Pentagon: Soldier Suicide Rates Up

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The Pentagon said suicides by U.S. soldiers rose sharply in January 2009. Last year, we talked to Chris Scheuerman's about the issue of soldiers taking their lives. Scheuerman's son, Private First Class Jason Scheuerman, committed suicide while serving in Iraq in 2005. In this archived interview, Scheuerman talks about his son's death. Psychiatrist Colonel Elspeth Ritchie discusses how the Army is helping soldiers cope with stress on the battlefield.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The suicide rate continues to increase among U.S. military personnel. In January alone, seven soldiers committed suicide; 17 others died of causes that haven't been determined, but could end up being suicides. The Army says at least 128 soldiers committed suicide last year; it's the highest rate on record. Back in January of last year, I spoke with Chris Scheuerman. He's a retired master sergeant. His son, Private First Class Jason Scheuerman, shot himself in Iraq three and a half years ago. Chris Scheuerman says the day he found out his son Jason died was the worst day of his life.

(Soundbite of NPR's Day to Day, January 8, 2008)

Mr. CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: I was coming home from dinner, and a minivan pulled up to the house. And from the minivan came an officer and a chaplain, and I knew right then why they were there. I knew that my son was dead. Eventually that evening, they told me they believed it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At that point, I asked them, how could that be?

BRAND: The Army was reluctant to tell him. So, Chris Scheuerman spent the better part of two years trying to find out how and why his son killed himself in Iraq. Mr. Scheuerman had to file numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. He appealed to his local member of Congress for help. He told me that every day when the mail came, he wasn't sure what documents he would find and what those documents would say.

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: They told us there was no suicide note, that they really did not know what happened. Many months later, I received one of my FOIA requests in the mail, and inside the report that I received was Jason's suicide note, which we were sure did not exist.

BRAND: When you read it, what did it say?

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: It broke my heart because it was obvious that my son was ill and that he needed help.

BRAND: Chris Scheuerman knew that his son was having troubles coping with combat. In March of 2005 while Jason was on leave, he told his father he was scared. Chris Scheuerman told him that was natural, and before leaving him at the airport for his return to Iraq, he reminded Jason to seek help if he was feeling depressed. A month later, after putting a rifle in his mouth, Jason visited an Army chaplain. A few weeks after that, Jason was evaluated by an Army psychologist.

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: He told me that the psychologist had given him a standardized test and talked to him for about 10 minutes. And after that evaluation, he sent a note back to the command stating that Jason was capable of feigning his illness in order to manipulate his command. That assessment brought much hardship down on my son, and this is after this unit had seen Jason with the muzzle of his weapon in his mouth and did nothing. This is a unit in which a chaplain writes he believed my son to be possessed by demons and obsessed with suicide, and did nothing. On the day that Jason took his life, he was given an Article 15, which in the military, is a non-judicial punishment. They gave him that for being out of uniform. During those proceedings, his first sergeant told him that if he was faking his illness, then he would go to jail and become someone's butt buddy, and Jason talks to that statement in his suicide note.

BRAND: What does he say?

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: Basically, paraphrasing it, he speaks that life is not worth living if all he has looked forward to is being in jail and being someone's butt buddy.

BRAND: The very day he received this reprimand was the day that he killed himself?

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: Yes, ma'am. So, on the day he killed himself, he was an absolute suicidal time bomb. What did they think was going to happen when they sent this soldier to his room by himself with his weapon?

BRAND: So, what do you want from the military now?

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: One thing I want from the military is for them to fix this problem, because the problem is that suicide with our soldiers has only gotten worse since 2005. There are things that we can do to help protect our soldiers. If a military psychologist sees one of our soldiers and thinks there is nothing wrong, we should have a system in place in which that soldier can request a second opinion from a nonpartisan civilian provider. Military psychologists work for the employer. Their career is inherent on the decisions they make to ensure that soldiers go back to the front. That is an inherent conflict of interest, and I believe that conflict of interest prevents the provider from being a true advocate to the patient, because I know that the psychologist that saw my son was not an advocate for his safety.

