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When A Soldier Brings War Back Home

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When A Soldier Brings War Back Home

When A Soldier Brings War Back Home

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This Memorial Day we remember our fallen members of the military. Many have died in combat. But increasingly among off-duty members of the National Guard and Army Reserves, soldiers are dying by their own hands. Nationally, the number who committed suicide went from 80 in 2009 to 145 last year.

Today, Mara Zepeda brings us the story of Specialist Ivan Lopez - a father, a husband and a soldier who loved to run.

MARA ZEPEDA: On the track team of Philadelphia's Thomas Edison High School, Jadira Angulo was fast. But not as fast as her teammate Ivan Lopez.

Ms. JADIRA ANGULO: Always, I was always right behind him, never catch up. I don't know. One day I was weightlifting, and I just started looking at him and this attraction just came over me. Let me see if I have the first ticket for the movies.

ZEPEDA: Jadira flips through a scrapbook that records the couple's romance -prom, graduation, marriage and the birth of their first child, Maya.

In December 2007, Ivan deployed to Afghanistan. Sergeant Jose Matos says even there, his best friend kept running.

Sergeant JOSE MATOS: We're running on this asphalt, and it's probably like 102 or 103 degrees. So he would finish his run, come get the other soldiers and bring and bring them back in. He was like, come on, stay with me. You can do it. You could do it. That's the type of soldier he was.

ZEPEDA: After Ivan returned home in November, 2008 he found a job at Amtrak. He'd drink more and was quick to lose his temper.

Ms. LOPEZ: Well, we started arguing from the beginning. After New Years 2010, thats when it really went out of hand.

ZEPEDA: Sergeant Matos recalls a heart-to-heart he had with Ivan at annual training last summer.

Sgt. MATOS: We sat down and he asked me, do you think we're still the same? I told him we're different guys now.

ZEPEDA: Days after their conversation, Ivan was admitted to the hospital for a week. His wife says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was sent home with medication and an emergency hotline number.

MS. LOPEZ: He felt like really depressed and said his life wasnt worth anything. And he didn't follow up with therapy but they didn't follow up with me either.

ZEPEDA: Ivan also didnt regularly take his medication. He said it made him too sleepy to work his nightshift. Sergeant Matos says not long after the birth of couples second child, Ivan started missing monthly drills.

Sgt. MATOS: He thought that he didn't need help from nobody. He didn't want to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said, I dont want that. What the hell is that? I don't want that.

ZEPEDA: By winter, the couple separated. On January 27th, Ivan called his wife.

MS. LOPEZ: I remember the last thing he told me was, I love you and tell the kids I love them.

ZEPEDA: The next day, Jadira discovered her husband had hanged himself in their home. He was 23 years old.

(Soundbite of weeping)

MS. LOPEZ: My step-dad had got him down, tried to give him CPR to see if he would come back.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Because he lives I can face tomorrow...

ZEPEDA: This February, the pastor who married Jadira and Ivan also led his funeral service.

(Soundbite of a rifle salute and "Taps")

ZEPEDA: For Captain John Felts, Ivans unit commander, it was the first flag he presented.

Captain JOHN FELTS (Army National Guard): It was hard. I dont think anyone wants to ever lose a soldier. So I feel it was a combat death or a combat-related death. You know?

ZEPEDA: He says when a guardsman returns home, the warning signs are often missed.

Capt. FELTS: In active duty, people see this person every day and you can grab that soldier immediately and say: Get this help. Where in the Guard and Reserve, we only see the guys one weekend a month. We have to come up with better ways to create a support system for these guys.

ZEPEDA: Sergeant Matos, who also suffers from PTSD, says he will never forget his friend.

Sgt. MATOS: He will always be my hero. When Im at my lowest, I will think of him and that's what's going to dig me out of my situation.

ZEPEDA: Ivan Lopez was the 14th Pennsylvania Guardsman to have committed suicide since 2003.

For NPR news, Im Mara Zepeda.

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