Marine's Family Decides To Talk Openly About His Suicide

Research shows suicide is high among military veterans. The Veterans Administration estimates 22 veterans kill themselves each day. Often military families choose to suffer these tragedies quietly. But one Marine widow in Connecticut is telling her husband's story.

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This is a stunning number: Every day in this country, an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives. Often, military families suffer these tragedies privately. But the recent death of a Connecticut veteran is very much out in the open.

Lucy Nalpathanchil, from member station WNPR, has the story.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL, BYLINE: There's a stigma that surrounds military suicides. When a loved one dies in this manner, grieving family and friends often don't talk about it openly. But Joanna Gallup Eldridge says their stories need to be heard. Two days before Halloween, her 31-year-old husband, Justin Eldridge, shot himself.

JOANN GALLUP ELDRIDGE: He just couldn't take the pain anymore. He just wanted to have peace. He didn't want to see it and feel it anymore.

NALPATHANCHIL: Eldridge was a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps assigned to a motor transport unit. He served eight months in Afghanistan. They met shortly after he came home, in 2005.

ELDRIDGE: He carried himself with pride. I found that extremely attractive. And his smile - his smile was the most wonderful part of him.

NALPATHANCHIL: He didn't talk about his deployment, telling her he'd take the awful things he remembered to the grave. But his silence came at a price. Eldridge was on edge, depressed and angry. He had insomnia and when he could sleep, nightmares plagued him.

ELDRIDGE: It was always unstable at home with his moods and behavior. And, you know, he struggled with alcohol abuse and drug abuse. And he went to rehab, he got the help he needed, and that was basically our life for a long time.

NALPATHANCHIL: Eldridge says her husband missed the military, and chose to re-enlist in the Marine Reserves in 2008. But he continued to struggle. He was admitted to a local hospital after his first suicide attempt, but it wasn't equipped to handle his PTSD. The VA told them he had to wait three weeks to get specialized treatment. So she called her congressman and Richard Blumenthal, then the state attorney general, to intervene. It took the VA just three days to admit him.

Blumenthal, who is now a U.S. senator, befriended the young Marine. Last week, he took what's normally a private tragedy to the floor of the Senate, and spoke about Eldridge's struggles even after getting treatment.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Perhaps not the result of the VA or its doctors, or its hospitals, because we are only beginning to learn how to confront post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury with the specialized diagnosis and care that these diseases demand.

KIM RUOCCO: The guys who have gotten treatment very often have waited 'til they're very sick.

NALPATHANCHIL: That's Kim Ruocco, who directs suicide prevention programs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors - or TAPS. Her husband, a Marine helicopter pilot, killed himself in 2005.

RUOCCO: A lot of their self-worth, a lot of their identity is tied around being a member of the military. So taking that issue - the illness, the injury - and then the fact that they have this culture that sees help-seeking as a weakness instead of something that's a strength, it's a dangerous combination.

NALPATHANCHIL: This week, the VA announced it's hired an additional 800 mental health workers. But Joanna Gallup Eldridge wants the military to do more to help veterans reintegrate so suicide isn't seen as their only option for relief.

ELDRIDGE: Part of me is angry with Justin. And as irrational as it may be, I'm angry that he left me and my children. I'm also happy that he's at peace, and he's not suffering.

NALPATHANCHIL: Her husband is buried nearby in a private cemetery so she and their four children can visit him as often as they wish, including this Veterans Day.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford.

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