LI sees suicides among military service members, vets
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Former Army Spc. Daniel Stea III, who returned from an Iraq combat tour in 2010, got a Texas gun permit while he was stationed at Fort Hood, purchased a .45 caliber pistol and brought it to Long Island when he moved into his father's Commack home.
On Oct. 1, Stea barricaded himself in his bedroom with a couch, held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. His father heard the report, forced the door open and found his son's body.
"I think Daniel wanted to stop the pain," Mary Stea said. "The losses he felt were overwhelming."
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One day earlier, Marine Lance Cpl. John Schaefer spent a night drinking with family and friends. Intoxicated, the Iraq War veteran began arguing with his fiancee after they returned to his Bayville home. She called the police when he began loading a gun he kept in the house. Schaefer shot himself to death as she let police in.
These suicides are among an estimated dozen self-destructive deaths — including shootings, hangings and drug overdoses — of Long Island military service members in the past 14 months, according to Newsday interviews. Several victims had sought treatment at the Northport VA Medical Center for post-traumatic stress disorder or addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The deaths among Long Island's veterans parallel the rise to record levels of suicides and other deaths among active-duty troops and veterans across the country. Experts have attributed them to several causes, including multiple deployments during the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 66,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan; about half are expected to leave by February 2014.
Nationwide, suicides among military personnel surged to 349 last year, according to Pentagon figures, up from 301 in 2011. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has increased its estimate of the rate of veteran suicides from 18 per day to 22 per day.
Accounts of the Long Island deaths were provided through extensive interviews with relatives of the men and their friends, including former soldiers who served in combat with them. Precise numbers for area suicides involving veterans are difficult to determine. Families are often reluctant to acknowledge suicides, police typically will not comment, and autopsy reports — which are public record in some parts of the country — are withheld from all but next of kin in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Concern on Long Island
The toll of Long Islanders who served their country only to return and take their lives has alarmed the Island's military community. Cynthia Ventura of Holtsville, president of Blue Star Mothers of Long Island, an organization representing parents of military personnel, said she has attended funerals for seven veteran suicides on Long Island since the summer.
"I've gone to more funerals for suicides than for KIAs [killed in action], too many," she said. "But it's really not talked about."
The number of area veterans asking for help from a suicide hotline operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown a steady increase, according to officials at the Northport facility. There were 33 in 2009, 51 in 2010, 116 in 2011 and 124 last year.
Dr. Charlene Thomesen, Northport's associate chief of staff for mental health, said she knew of seven suicides among the facility's recent patients during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2012. That compared with two in FY 2011 and three in FY 2010. There has been one suicide so far in FY 2013, the officials said. Those numbers do not count suicides among Long Islanders in the active-duty military or veterans who have not been recent patients at Northport.
Daniel Stea served in the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, during a 2009 combat tour in which he served as a Humvee turret gunner. Attached to an infantry company, Stea was frequently involved in nighttime house raids looking for insurgents. "With that job, we were in danger all the time," said platoon mate James Reid of Quincy, Ill.
Hampered by a service-related knee injury, Stea had been jobless since his 2011 discharge. He slipped in and out of depression, and spent a lot of time alone in his room, his parents said.
Mary Stea said that during a rare moment when he shared details of his combat experience, her son recalled responding to an attack at Abu Ghraib prison.
"He told me about men and women and children throwing bombs at the walls, and he was assigned to go and shoot them," she said. "I could see it physically upset him."
'Said he couldn't forgive himself'
A Marine who had been one of Schaefer's closest companions in the military said his friend's combat experiences had a deep impact on him.
"Some guys . . . they can pull the trigger then shake it off and move on," said John Fromille of Middleburg, Pa., who was a member of the same four-member fire team as Schaefer through two Iraq combat tours. "There were a couple of times when we sat down and drank a few beers, drank more than a few beers, and talked about Iraq. And there were times he said he couldn't forgive himself for what he did over there."
VA officials have said they are doing everything possible to make sure troops returning from combat who need psychological care get prompt attention.
During a visit to mark the opening of a VA facility in Bay Shore in November, Robert A. Petzel, Department of Veterans Affairs health undersecretary, told Newsday his department had increased hiring of mental health providers to meet a 40 percent nationwide increase in the number of veterans seeking psychological care since 2007.
"Overall we are able to meet the access needs," Petzel said. "Space and staff are not an issue."
At Northport, the size of the psychological care staff has increased by 47 percent since 2006, officials say. Northport's staff now includes about 175 psychiatrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners and other mental health workers. Long Island's 4,500 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans automatically qualify for at least five years of VA-provided medical and psychological care — or indefinitely if a veteran's condition was caused by his or her military service.
Parents: Not enough space
The parents of several soldiers who have died of suicide or drug overdoses said their sons had waited for treatment at Northport because of lack of space. The father of Michael Taylor, a Ronkonkoma Iraq veteran who died of a drug overdose last spring, said his son succumbed just 10 days shy of his scheduled admission to an inpatient program at Northport.
Veterans advocates point out that Northport can accept only eight individuals at a time in its acute inpatient PTSD program. They say veterans who check themselves in hoping to be placed in the inpatient program have sometimes been housed with psychotic patients instead, and have left rather than remain there.
"Northport has a good program, but it's inpatient and it takes a lot of time to get in," said Beth Delli-Pizzi, coordinator of a veterans advocacy group associated with the New York National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment, which has units based in Farmingdale. "So people who have urgent needs aren't getting assistance."
Northport's Thomesen said patients eligible for the inpatient PTSD program in rare instances have been housed briefly in one of two general psychiatric wards. She said patients needing emergency psychiatric care are never turned away.
Suicide prevention advocates say the military's culture of self-reliance and intolerance of complaining discourages overstressed soldiers from speaking up. Last May, Major Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the Army's 33,000-soldier 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss, Texas, characterized suicide as "an absolutely selfish act," after returning from a memorial service for a soldier who had killed himself in front of his 6-year-old twin daughters.
"I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess," Pittard wrote in his official blog. "Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us."
Nightmares about dead girl
Taylor's father showed Newsday a diary his son kept in which he wrote of having shot dead a young girl who was wearing a suicide vest. He recounted having nightmares of being covered in her blood.
"Just want a peaceful place to hide," he wrote in the diary not long before he died.
She said she had been driving fast to avoid being blown up by roadside bombs when a toddler similar in age to her own son stepped into her path. After returning to Long Island, she said she began abusing drugs, fell into homelessness, and fixated on thoughts of harming herself.
"I was on a suicide mission," said the former soldier, who said she sought psychological help at Northport but left the program because — with no car of her own — getting to Northport's campus proved to be too difficult.
Fromille produced photographs he took of mutilated war dead in Ramadi and Fallujah. One showed a 14-year-old boy Fromille said he killed after the boy threw a hand grenade as Fromille's truck passed the boy's house. The child lay dead on the threshold of his family residence.
Fromille said killing took a toll on Schaefer.
"Schaefer — I've seen him pull the trigger on numerous people, but he kept his humanity through all that and didn't become jaded or callous," Fromille said. But it just eventually got to him. He had one of the biggest hearts a person can have. I think that's why in the end he ended up doing what he did."