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Honoring the service of soldiers who commit suicide

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A07

There was only the subtlest hint that this memorial service was different.

The Baker Company first sergeant called his men to attention in front of a ragged rock wall, built to shield troops from incoming mortar fire. A chaplain read an invocation, followed by a brief recitation of Staff Sgt. Thaddeus S. Montgomery Jr.'s biography. He had spent three years in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Humvee gunner, a sniper and infantry squad leader. He loved reggae music, camping and fishing and wore his hair in dreadlocks before enlisting.

"Monty was someone I could talk to when things got tough," said one of his men, according to a video of the ceremony, which was held early this year in eastern Afghanistan. "He brought laughter to the squad and a bright outlook on life."

He was a "fearless leader," his company commander said.

"I'll never know why Monty did what he did on the 20th of January," said his best friend in the platoon.

On that day Montgomery, 29, aimed his gun at himself and pulled the trigger, Army officials said.

The Pentagon doesn't tell units how to mourn soldiers who commit suicide in combat, but it makes distinctions between suicides and other war deaths. The families of those who die of combat wounds or in noncombat accidents receive condolence letters from the president. The families of suicide victims do not.

Some Army and Marine Corps brigades inscribe the names of suicide victims on unit war memorials. Many units choose not to include them.

It fell to Col. Randy George, who commands Montgomery's brigade, to decide how the soldier would be remembered. George weighed Montgomery's history with the Army and the unit. "This was his third deployment," the colonel said. "He was an incredible squad leader and soldier. He was well-liked." Montgomery's death was a combat fatality, he decided.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, recently told commanders to conduct the same memorial services for battlefield suicides as they would for other deaths. The order provoked controversy among some commanders, who argued that suicide was dishonorable, an aide to Chiarelli said.

In Kentucky, Debra Hays, Montgomery's mother, has spent the past six months trying to figure out what happened to her son.

He went straight from basic training in 2002 to South Korea and then to Iraq. The narrative from his 2005 Army Commendation Medal says that Montgomery fought through five complex enemy ambushes, three roadside bomb attacks, and a handful of sniper and mortar assaults. "He displayed great courage, honor and discipline in all of these engagements," according to the award. It is all she knows of his first combat deployment.

He returned to Iraq in 2007 and was promoted to staff sergeant in 2009, when he and his eight-man infantry squad were sent to Afghanistan. "He seemed like he grew up overnight," Hays said.

Since her son's death, Hays has reread his e-mails home from Afghanistan. They offer no hint of his suffering. She met with Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, Montgomery's battalion commander, following the unit's return to Fort Carson, Colo., last month.

On Jan. 16 Montgomery came back from a harrowing patrol in which his fighting position collapsed on him, Pearl told her. A few hours later his company suffered its first fatality when Spec. Robert Donevski was killed in an ambush.

After the patrol Montgomery withdrew from his friends and said he could no longer fight.

Because Montgomery insisted he was not suicidal, he wasn't immediately evacuated from the base. When his condition didn't improve, his company commander arranged for him to fly out on a Jan. 20 re-supply helicopter. Montgomery killed himself that morning.

Hays faults the Army for not doing more to educate officers about post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness. "I am trying not be angry," she said. "The Army didn't just fail Thad. It failed the soldiers who were there with him. They are dealing with Thad's death, too."

In Afghanistan, Montgomery's memorial service ended with the final roll.

"Sergeant Mendez," the Baker Company first sergeant called out.

"Here, First Sergeant," Mendez replied.

"Staff Sergeant Montgomery."

The soldiers of Baker Company stood somberly in formation, framed by the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains.

"Staff Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery," the first sergeant yelled, his voice louder and tinged with grief.

"Staff Sergeant Thaddeus Scott Montgomery."

A bugler played taps. The troops filed past Montgomery's rifle, dog tags, helmet and boots, each pausing briefly to mumble a prayer or say goodbye.

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