Military families share suicides of soldiers who sought help

Army Capt. Ian Morrison returned from a deployment to Iraq in December happy, positive and with dreams of starting a family, according to his wife.

But in March, Rebecca Morrison discovered her husband, an Apache attack helicopter pilot and a 2007 graduate of West Point, was having trouble sleeping and was growing increasingly anxious.

He soon reported to the emergency clinic on his home post at Fort Hood, Tex., which sent him to see the flight surgeon, who was unsympathetic, said Rebecca Morrison, but prescribed sleep medication. A second flight surgeon prescribed an antidepressant.

On the evening of March 21, Ian Morrison called a Defense Department hotline but was placed on hold for more than an hour, his wife said. When she returned to their home in Copperas Cove, Tex., that evening, she found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 26. “He was one of the best and brightest that the Army had,” said Rebecca Morrison, 25. “He was the best I had. He tried six times to get help. He was failed, and now he’s dead.”

Morrison was on a panel of surviving family members who spoke Thursday afternoon at a military suicide prevention conference in Washington held by the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There were 154 suicides among active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year, according to a recent report from the Associated Press, a number that is 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan over that period and is the highest rate in 10 years of war.

A recurring theme from the family members who spoke was military services’ failure to provide appropriate and timely mental health care to service members who had sought help.

The stories run counter to the prevailing wisdom that the biggest hurdle in trying to prevent suicide in the military is the stigma associated with seeking help, noted Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a military family organization that put together the panel.

“We were hearing about folks who said, ‘I want to get help, I want to be better, I have a lot to live for,’ but were not getting that help,” Carroll said.

Benjamin Harris told the audience of hundreds of conference attendees — most from the VA and Defense — how his brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Harris, had symptoms of post-traumatic stress after returning from Afghanistan in August. When the Marine admitted during a visit to a clinic at Camp Lejuene, N.C., that he was drinking too much, a nurse told him that “we can no longer help you because you now qualify as having a substance abuse problem,” Benjamin Harris said.

“Admissions of substance abuse or alcohol use should not be held against our servicemembers,” Harris said. “It should be considered a symptom and treated as such.”

On Wednesday, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki spoke of the need to challenge assumptions about military suicides. “Are we asking the right questions about suicides?” he asked.

Shinseki noted that three years ago, “our experts on homeless veterans were sure mental illness was the leading cause of homelessness, and we have since learned that it is, more specifically, substance abuse. Are there equivalent assumptions regarding suicides?”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are scheduled to speak Friday, the final day of the conference in Washington.

 
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