Soldiers and suicide

Soldiers and suicide

Orrin Gorman McClellan grew up among the alder and cedar that
cover his family’s 11-acre homestead on Whidbey Island, Wa. He
relished painting, music and acting.
Orrin Gorman McClellan grew up among the alder and cedar that cover his family’s 11-acre homestead on Whidbey Island, Wa. He relished painting, music and acting.

McClellan seemed an unlikely Army recruit. But in the post-9/11 world, he responded to talk of honor, service and camaraderie. After graduating from high school, without informing his parents, McClellan signed up for three years of active duty.

He served in Afghanistan, where he lost friends to enemy bullets, picked up the body parts of blown-up soldiers and wrestled with the emotions unleashed by combat missions.

“Have you ever felt that each word you say brings you further away from explaining yourself,” he wrote in an April 30, 2005, poem in a computer journal. “Everything you create puts a sour taste in your mouth and every action you take burns you with shame.”

In the fall of 2006, McClellan left the Army and came back to his Western Washington island and a strong support network eager to help him rebuild his life. But family and friends were not enough to save him.

This year, on May 18, McClellan took his life with a handgun.

McClellan is among the war casualties that the Department of Veterans Affairs has just begun to track – young men and women who served in the post-9/11 military, and killed themselves after struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and other war wounds.

In 2007, the last year figures were available from the VA, the suicide rate for veterans ages 18 to 29 was 37.1 per 100,000. That’s more than 80 percent higher than the rate for the civilian population and the active-duty military.

“He never really came all the way home,” said his mother, Judith Gorman, a social worker skilled in counseling traumatized people. “If some good can come out of this, I would like communities to be able to recognize that we all have to be able to bear some of the burden. We can’t just expect veterans to heal …

“We have to listen to their stories. Deep listening.”

During nine years of war, suicide rates among active-duty soldiers, once far below the civilian population, have been on the rise. From January through June 10 of this year, 115 soldiers had taken their lives. The even higher rate of veterans taking their own lives after leaving the military also has raised major concerns.

More than 35,800 Washington state veterans have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan war era. If the national veteran suicide rates also are representative of the state level, then more than a dozen young Washington veterans kill themselves each year.

These veterans can turn to a network of hospitals, clinics and counseling centers that have benefited from increased federal funding. Washington state has developed a network of 37 counselors who offer free services to veterans, while King County voters approved a 2005 levy that expanded services to veterans.

These efforts have aided plenty of people. But the failures are wrenching.

In the summer of 2008, for example, two 25-year-old Iraq veterans in Washington state killed themselves: Timothy Juneman, who was attending school in Spokane, hung himself in his apartment. Tim Nelson, who was working at a Bellingham veterans center, shot himself at his home.

“As I’ve often asked, mostly of myself, but also of others from time to time, why do we know so much about suicides but so little about how to prevent them?” said Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general who now heads the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Orrin McClellan served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in a unit that called itself the Chosen Company, working in mountainous eastern Afghanistan. His photos and poems reflect the physical and emotional grind of serving in what was then a war largely forgotten back home.

But he took great pride in being a good soldier, and in the bonds forged with combat buddies.

His parents say McClellan was stung by the loss of an older soldier he particularly respected, and a young one he had befriended. He also had trouble reconciling the warrior creed of protecting the innocent and fighting a war rife with civilian casualties.

In July of 2005, near the end of his time in Afghanistan, McClellan wrote a bitter ode to military recruiters:

“take your pleasantries

your generalizations, good intentions,

sweet words, and half truths,

put them in a box.

drape a flag over it.

and bury it with the rest of the dead.”

When McClellan left Afghanistan to return to his post in Italy, he was already struggling with PTSD and other ailments, according to Gorman.

McClellan was sent to Germany for a tonsillectomy, and his mother, without checking with the Army, flew there to watchdog his care.

She believes her intervention helped save his life as she fought for additional treatment of post-surgical bleeding and other complications.

But McClellan was disciplined by a superior for his mother’s unauthorized appearance, according to Gorman. Later, he would tell his family that his morale hit rock bottom after he was punished by being forced to hold concrete blocks while treading water, a practice that he said felt like drowning.

“I will be forever angry at how they treated him,” Gorman said. “They made him sign something saying that he had no control of his mother and tried to cut off family ties.”

Back on Whidbey Island in the fall of 2006, McClellan moved into a small cottage on his family’s property. On this familiar terrain, he tried to heal.

He suffered from constant headaches and back pain. His hearing was damaged from mortar blasts. He feared sleep for the nightmares that left him screaming in the dark.

In his daytime hours, he appeared to lose track of time and place, packing his truck with gear as if he was about to head off on a combat mission, or constantly taking apart and cleaning the family hunting rifle.

His mother took a counseling job at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and helped her son navigate through the VA system. He eventually received a 100 percent disability rating due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

He cycled through therapy sessions, as well as inpatient treatment for alcohol abuse and PTSD. Just the commute from Whidbey Island to the Seattle VA hospital created stress. He would walk around the driveway again and again, trying to muster up the fortitude to get into the car.

In the summer of 2007, McClellan left Whidbey Island to get a fresh start at Montana State University in Bozeman. But he struggled with alcohol and drugs. By February 2008, McClellan was back home.

That summer, a police reprimand for kicking over a barricade at a Whidbey Island music festival turned into an ugly incident. McClellan repeatedly urged police to shoot him, and he was arrested after a struggle.

By the spring of this year, McClellan appeared to be starting to put his life together. He and his fiancee, childhood friend Michelle McGowan, had moved into their own cottage by a lake and McClellan quit drinking hard liquor.

He was also helping to promote the Whidbey Island Veterans Resource Center, which his parents had established in 2009 to offer referrals, networking and other assistance.

But one night, McClellan relapsed. He was anxious about yet another drive to the Seattle VA scheduled for the next morning. He was uneasy about what seemed like an invasion of privacy: a noisy construction crew working on the house next door had asked to use the electrical plugs in his cottage.

That night, in addition to his Ambien sleep medication, he drank Wild Turkey whiskey. A stranger, apparently a new neighbor seeking to introduce himself, approached the house with a barking dog.

McClellan appeared to launch into a flashback. He retrieved his semi-automatic from a lockbox. Then, he went outside and fired several warning shots into the ground.

McGowan looked at McClellan. He seemed startled by what he had just done. But she eventually was able to calm him down.

Somewhere outside, there was a bang, perhaps a firecracker lit by a neighbor.

McClellan was set off once again. He fired more shots, then walked into a bedroom and shot himself.

In the following weeks, the family thought of the suicide as a kind of accident – that McClellan, his mind fogged by alcohol and prescription drugs, had not realized what he was doing as he pulled the trigger.

More recently, his mother has come to believe McClellan sensed, in his final moments of life, that he had been out of control. That he had the potential to hurt innocent people. To keep that from happening, she thinks, he took his own life.

“Warriors are supposed to protect people, and that’s what he did.”

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