The loneliest battlefield

Editorial from The Oregonian, August 31, 2011

READ – Mike Francis’ terrific story on the life and death of Matt Brennan, TThe life and death of an Oregon Guardsman illustrates a national tragedy.

U.S. soldiers are fighting a stigma, struggling with trauma, and dying

Matthew Brennan

Matthew Brennan

Until last month, if a U.S. soldier killed himself in a combat zone, his family received his body and belongings, but not a letter of condolence from the president. In July, after what he called a “difficult and exhaustive review,” President Obama elected to change that callous and stigmatizing policy.

The president now sends letters to families of soldiers who commit suicide in war zones just as he writes to families of service members killed in action. It’s a powerful statement by the commander in chief that soldier suicide is not about weakness, but about soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines who battle bravely against mental illness.

With that step, Obama has joined the fight against the disturbing rise in soldier suicide tied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As The Oregonian’s Mike Francis described Sunday in the tragic story of Matt Brennan, the former Oregon Guardsman and Iraqi war veteran who killed himself in July, soldier suicide is deeply complex, difficult to address and demands a greater response than it’s getting.

The Oregon Guard counts 18 current and former soldier suicides just since 2007, and a 19th Oregon soldier, a member of the Army Reserves, also took his own life in 2009. Nationwide, the Army says 32 soldiers killed themselves in July, the highest monthly total since it started reporting suicide totals two years ago. But even that number understates the actual loss since it doesn’t count former soldiers such as Brennan, who left the Oregon Guard a month before he shot himself.

By any measure, Brennan belongs on that list of war-affected soldiers who took their own lives. He came home from almost a year in Iraq with the 41st Brigade of the Oregon Army National Guard “dark,” and “angry,” his parents told Francis. That wasn’t all. He also returned with a heroin habit and was, the Veterans Administration determined, 30 percent disabled from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Guard helped him get drug treatment. Doctors prescribed medication for his anxiety. But his life spiraled down — he began keeping a pistol nearby. Sheriff’s deputies once found him asleep in his car, with his gun on the seat. He was taken to jail, an emergency room, an inpatient drug-treatment facility. His marriage broke up. He left the Guard.

Written that way, it seems to so fast, bang, bang, bang. But as Francis tells it, Matt Brennan’s suicide is a story of events over two years, a long tale of war and violence, mental illness, drugs, multiple efforts to intervene, inadequate or ineffectual treatment, and finally, a single gunshot.

There was no one place or time to intervene, or one step, that clearly would have prevented Brennan’s suicide. And almost all of the scores of soldier suicides seem like that, a blur of events, symptoms and behaviors culminating in one final violent act.

The Army, and especially the Oregon Guard, have stepped up suicide prevention. They go beyond simply trying to arrange health care and drug treatment for troubled soldiers. The Oregon Military Department formed the nation’s first “reintegration team” to provide support for everything from job-seeking advice to suicide counseling.

That’s critical work. But many more people, from the president on down, must enlist in the fight to keep soldiers alive. It will take a powerful force to break through the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and leaves far too many of these troubled young soldiers to wage their last battles alone.