PTSD Means Home Isn’t So Sweet

Post-war soldier suicides on the rise as the military struggles to reach out

WASHINGTON— In the three months after Marine Maj. John Ruocco returned from Iraq feeling numb and depressed, he couldn’t sleep. He had lost weight. He had nightmares. He was distracted and withdrawn from his two young sons.

One night, he promised his wife, Kim, that he would get help. The next morning, he was dead.
The 40-year-old Cobra helicopter pilot from Newbury, Mass., had hanged himself.

There are others. Army reservist Joshua Omvig. Army Capt. Michael Pelkey. Marines Jonathan Schulze and Jeffrey Lucey. Each came home from tours in Iraq and committed suicide.

Veterans’ groups and families who have lost loved ones say the number of troops struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues is on the increase and not enough help is being provided by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department.

For some, there are long waits for appointments at the VA or at military posts. For others, the stigma of a mental health disorder keeps them from seeking help.

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says that although suicides among troops returning from the war are a significant problem, the scope is unknown.

“The problem that we face right now is that there’s no method to track veterans coming home,” said Rieckhoff, who served in Iraq as a platoon leader in the first year of the war. “There’s no system. There’s no national registry.”

More than four years into the war, the government has little information on suicides among Iraq war veterans.

“We don’t keep that data,” said Karen Fedele, a VA spokeswoman in Washington. “I’m told that somebody here is going to do an analysis, but there just is nothing right now.”

The Defense Department does track suicides, but only among troops in combat operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan and in surrounding areas. Since the war started four years ago, 107 suicides during Iraq operations have been recorded by the Defense Manpower Data Center, which collects data for the Pentagon. That number, however, usually does not include troops who return home from the war zone and then take their lives.

For service members returning from combat, post-deployment health assessments include a questionnaire with queries about mental health. This year, the Pentagon expanded health monitoring for war veterans to include another screening three to six months after combat.

“We’re trying to reach out,” said Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, the Army’s acting surgeon general. “Will we get to everyone on time? No, I wish we could.”

Pollock said the Army is expanding a program started in January at Fort Bragg, N.C., which aims to lessen the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. It brings behavioral health staff directly into primary care clinics instead of making soldiers go to a separate mental health facility for help.

Earlier this month, a Pentagon task force warned that the military health care system is overburdened and not sufficient to meet the needs of troops suffering from PTSD and other psychological problems. The panel called for a fundamental shift in treatment to focus on screening and prevention instead of relying on troops to come forward on their own.

Shortcomings in mental health care were also identified in a recent report by the VA’s inspector general. It found that several of the agency’s hospitals and clinics lacked properly trained workers and had inadequate screening for mental health problems. It said this put Iraq veterans at increased risk of suicide.

Floyd G. “Shad” Meshad, president and founder of the California-based National Veterans Foundation, has no doubt that military suicides are a growing problem. He said he receives two to three calls each week from Iraq veterans contemplating suicide — or from their families.

A Vietnam veteran who has counseled other vets for more than 30 years, Meshad runs a toll-free support line based in Los Angeles. He was asked recently to help train counselors at the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, where a spike in calls from veterans has been reported.

One of the biggest challenges for troubled vets is the stigma of a mental health disorder, Meshad said. “It’s very, very hard for you to reach out and say ‘I’m hurting.’ It’s hard for men to do it, but particularly (for) a soldier who’s endured life and death situations.”

Kim Ruocco said her husband, John, was a role model for the young Marines he led in war. He worried about the ramifications of seeking help, personally and professionally.

“He felt like that was the end of everything for him,” Kim Ruocco recalls. “He felt like his Marines would, you know, be let down.”

Ruocco ended his life in February 2005, a few weeks before he was to redeploy to Iraq.

Joshua L. Omvig, 22, a member of the Army Reserve from Grundy Center, Iowa, also took his own life. In December 2005, after an 11-month tour in Iraq, he shot himself in front of his mother.

His parents, Ellen and Randall Omvig, say Joshua wouldn’t talk much about Iraq. They tried to get him help, but he worried that it would hurt his career if the Army found out, his father said.

Randy Omvig says the military and VA need to offer better readjustment counseling.

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is considering a bill named for Joshua Omvig. It directs the VA to develop a suicide prevention program for veterans suffering from PTSD and other depression problems. It unanimously passed the House in March.

Jonathan Schulze of New Prague, Minn., also tried to get help after he came home from Iraq. His parents say he asked to be admitted to a VA hospital but was turned away twice. The VA disputes that. The Marine hanged himself in January at the age of 25.

For Marine Jeffrey M. Lucey, the return home from Iraq was followed by months of emotional and mental torment, said his father, Kevin Lucey. The 23-year-old killed himself in June 2004 at his parents’ home in Belchertown, Mass. His father found him dead in the basement, hanging by a garden hose.

PTSD disability claims to the VA increased almost 80 percent over five years — from 120,265 in 1999 to 215,871 in 2004. Benefit payments jumped nearly 150 percent, from $1.72 billion to $4.28 billion in the same period.


  1. It is beyond me that the military will leave those who have volunteered their service to our country in such a manner. Talk about abandonment. This makes me so sick and angry I cannot even begin to put it into words. How dare they!

    Lord have mercy!

  2. As the president spends more money on his war, he keeps cutting the VA budget. We don’t care about them after we are done with them, that is the message they are getting.

  3. may be all things should not be left up to the goverment maybe we need to get involved. go to a va hospital and donate some time sitting and talking with these men or volunteer time at the va office and just be their to help.more gets done by people then by goverments and its what God calls us to do as christians.

  4. Anonymous, you make a good point. As a priest I called to volunteer my time and they said no thank you. If a priest is willing to donate his time, then they will not get funding for chaplains. It is a mess I agree, but there is little we can do save put pressure on the government.

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