Marine Col. Todd Hixon, Suicide, and its Impact on Families

Supporting Those Left Behind By Military Suicides

by Sarah Gonzalez
NPR, Oct 21, 2010

A spike in military suicides has led to a renewed focus on prevention efforts by the Defense Department. But the surviving family members often have an uneven network of support that allows some to work through their grief, while others are left feeling angry and confused.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — TAPS — is trying to fill the gaps by bringing together families from across the country to share their grief and learn.

Marine Col. Todd Hixon, took his life in 2009 after returning home from Iraq.

About 250 adults and children recently gathered at a hotel in Arlington, Va., to share their stories at the TAPS seminar for surviving family members of suicide by service members. Some traveled from as far as Alaska and Hawaii.

Adding Guilt To The Grief

For many, like Denise Coutlakis, the grief is still raw. Her husband, Col. Todd Hixson, committed suicide in October 2009. The 27-year Marine veteran of several wars had been home just three weeks from his only deployment to Iraq.

When Coutlakis got the phone call saying that her husband had committed suicide, she says she did not know what to do. “I didn’t know … how to get my husband’s body. I didn’t know what to do next, so I called the Marine Corps,” Coutlakis says.

She made the call on a Sunday, and Coutlakis says it took a while for anyone at the base to respond. “They showed up at some point and … started talking to you about, ‘This is what you need to do to move on. [Here] are the things you need to do. Here are the services,’ and it gives you a sense … [that] you have a list of things to do,” Coutlakis says.

But Coutlakis says the list did not help her heal, and the suicide only added guilt to her grief.

When a service member dies in combat or in an accident, Coutlakis says, “nobody looks at the family and says, ‘What was their responsibility in this? What did they not do?’ ”

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