As a child, Matthew Michael Brennan wore Michael Jordan’s replica jersey everywhere he went. He played youth basketball and football, and later, on the offensive line at Tualatin High School. He was disconsolate when his beloved Miami Hurricanes lost the national championship football game. He tweeted about the Lakers.
But sitting with his mother, Maria, in a waiting room at the Portland VA Medical Center this summer, he deflected her small talk about athletes and ignored a copy of Sports Illustrated.“He had no more interest in sports,” she said.
It was one more personality change after he deployed to Iraq in 2009 with the 41st Special Troops Battalion of the 41st Brigade of the Oregon Army National Guard. He left as the strong-willed, passionate young man his family loved. He came back in February 2010 “dark,” “agitated” and “angry,” his parents say.
On July 16, a month after he was discharged by the Guard, the 22-year-old and a companion checked into a motel in Southeast Portland. Matt dumped the bullets from a loaded revolver on his bed. Then he replaced one, suddenly swung the gun to his neck and fired. The bullet severed critical arteries and passed through his spinal column. The medical examiner told his parents he died instantly.
A national tragedy
Matt Brennan’s decision to kill himself represents a tragic trend among Oregon’s military, which has one of the highest counts of suicide in the United States. Since 2007, when the Army began keeping rigorous statistics on suicides, the Oregon Guard counts 18 current and former soldier suicides. Another Guard soldier who died at age 41 remains under investigation. In addition, one Army Reserves soldier killed himself in 2009. Oregon’s 19 Reserve Component suicides over the last four years means it has one of the highest military suicide tolls in the country, close behind Texas, Minnesota and Ohio.
Also, the Army announced this month that 32 soldiers killed themselves in July, the most in any month since it started reporting monthly suicide totals two years ago. The Army doesn’t keep state-by-state totals of active-duty suicides; it sorts by their Army bases. Other military branches, too, are concerned about suicides.
Soldier’s suicide leaves his family heartbroken Soldier’s suicide leaves his family heartbroken On July 16, a month after he was discharged by the Oregon Army National Guard, 22-year-old Matt Brennan committed suicide. His parents, Maria and Michael Brennan, are trying to understand what caused him to get to that point, and how it might have been prevented.
Yet those numbers only hint at the full toll of suicide among veterans. Matt Brennan is not in the count because he left the Oregon Guard a month before his death, an Guard spokesman said. Nobody knows how many recent veterans like him have killed themselves, though a study disclosed last year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs showed the suicide rate among men aged 18-29 who left the military jumped 26 percent between 2005 and 2007.
To be sure, suicide is a problem that’s bigger than the military. Oregon’s suicide rate among the general population is higher than the national average, which has also been rising.
A study by Mental Health America ranked states by suicides and rates of evidence of depression for 2002-2006. Oregon’s rate — 15.46 suicides for every 100,000 residents — was then 11th highest. The national rate was 11.5 per 100,000. Suicide was far and away the leading cause of violent death in 2009, according to the Oregon Health Authority, which reported a rate of 16.8 per 100,000 people that year. Homicide was next with 2.6 per 100,000.
Nationally, about half of all suicides involve guns.A drug abuse spiral
Maria and Mike Brennan live in Happy Valley and say their son was a “strong-minded” person who finished his high school years at the Oregon Youth Challenge Program in Bend. It is a project of the Guard, a residential, alternative high school that requires cadets to be drug-free. The Brennans say Matt had lost interest in completing his senior year at Tualatin High School, so they offered him the choice of finishing in place or going to OYCP. He chose OYCP.
Soon after, he enlisted in the Oregon Air National Guard, then transferred to the Army National Guard about a year later.
The Brennans say Matt’s spiral began at Camp Victory in Iraq, where he acquired a heroin habit. His unit commander, Capt. Eric Martz, believes his substance abuse began earlier, but acknowledged nothing was detected in pre-deployment screening.
“Matthew Brennan was an outstanding soldier when he was not under the influence,” Martz wrote in an email.
While at Camp Victory near Baghdad, Brennan’s unit ran convoys and provided security. Two members, Taylor Marks of Monmouth and Earl Werner of Amboy, Wash., were killed when an explosive penetrated their armored vehicle. Many in the unit, including Brennan, were awarded Combat Infantry Badgesfor exposure to “danger-close” rockets and mortars, Martz said.
In February 2010, near the end of the 12-month rotation, the Army received complaints of widespread drug use, sexual activity and a poor command climate. Investigators ultimately cleared the unit’s leaders.
But Matt was one of the soldiers causing concern. Young and on his first deployment, he was torn by conflicting impulses. He asked to be baptized and a military chaplain performed the service. But he also signed an Article 15 order — a non-judicial punishment by a soldier’s commander — for abusing prescription drugs and being intoxicated on duty, Martz said.
The order dropped him to Private First Class rank and he shipped home a couple of months ahead of his brigade.
Back in Oregon, Matt’s problems continued. His parents say the VA classified him immediately as 30 percent disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Doctors prescribed medications for his anxiety and attention-deficit disorder, his mother said. He started treatment for drug addiction.
“He said, ‘I’m tired of people telling me I have a drug problem,'” Maria Brennan said. What he needed, she said, was treatment for the depression and anxiety that mark PTSD.
Matt often kept a pistol nearby after returning from Iraq, said his mother, who was surprised to see it in the open at the apartment he shared with his wife. Maria Brennan told Matt it was dangerous. He told her he felt vulnerable without it, that he needed it to protect himself and his family.
Capt. Martz said he worked with Matt and his counselor at the Portland VA in the Opiates Treatment Center. This spring, he had a run-in with Clackamas County sheriffs deputies who found him near Damascus, asleep in his car, with a pistol on the seat. They took him to jail, then to a Kaiser Permanente emergency room. He entered an inpatient drug-treatment center for 30 days. Martz said he talked with Matt’s wife about his care.
