Sunday, September 6, 2009

Suicides a growing problem for military

Marine Cpl. Kevin Rodrick was stationed in Iraq for about six months. His mother and girlfriend say he told them almost nothing about where he was or what he did. His reticence was at least in part to maintain operational security, but Rodrick also was reluctant to talk about himself. He committed suicide Aug. 15. The military is ramping up efforts to prevent suicides, which have been increasing for several years.

STEVEN VERBURG 608-252-6118 | Posted: Saturday, September 5, 2009 6:55 pm |

Iraq war veteran Kevin Rodrick of Racine took his own life Aug. 15, the day he was scheduled to meet with his Marine commanders and former comrades in Madison to discuss entering the reserves. A few days later, something arrived in the mail.

"On the day we buried Kevin, we got a postcard in the mail saying that he was due for a psych eval," said his mother, Kathy Rodrick.

Those who knew him say he was too independent and stubborn to accept counseling for personal problems, and that he would have given false answers on a psychological evaluation in order to fool the doctors. Regardless, Kathy Rodrick says the military must get smarter about helping troubled soldiers.

They're trying.

Stung by alarming increases in soldier suicides, the military has expanded testing and education around suicide, depression and related problems in recent years.

That drive will take on renewed urgency in Wisconsin early next year when about 3,300 Army National Guard men and women are scheduled to return from a yearlong deployment that includes about nine months in Iraq.

"We have so many deployed right now. The risk is probably going to rise two or three months to six months after they get back," said Bob Evans, the state guard director of psychological health. He commanded military mental health clinics during two tours of duty in wartime Baghdad.

The guard says three of their members have committed suicide in the last five years. They don't count suicides that occur after a guard member's duty contract expires. Similar numbers for other service branches aren't available.

The National Guard and other military services have long encouraged soldiers to recognize warning signs of depression or other possible precursors to suicide, and to seek counseling, spiritual guidance or medication, all of which are available at bases both overseas and in the U.S., as well as at Veterans Administration hospitals.

But many don't take advantage of the help, fearing that a medical problem will hurt their chances for advancement through the ranks or disqualify them from service. Many just don't want to show weakness in a culture that demands strength and toughness under high-stress conditions.

There is stigma about mental illness in all walks of life, but it can be greater in the military, said Evans.

"It's changing, but there is still a paradox," Evans said of resistance to treatment of psychological problems. "As a soldier I don't want to display my weaknesses. But if I don't display my weaknesses, I'm not going to be successful" as a soldier.

Nationally, experts agree that the stress and potential for depression has increased for soldiers. That's especially true for state guard members, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched past six years in length - longer than U.S. involvement in World War II.

After months of anticipating the homecoming, there is often a letdown. And soldiers who don't build social connections and support back home are more at risk of depression and suicidal thoughts, Evans said.

Kevin Rodrick wanted to join the Marines from the time he was in high school. A skin condition ruled him out and he spent years traveling and working maintenance jobs in schools.

Five years ago, he persuaded the Marines to agree that his skin was fine and he went to boot camp.

"They called him Colonel, because he was so much older than the others, and he could still outdo all the 18-year-olds. He enjoyed that," said his girlfriend, Chrisandra Linden. "He was in good shape. Not an ounce of fat on him."

Cpl. Rodrick was stationed in Quantico, Va., then deployed to Iraq for about six months last year. When he would talk to family back in Wisconsin, he wouldn't say much about what he did, except that he'd once fired a couple of warning shots and that he guarded prisoners.

He returned to Waterford just before Thanksgiving 2008. He became romantically involved with Linden and moved in with her and her 8-year-old daughter, Kyera, in Racine.

Rodrick was frustrated that he couldn't find work. Money wasn't a problem, but each morning he woke up and tried to make a plan for the day. And without work, that was sometimes difficult, Linden said.

Civilian life lacked the structure he enjoyed in the military, she said.

Rodrick made plans to attend UW-Milwaukee but had second thoughts because he didn't like large groups of people. He kept to himself.

About a month before he died, he told Linden he had thoughts about suicide.

"His thing was he didn't want to hurt anybody," she said. "He felt that just being around was hurting people."

He rejected Linden's suggestion he seek counseling or other support.

"He wouldn't have it," Linden said. "He didn't think it would help him. He was too damn stubborn."

She expressed concern he wasn't getting help, and he never again admitted to being troubled.

"He made sure I was fooled. Otherwise I wouldn't have let him out of the house," she said. "He was too smart for his own good."

On the morning of Aug. 15, Rodrick left the house. He told Linden he was going to Madison for a muster, a meeting with his Marine colleagues and commanders, and that he planned to sign up for the Marine Reserves at the meeting.

Instead, he drove to Waterford, parked near some railroad tracks behind a building not far from his parents' home. He ran hoses from his exhaust pipe into the car and asphyxiated himself.

Soldiers from Wisconsin like Rodrick have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since the first troops were dispatched soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the psychological impact of the combat has been well documented.

Lt. Col. Brad Anderson commands Wisconsin National Guard security units that patrol outside the security perimeter at Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq about 500 meters from the Kuwait border. Soldiers in large armored vehicles have been rocked twice by homemade bombs hidden in the road, with no serious injuries. But the anticipation of a possible attack wears on his units. Duty in Iraq is stressful even for those who are unlikely to encounter combat.

Many other Wisconsin guard members have more mundane duties guarding detainees. The boredom and the regular contact with detainees who are hostile makes their duty stressful, prompting the chaplain to spend much time counseling them, Anderson said.

Camp Bucca's deputy commander, Lt. Col. Leah Moore, said the added emphasis of the latest training is to encourage soldiers to look for signs of emotional trouble in their comrades.

"It's what to look for, what to say, don't be afraid to address this. It's not just how you feel, but how you can help your buddy out," said Moore, whose unit is based in Portage. "We're not just trying to sweep something under the rug, but to do something today because tomorrow may be too late."

At the VA hospital in Milwaukee, suicide prevention efforts have accelerated over the last two and a half years, said Michelle Cornette, a psychologist who serves as suicide prevention and depression treatment leader.

But it's not easy to know what will work.

Enlisting fellow soldiers and educating family members to spot potential suicides is a good idea but not a cure-all, she said.

"Some people are chronically suicidal," Cornette said. "It's very difficult to know at any point in time if they might attempt a lethal suicide act."

And it's difficult to know how often military service is a major factor leading to suicide. It's equally possible that a high proportion of people at risk for suicide tend to join the military, Cornette said.

Kathy Rodrick praised the Marine Corps for its concern and assistance after her son died Aug. 15. But she confronted a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration about doing more to prevent suicides.

"He said, 'I'm sorry ma'am to tell you this has been happening more and more often,'" she said.

" 'Well then let's fix it,' " she told him. " 'You can't help Kevin, but you can help someone else.' "

"These guys don't know how to ask for help," she said. "They've been trained not to ask for help. We need to change that."

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