record of requests during his first tour of duty for a mental evaluation.

Months after he returned to Iraq in November 2005, Rand picked up a fork, stabbed a fellow soldier in the neck in the mess hall, then crawled into the fetal position and sobbed. The soldiers in Rand's unit picked him up and carried him over to a phone, dialed his sister and placed the phone to his ear.

"I asked why did you do that?" Somdahl said. "He said I thought I was a vampire. I said, you're going to get a punishment, but maybe they'll let you come home."

They didn't, at least not right away.

When he did return in August 2006, he answered "yes" to questions on a post-deployment health assessment form that asked if he was having nightmares, mood swings and felt hopeless, according to his wife, who has copies of his medical paperwork.

But his demons followed him home.

"He wanted to hibernate with me, he started to be more clingy," Dena Rand said. "One day he got upset and he started punching himself and gave himself a black eye. He went to formation with that black eye."

Eventually Rand's thoughts turned to death.

"He had a rifle that his wife bought for him," his mother said. "He had been rehearsing (the suicide) by putting it to his mouth and threatening his wife that he would do it. I asked him if he was serious, he said no."

He also became increasingly violent toward his pregnant wife, and his stepdaughter once had to call the police.

"He was very remorseful about that," Dena Rand said.

Weeks later, his body was found steps from the place where he and his wife married.

Related stories from McClatchy DC