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Families Affected by Suicide Feel Sting on Memorial Day

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

Mary Clare Lindberg's son, Army Sgt. Benjamin Jon Miller, was home in Minnesota on leave from Iraq in June when he shot and killed himself.

In March, Lindberg made a pilgrimage to Fort Campbell, Ky., to visit the post where her son served with the 101st Airborne Division. While it was comforting to meet with the soldiers with whom her son had served, Lindberg was upset when she saw the unit memorial. The names of two soldiers from her son's brigade who were killed in combat were on the memorial, but Ben Miller's name was not.

"Because my son was a suicide home on leave, his name was not on the memorial wall at Fort Campbell, and that's just not right," said Lindberg, who said her son was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in Iraq.

Crying as she spoke Friday, Lindberg was comforted by several other women who had lost sons or husbands in the military to suicide.

"Our loved ones are casualties of the war, but they are not remembered," said Connie Scott, whose son, Pvt. 1st Class Brian M. Williams, also killed himself while home on leave from Iraq.

Lindberg and Scott are among 1,200 military family members who have gathered at National Harbor during the Memorial Day weekend for the National Military Survivor Seminar, sponsored by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. Attendees, including families of service members killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, in training accidents or in other service, are participating in a weekend of counseling, workshops and a "Good Grief Camp" for the children. The family members will be gathering at Arlington National Cemetery today for the observance of Memorial Day.

Mirroring a rise in suicides in the military, many of those participating in the 15th annual TAPS seminar are families of service members who took their own lives.

"A third of the calls we're getting now are from families with suicides," said Bonnie Carroll, executive director of TAPS.

Suicides in the Army, already at a record rate in 2008, surpassed the number of combat deaths for the month of January. As of the end of April, the Army had lost 64 active-duty soldiers to likely suicides.

"When we get to the point where more soldiers are dying by suicide than combat, there's something desperately wrong," Lindberg said.

At the TAPS conference, families of service members who had taken their lives said they are combating the stigma often associated with suicide.

"My son was a victim of the war. He was a casualty of Iraq just as much as any combat casualty," said Scott, whose son took his life by carbon monoxide poisoning the day before he was to return to Iraq.

Mary Gallagher's husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. James F. Gallagher, a 19-year veteran, returned in 2006 from a combat deployment to Iraq in which his unit lost a dozen members. Back at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Gallagher hanged himself in the garage of their home, where he was found by Mary and their daughter Erin, then 12.

Mary Gallagher, attending the seminar with her daughter, said the military does not mean to stigmatize suicide victims but is often unsure of how to treat family members left behind. "They're hurting as much as we are," she said. "They're really hurting, and they don't know how to face us. They feel the pain and the guilt. They feel like, 'We left them behind,' " she said.

Lt. Col. Rich McNorton, public affairs officer for the Army's Human Resources Command, said the Army does not handle families that have lost loved one to suicide any differently than those whose relatives have been killed in action. "We treat all families the same. It doesn't matter what the cause of death is," he said.

But he said commanders and soldiers in a unit often wonder what they might have done to prevent a suicide. "Fellow soldiers, the chain of command, often feel a sense of guilt," McNorton said.

In response to increasing numbers of soldiers taking their lives, the Army has launched a suicide-prevention campaign aimed at assisting soldiers dealing with the stress of repeated separations from families and deployments to combat zones. A plan published last month includes steps that commanders at every camp, post and station are to implement to reduce suicide risk.

Lindberg said her son was reluctant to seek counseling, fearing he would be letting down the soldiers in his unit. "He said, 'How can I expect my men to soldier on when I'm getting help?' " she said. "There's a stigma."

Ben Miller died in the service of his country, she said. "I don't think of it as suicide," she said. "It was a combat-related casualty."

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