BRAND: I just wonder if we could close by you just telling me a few things about Jason, what you remember most fondly about him.

Mr. SCHEUERMAN: When I think about Jason, I think about his smile. He was a beautiful child. And the worst thing about this whole situation is I know in my heart he shouldn't be dead. It is horrible that we lose the soldiers that we have to; it's a tragedy when we lose a soldier that we shouldn't have, and Jason shouldn't be dead.

BRAND: Chris Scheuerman, talking about his son Jason, who committed suicide in Iraq in 2005. In the 13 months since we first talked, Chris has continued to advocate for suicide prevention in the military. He testified on Capitol Hill and recently spoke at a Department of Defense conference on suicide prevention. We asked the Army for a comment on Jason Scheuerman's case when we first aired this story, and this is the written statement they sent.

(Reading) The loss of any member of the Army family is a tragedy, and suicide prevention is a top priority for the U.S. Army. The 2005 death of Private First Class Jason Scheuerman was investigated thoroughly by his unit and by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. In fact, the Associated Press's story about his 2005 death is based on the Army's comprehensive investigations. We continue to work with and assist his family. We are continuously improving and adapting our training, intervention and support programs. The Army recognizes the importance of suicide prevention and is taking many steps to decrease those risks that may contribute to suicidal behavior. Our prevention efforts do help soldiers and their families deal with the wartime challenges they face every day.

That statement's from the U.S. Army on the death of Jason Scheuerman. Military officials say they're doing everything they can to address the problem. The Army and the National Institutive of Mental Health are starting a five-year study to try to identify factors that would lead to soldiers committing suicide.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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Father Blames Military for Son's Suicide

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Jason and Chris Scheuerman

Chris Scheuerman and his son, Jason. Courtesy Chris Scheuerman hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Chris Scheuerman

Jason Scheuerman's Suicide Note

This I leave as my last message to those who I leave behind. I know you think Im a coward for this but in the face of existing as I am now I have no other choice. As the 1st Sgt said all I have to look forward to is a butt-buddy in jail, not much of a future.

Click here to read the rest of the note.

Jason Scheuerman

Documents, obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, revealed a troubled soldier kept in Iraq despite repeated signs he was going to kill himself. Courtesy Chris Scheuerman hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Chris Scheuerman

When Chris Scheuerman found out his son had died in Iraq, he says, he knew something was amiss.

"I believe we found out on Aug. 1, which is the worst day of my life," he says. "I was coming home from dinner and a minivan pulled up to the house and from the minivan came an officer and a chaplain and I knew, right then, why they were there. I knew that my son was dead."

Scheuerman is no stranger to military operations. He's a retired master sergeant and trains soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

"Eventually, that evening, they said it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At that point I asked them, 'How could that be?'" Scheuerman says.

Because the Army was reluctant to provide details, it would take Scheuerman the good part of two years to answer that question. Only after filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and appealing to a local member of Congress for help, was he able to fit the puzzle pieces together, he says.

The resulting image would haunt him and leave him revving to change the military's mental health system.

Putting the Pieces Together

Scheuerman says he wondered, every day, what documents would arrive in the mailbox and what they would say about the days and hours leading up to his son's death.

His son, Pvt. 1st Class Jason Scheuerman, had deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division in January 2005. He died six months later.

The documents revealed a troubled soldier kept in Iraq despite repeated signs he was going to kill himself.

"They told us there was no suicide note and that they really didn't know what happened," Chris Scheuerman says slowly, his words threatening to give way to tears. "Months later I received one of my FOIA requests in the mail, and inside the report that I received was Jason's suicide note. It broke my heart because it was obvious that my son was ill and that he needed help."

Scheuerman knew that his son was having trouble coping with combat. In March 2005, while Jason, 19, was on leave, he told his father he was scared.

The elder Scheuerman told him this was natural, and before leaving him at the airport for his return to Iraq, he reminded his son to seek help if he was feeling depressed.

