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HONORING HIS SON: Don Lipstein at his home with a memorial to Joshua.
Kenneth K. Lam/Genesis
HONORING HIS SON: Don Lipstein at his home with a memorial to Joshua.

Casualties of war

Military | Alarming suicide rates among combat veterans prompt action in the military and in ministries

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

He’s threatening to kill himself, and I don’t know what to do. …”

Don Lipstein heard those words from his daughter-in-law on the phone as he left work on March 15, 2011. They didn’t ring true.

Joshua, Lipstein’s son, was finishing his Navy career in Norfolk, Va. His wife lived in Texas where they planned soon to start a new life. Don Lipstein worked in Pennsylvania. Maybe his daughter-in-law wasn’t reading the situation right, Lipstein thought. He called his son.

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Joshua had endured hardships. After spending two tours in Iraq where his Navy Riverine Squadron patrolled rivers, Joshua planned on making the military his career. But the discovery of a brain tumor led to a 22-hour surgery and permanent hearing loss in his right ear. No longer medically cleared for regular missions, Joshua spent his shifts monitoring security cameras. An addiction to pain killers led to a stint in rehab where he met a heroin addict who soon got Joshua hooked. Then Joshua’s mother died of cancer. Still Lipstein had a hard time believing his son could be suicidal.

Those doubts vanished when he heard the pain in his son’s voice. Joshua was crying. Joshua never cried.

“Dad, I’m so sorry,” Joshua repeated over the phone. “I love you.”

“If we can get you off the drugs your life will look so much better,” Lipstein pleaded. He tried to think of ways he could keep his son on the line and call 911 at the same time.

“Do you have a gun with you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Can you do me a favor and take the bullets out?”

“I can’t do that, dad.”

Joshua did give his current location. Maybe that meant he wanted help, Lipstein hoped. Then his son’s voice grew strong. “Dad. I’ve got to go. I love you.” The line went dead.

Lipstein felt his heart rip out of his body. He called 911 and spoke to Joshua’s best friend, but help arrived too late. Joshua died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 23.

AFTER NEARLY 12 YEARS of sustained military conflict overseas, the American casualties of war extend to the home front. A record 349 active-duty soldiers killed themselves last year, exceeding the number of combat deaths for the year in Afghanistan. The problem extends beyond current troops: A veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, for a rate of 22 each day, according to a new study.

Soldiers return home still coping with old traumas only to face fresh anxieties as they leave the military and try to build new lives in a tough economy. The suicide numbers are rising despite the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration spending millions and introducing hundreds of suicide awareness programs. A culture that stigmatizes mental illness leads to many suffering in silence, not wanting to be seen as the weak link in their unit and fearful that counseling could stunt their careers. Yet the trauma of war is real.

Roadside bombs hit Marine Tom Bagosy’s convoy five times during a deployment to Iraq in late 2006. He manned a gun from his vehicle’s roof, his body exposed. He told his wife, Katie, how a sniper bullet once came so close he could feel it passing by his head. Katie worried, but at least he talked. The more grim Tom’s missions became, the more Katie heard from him.

At a military briefing for spouses, Katie spoke up, saying she already knew her husband would need help when he returned. Other wives looked at her like she was crazy. You don’t know that yet, they said. Give the guys down time when they return. Be patient.

Depending on the survey, anywhere from 2 to 14 percent of all troops develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The number of veterans receiving mental health treatments has risen from 927,052 in 2006 to 1.2 million in 2012. That figure will likely continue to rise: The full manifestations of untreated PTSD often peak about a decade after the inciting incident.

For Katie Bagosy, the man she married died in Iraq. The person who returned in his place was distant, irritable, and impatient. He drank, played video games, and awoke from nightmares not knowing where he was. “He wasn’t anybody I would have chosen to marry,” Katie said. “But I made my vow, and I kept hoping he would get better.”

A year after he returned, Tom turned to Katie and said, “I think I am going to be one of those people who will have PTSD for the rest of my life.” Still he wanted to join the Marines’ special operations forces. Medications and mental treatment would be barriers to getting a coveted invite to the Special Operations Command training. But in the summer of 2009, Bagosy shipped out to Afghanistan, a newly minted special forces Marine. This time he wouldn’t talk to his wife about his missions. She braced for what he would be like when he returned.

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