Fort Bragg Soldier’s Story Shows Why Preventing Military Suicides is a ‘Frustrating Challenge’
by Greg Barnes
Fayetteville Observer, July 9, 2012
At 3:37 a.m. on May 19, Fort Bragg Pvt. Eric Watson sent a text message to his mother:
“I love you mom. I just can’t take living anymore and I’m so sorry. I will always be with you.”
The message set off a flurry of texts between Watson and his mother, Angela Moore, who said she tried to keep her son on the phone until she could get someone to check on him.
Watson, who Moore said had tried to overdose on pills and alcohol, was found in time.
Watson’s story provides insight into how far the military has come in helping mentally ill soldiers, even as too many continue to slip through cracks in the system.
At the same time, the fact that Watson ended up in the Cumberland County Detention Center three days after his suicide attempt – where jailers weren’t even told to put him on suicide watch – raises questions about Fort Bragg’s handling of his problems.
Military suicides are soaring.
According to an Associated Press analysis, from the first of the year to June 3, suicides among active-duty U.S. military service members averaged nearly one per day. The 154 suicides represent the highest rate since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began a decade ago and an 18 percent increase from the same period a year earlier.
Researchers say the protracted wars, with long and multiple deployments, have put stress on the troops like never before. Studies show that at least one soldier in five comes home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many suffer from traumatic brain injuries and alcohol and drug abuse.
Suicide is a problem the military is confronting head on.
At a major three-day conference in June on addressing military suicides, Leon Panetta called them “perhaps the most frustrating challenge that I have come across since becoming secretary of defense last year. Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction.”
Another speaker at the conference – a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs – was Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health.
“The reality,” he said, “is suicide prevention is an extremely complex and difficult task.”
Petzel nonetheless believes that there should be a “zero tolerance” policy for suicides.
“We will do everything we can because we will not tolerate a single suicide among people we care for,” he said.
And the military and VA are doing more each year.
The military has introduced a national suicide hotline and myriad programs aimed at assisting soldiers in crisis and reducing the stigma attached to getting help.
Still, soldiers keep dying by their own hands.
A case could be made that Pvt. Watson should never have been in the military. When he was 16, his parents said, he got drunk at a party and harmed himself. The incident resulted in a stay at a mental health center.
But privacy laws keep the military from digging into past mental health issues, and Watson’s recruiter, Jeffrey Sessoms of Jacksonville, said Watson never mentioned his problems.
Watson is now 24. Angela Moore says deployment damaged her son. He got home in October after a year in Iraq, she said.
“He was really distant, and any little thing, he would just go off,” Moore said. “He didn’t want to tell me nothing they dealt with over there. We are super close, so I knew something was wrong. … It’s just like he snaps for no reason. He’ll scream, he’ll hit, punch walls. I’ve seen him hit his car before.”
She thinks her son’s commanders at Fort Bragg could have given him more help, more protection, when he returned from Iraq showing problems.
I hear my son cry out for help and all I hear about, from him, is how he is constantly being harassed — former Marine Corps Master Sgt. Demarco Moore and father of Pvt. Eric Watson
But Fort Bragg did try to help Watson, who is a member of the 18th Airborne’s Corps’ 8th Ordnance Company.
In February, Moore said, the post sent her son to a substance-abuse treatment clinic in Alabama.
After his release, she said, Watson returned to Fort Bragg and quickly found himself in more trouble. He threatened to desert and to kill himself, so he was sent in March to a mental health center in Winston-Salem, where he stayed for two weeks.
When he again returned to Fort Bragg, he was restricted to the post for 45 days and put back on work detail, Moore said.
“They just threw him back out there,” she said.
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