A month later — after putting a rifle in his mouth, but not pulling the trigger — Jason visited an Army chaplain. A few weeks after that, Jason was evaluated by an Army psychologist.

"He told me that the psychologist had given him a standardized test and talked to him for about 10 minutes — and after that evaluation he sent a note back to command stating that Jason was capable of feigning his illness in order to manipulate his command," he says.

He suspected that this assessment would bring hardship on his son, but just how much became clear only later, once he had read the documents about his son's death.

"This unit had seen Jason with a muzzle of his weapon in his mouth and did nothing. This is a unit in which a chaplain writes he believes my son to be possessed by demons and obsessed with suicide and did nothing," he says.

The Day of the Suicide

On the day of Jason's death, he was issued an Article 15, a form of nonjudicial punishment.

"They gave him that for being out of uniform. During those proceedings, his first sergeant told him that if he was faking his illness he would go to jail and become someone's 'butt buddy,'" Scheuerman says.

Jason refers to this directly in his suicide note, writing (including misspellings):

"This I leave as my last message to those who I leave behind. I know you think Im a coward for this but in the face of existing as I am now I have no other choice. As the 1st Sgt said all I have to look forward to is a butt-buddy in jail, not much of a future."

Later that day, Jason took his life.

"The day he killed himself he was an absolute suicidal time bomb. What did they think was going to happen when they sent this soldier to his room by himself with his weapon?" Scheuerman says.

"The worst thing about this whole situation is that I know in my heart he shouldn't be dead. It's horrible that we lose the soldiers that we have to. It's a tragedy when we lose a soldier that we shouldn't have," he says.

Improving the System

Jason was one of 87 soldiers who committed suicide in 2005. Since then, the Army's suicide rate has increased each year. The military could decrease this number, Scheuerman says, by making changes to its mental health system.

"There are things we can do to protect our soldiers," he says. "If a military psychologist sees one of our soldiers there and thinks there is nothing wrong, we should have a system in place in which that soldier can request a second opinion from a nonpartisan civilian provider."

"Military psychologists work for the employer. Their career is inherent on the decisions they make to ensure that soldiers go back to the front. That is an inherent conflict of interest, and I believe that conflict of interest prevents the provider from being a true advocate for the patient because the psychologist who saw my son was not an advocate for his safety," Scheuerman says.

A Reaction from Within the System

"I cannot speak to this case, but what I can say is that we are committed to improving access to care, wherever we find deficits," says Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist with the Army Surgeon General's office. "Every year for the last five we have sent over a mental health advisory team. And each one has come back with recommendations on how to better improve care quality and access to care and to decrease suicide, and we've acted on those recommendations."

Responding to Scheuerman's suggestions, she says, "We are looking at how we can bring in civilian psychologists and psychiatrists over to theatre to help us with taking care of soldiers."

One of the biggest challenges, she says, is the fact that soldiers are surrounded by loaded weapons.

"Unfortunately, access to a loaded weapon is a high risk factor to completing a suicide, and another factor is distance away from home and time away from home and the effect that has on relationships," she says.

A principal part of the military's approach right now, she says, it to teach soldiers to look for warning signs.

"If your buddy gets a Dear John e-mail, if they get in trouble, watch out for him, her. Don't send them away alone. If you are concerned they are suicidal — escort them to help. Make sure they stay safe," she says.

The Official Response

The United States Army responded to a request for comment on Jason Scheuerman's case with the following statement:

"The loss of any member of the Army family is a tragedy and suicide prevention is a top priority for the U.S. Army. The 2005 death of Private First Class Jason Scheuerman was investigated thoroughly by his unit and the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. In fact, the Associated Press story about his 2005 death is based on the Army's comprehensive investigations. We continue to work with and assist his family. We are continuously improving and adapting our training, intervention and support programs. The Army recognizes the importance of suicide prevention and is taking many steps to decrease those risks that may contribute to suicidal behavior. Our prevention efforts do help soldiers and their families deal with the war-time challenges they face every day."

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