Around that time, though, the couple separated, and were headed for divorce after two years of marriage. For a while, Matt lived alone in the apartment they had shared. This May he moved back in with his parents, brother and four young sisters. (An older brother is a Navy corpsman preparing to study at Georgetown University.)
Matt went to his last drill weekend, required each month, in December 2010. Then, Martz said, he agreed to consider Matt present as long as he attended sessions at the VA.
But Matt stopped responding to his messages, Martz said. A Guard AWOL team looked for him, but wasn’t able to contact him. The National Guard began proceedings to discharge him. He was discharged — “kicked out,” his father said — on June 16.
His parents didn’t know about the discharge, nor about Matt’s attempt to kill himself in February 2010 by overdosing, until they looked through his military and medical records after he died.
“People say ‘Well, you have memories.’ That’s why it hurts so much,” Maria Brennan said, standing by Matt’s gravesite. “We can’t make any more memories.”
She stood in a new section of Willamette National Cemetery, where Matt’s grave awaited a headstone and a covering of sod, while workers drove backhoes and work trucks. Visiting Matt’s grave has been a daily ritual for the Brennan family.
“The nights seem the hardest,” said Mike Brennan, himself a former Marine who now serves in the Oregon Air National Guard.
The military effect
It’s not clear just how much more likely a person is to kill himself if he’s served in the military. But the rate of suicides in all branches of the service is as much as 3.2 times higher than the general population, according to independent studies and annual reports by each branch. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, declared last year that the military faces a suicide “crisis.” In the blunt phrasing of a 2010 Army report, “Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.”
It is clear the military’s orientation to violence, not to mention its training in firearms skills and its easy accessibility to weapons, brings a soldier closer to experiences with death.
People who serve in the military “feel very comfortable holding a gun,” said Mark Kaplan, a Portland State University professor of community health who has published several suicide studies, including one on male veterans.
At the same time, he said, broader factors can’t be dismissed in any study of military suicide. For example, many who join come from rural areas, where economic opportunities frequently are scarcer, and suicide rates tend to be higher. And for those who leave the service, the return home can be dispiriting.
When it comes to helping troops return to civilian life, “there is room for improvement,” Kaplan said.
Harder to assess is whether part-time service, as in the Guard or Army Reserves, contributes to the likelihood of suicide. As Oregon Guard officials have put it, how much difference does it make to a suicidal person if he wears a military uniform one weekend a month? Some of the Oregon Guard suicides never deployed at all.
The Army intensified suicide prevention in 2006, as it became clear the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking a heavy emotional toll. It produced reports, trained chaplains, appointed suicide prevention managers, conducted outreach programs, linked legal and medical databases, and sought to reverse the notion it’s unsoldierly to admit mental and emotional distress. The Guard replicated many of the initiatives.
Still, following the report of 32 Army suicides in July, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent a letter to the Pentagon, saying the military hasn’t moved quickly enough to adopt recommendations made last year by the commission that studied the suicide problem.
At the same time, a federal appeals court has declared the Department of Veterans Affairs frequently fails to detect and deter suicidal behavior among its clients — even though “among all veterans enrolled in the VA system, … 1,000 attempt suicide each month.” The agency is appealing the opinion.
Oregon was one of the first states to recognize problems facing its Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. In 2005, the Oregon Military Department formed the nation’s first “reintegration team” to provide support and resources from everything from employment to suicide counseling. It now has a small staff of soldiers who spread the word about resources for veterans and, in some cases, intervene directly when a veteran says he is considering taking his life.
Retired Oregon Guard Maj. Don Weber, who works for the reintegration team in the Portland area, said in the last six months he knows of five soldiers in Matthew Brennan’s unit who spoke of killing themselves. He met with two , and connected the others with counselors. None of the five has committed suicide.
Also, he said, when a member of the unit committed suicide a year ago, members of the reintegration team arranged for grief counselors, chaplains and consultants to attend several drill weekends.
Yet Matthew Brennan continued to spiral deeper into depression.Out of death, resolve
The Brennans still struggle to understand the sequence of events that led to Matt’s suicide. They say the Oregon Guard hasn’t communicated with them what happened to their son in Iraq, nor after he came home. They are bitter about what they see is a failure of military leadership and for “treating my son like a piece of junk,” Mike Brennan said.
After Matt married, then quickly deployed in 2009, he began to separate from his family, Mike Brennan said. Like most soldiers, Matt listed his wife as contact for military and medical issues, which means commanders and counselors talked to her about Matt’s treatment.
The Brennans say today they were too late to save Matt, but not too late to help other veterans suffering from PTSD and its manifestations, which include drug and alcohol use, bursts of temper and withdrawal from family and friends. They have channeled their grief to make a difference.
They established the Matthew M. Brennan Foundation (www.matthewmbrennan.org or www.savingamericasheroes.org) to raise awareness for resources to treat PTSD. Mike Brennan said the foundation will advocate for veterans by buying billboard space and connecting veterans to one another and to professionals.
None of this will fill the void in the Brennan family. But his parents are determined not to grieve in silence while other veterans are at risk.
Says Maria Brennan: “We don’t want any other family to go through what we did.”
Some resources for those in the military, veterans and the people who care about them:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Military Helpline operated by Oregon Partnership
The Returning Veterans Project
The Wounded Warrior Project’s Combat Stress Recovery Program
The Oregon National Guard Family Assistance Program
The Oregon National Guard’s Fort Oregon
The Veterans Administration’s hospitals and clinics in the Northwest
Disabled American Veterans
Veterans of Foreign Wars
The American Legion
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America