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Their battle within

Most military suicides involve those who haven't been in combat

June 16, 2013|Alan Zarembo
  • Megan Griffin holds her son Corey, 6, next to the gold star that she hangs in her window in honor of her husband, Michael Griffin, who committed suicide in 2009, eight months after enlisting in the Army.
Megan Griffin holds her son Corey, 6, next to the gold star that she hangs… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Nate Evans had three children depending on him and held down a good job running a hyperbaric chamber at a hospital.

But what he really wanted was to go to war.

In 2008, as the U.S. death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan approached 5,000, Evans became a medic in the Navy Reserve and was assigned to a Marine company.

"He wanted in the trenches," said Catherine Evans, his wife at the time. To her relief, he never deployed to either war.

But that did not save him. Evans, 28, committed suicide last November near his home outside Salt Lake City -- one of at least 524 U.S. service members who took their own lives in 2012.

His case was hardly unusual. The most recent Pentagon data show that a slight majority -- 52% -- of troops who have committed suicide while on active duty were never assigned to Afghanistan or Iraq.

The numbers, from the years 2008 to 2011, upend the popular belief that a large increase in suicides over the last decade stems from the psychological toll of combat and repeated deployments to war.

To researchers trying to unravel the causes of the rise, the statistics suggest that the mental health and life circumstances of new recruits are at least as important -- and possibly more so -- as the pressures of being in the military. It is clear that some enter with a predisposition to suicide and that stressors other than war are pushing them over the edge, experts said.

"A lot of the risk for suicide in the military is the stuff they bring with them," said Dr. Murray Stein, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego who is studying suicide in the Army.

Among the unanswered questions: Did the type of people volunteering for service change after 9/11, when going to war -- and dying -- went from being an abstract possibility to a significant risk? One theory is that more recruits have backgrounds and psychological histories that make them prone to suicide.

"Wartime is almost certainly going to be different than peacetime," said Ronald Kessler, a Harvard sociologist and suicide authority.

Relationship woes

The Times interviewed relatives and friends of five service members who committed suicide without having gone to Afghanistan or Iraq. All were men who married young. In four cases, their relationships were over or crumbling.

They struggled with the direction of their lives and joined the military in search of purpose or meaning, their relatives and friends said.

And they concealed their psychological problems. Four of the men longed to go to war, and the disappointment of not being sent only heightened a sense of desperation.

For Michael Griffin, enlisting in the Army at age 25 was a last-ditch effort to right his life. A former skinhead, he was struggling to find work, and he and his wife had separated.

"He thought the military would provide structure and allow him to support his son," said his mother, Cherei Griffin, who now lives in Utah.

He joined at a time when the military had temporarily relaxed its entry standards due to a shortage of volunteers -- a two-year period whose importance in the suicide rate remains a subject of debate.

On his application, Griffin was less than truthful. He denied having ever taken drugs. His widow, Megan Griffin, said he was a heavy drinker and had used methamphetamine around the end of high school.

He also failed to reveal that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which became known to the military only in the wake of his suicide in May 2009.

Griffin had been in the Army just eight months -- all of it spent in the U.S.-- before he went absent without leave and shot and killed himself in Westminster, not far from where he grew up.

"He was in a hole and couldn't get out," said his widow, who shares a house in Lakewood with their son and her parents.

Fewer than 20% of the suicide victims in 2011 had been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as depression, according to Pentagon data. Experts say that is certainly lower than the actual rate, suggesting that mental illness often goes undetected during recruitment and then remains hidden.

Though help is available, many service members still see psychological problems as a shameful obstacle to career advancement. A 2008 study showed that they were up to four times as likely to reveal emotional troubles when their responses were anonymous.

Robert Koyle was training to be an Air Force intelligence analyst when his wife discovered a six-page document called "The End." on his home computer.

It described his frustration with what he saw as a culture of bullying in the military, his difficult childhood in Lancaster, Calif., and how his marriage had saved him. His wife, Roni Koyle, said that she urged him to seek help but that he said there was nothing to fear. Besides, he told her, seeing a psychologist would prevent him from getting the security clearance he needed.

"He felt he was finally doing something with his life and didn't want to get kicked out," she said.

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