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Some survivors are offered help, some deal alone with pain of military suicide

By Howard Altman
Relatives of Army Pfc. Matthew Forstrom console each other near his flag draped coffin as it arrives at Tampa International Airport on Dec. 5. An Army Honor Guard received Forstrom's body during a plane-side service. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Nearly 500 troops killed themselves last year and the numbers are on pace to far exceed that in 2017. Thousands of former service members, about 20 a day in 2014, also take their own lives.

Suicide has hit home this year for some two dozen military families across Tampa Bay, including those left behind by a soldier from Tampa and by a Marine veteran ó still carrying the scars of battle ó from Indian Rocks.

The two men had their service in common, but the military stepped in to help ease the grief for only one of the families, pushing the other to join a cause: that no survivors of a military suicide should walk alone.

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A Facebook post from Army Pfc. Matthew Forstrom left his parents horrified and helpless.

".?.?. this isnít anyoneís fault but my own," Forstrom wrote in a 341-word suicide note that appeared at 5:05 p.m. Dec. 4. "I only wish I had done it sooner."

The words set in motion ripples of action, from the 24-year-old soldierís base in Fort Bliss, Texas, to his home town of Tampa. The Army and local law enforcement launched a massive search effort. His mother, Pamela Andrews, who was alerted to the post by a relative, sent her son an urgent text message.

You better call me back right now.

He did, Andrews said, and the two spoke briefly.

"He just wanted to ask for my forgiveness. He was going to take one more thing from me."

For 12 agonizing hours, Andrews and Forstromís father, Ronald Forstrom, who was on a business trip to Indiana, waited for news.

But the Army and first responders couldnít find their son in time.

And so on a Friday night earlier this month, Forstromís relatives gathered in the cellphone lot at Tampa International Airport to wait for an escort onto the tarmac so they could watch a flag-drapped coffin come off American Airlines Flight 2623.

As they awaited the escort, Forstromís parents remembered their son as a funny, caring, sometimes willful young man who found a sense of purpose in uniform.

His older brother, Bradley, did a stint in the Air Force, but it was still a bit of a surprise when Matthew enlisted.

"He had, like a lot of teens do, issues with authority," Ronald Forstrom said. "He didnít like to be told what to do. He even made comments about not wanting to join the military."

But after dropping out of Chamberlain High School six weeks before graduation, Forstrom changed his mind.

"He wanted camaraderie and being part of a team and decided the Army was the best place to do it," his father said. "He thrived on it."

Forstrom worked on Apache helicopters and had recently returned from a tour of Germany.

From a distance, there were no signs of stress or depression, Ronald Forstrom said. But in his Facebook post, his son wrote about a life of self-loathing.

"I have hated myself since I was a child," the note read, "and I remember praying, if thatís what I can call it, to God or whoever, damning him for making me."

The parents spoke over the rumble of motorcycles from the volunteer Patriot Guard Riders. The group came to the Tampa airport to escort Forstromís body to the Garden of Memories funeral home, providing a public display of honor and respect for the soldier and his service.

While they talked, Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Harris tended to details as the casualty assistance officer the Army assigned to oversee the nightís dignified transfer ceremony. Itís part of the support the military lends families of troops who die in service, whether from combat, injury, illness or suicide.

Ronald Forstrom, alternating between appreciation and grief, said, "This is incredible."

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Carol Rasor-Cordero had a different experience when her son Joseph Ryan Rasor, 31, shot himself in Oregon on April 21.

A graduate of Indian Rocks Christian School, Rasor played on the baseball team there with Matt Sitton and Frankie Gross, two young men who would later join the Army and die in Afghanistan.

Rasor survived his six years with the Marine Corps, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not the transition back to civilian life. By the time he returned in 2010, he had witnessed too many horrors in combat, Rasor-Cordero said.

A retired deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriffís Office, she spent 15 years on the crisis negotiation team, talking people out of taking their own lives. But there was nothing she could do for her son.

Compounding the tragedy, she said, is that she was left to deal with it on her own. There was no help from the Marines. No casualty assistance officer. No honor guard. Nothing.

Rasor-Cordero says she and her husband were fortunate they had the means to get their sonís body to Florida, handle the legal issues surrounding his property, and even get his dog back, which cost hundreds of dollars.

But not everyone is in a position to do all that, she said. So she signed on with a Tampa non-profit called Veterans Counseling Veterans to help run the organizationís outreach efforts to families of veterans who take their own lives.

"I donít know how single moms or wives or husbands can deal with this," Rasor-Cordero said. "We want to provide a support system."

She would like to set up a system like one in Nebraska, where medical examiners and law enforcement notify the organization when a veteran or service member commits suicide so they can reach out immediately to families.

She said she first met Tony Williams, an Army combat veteran who founded the organization, when he showed up at her sonís funeral. Now Rasor-Cordero will help run the organizationís new program for veterans and families who lost a veteran to suicide, called Veterans and Families Outreach Support for Suicide Survivors.

The program will provide suicide prevention training as well as so-called postvention services ó seeking out survivors and helping them navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs, funeral homes and other services needed to deal with the loss of a loved one.

Williams also lobbies lawmakers to expand services available to families, including an email blast he sent when he learned about Matthew Forstromís death and return to Tampa.

"State and local governments have a responsibility," Williams said.

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Some help may be on the way, said state Sen. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican. Senate Bill 326, which Young sponsored, is wending its way through the Legislature and addresses some of the issues Williams raises.

She pointed to a pilot program offered through the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, where veterans can call 211 for services. Young and the billís House sponsor, Zephyrhills Republican Danny Burgess, say their proposals would expand the pilot program statewide.

In most cases, it still will be up to the survivors to seek out help on their own. Thatís why Williamsí group takes a proactive approach.

But the new efforts would build on existing services offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and through a national military-help organization known as TAPS ó Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, as well as through Hillsborough County.

"The entire community needs to come together," said Karen Collins, spokeswoman for the James A. Haley Veteransí Hospital in Tampa, "to help both survivors of suicide and to find and help veterans at risk for suicide. .?.?."

Nearly two-thirds of veterans who commit suicide donít get health care or services from the VA, Collins said, so survivors wouldnít necessarily know to turn to the agency for help.

The VA has bereavement coordinators available in groups or one-on-one and helps survivors with benefits and referrals to community resources. VA Vet Centers offer at least three visits to the survivors of veterans who commit suicide.

TAPS is expanding support for families of veterans who die by suicide, said Shauna Springer, the organizationís Red Team director. Every other year in Tampa, TAPS hosts its National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar, which brings together hundreds of people who lost loved ones to suicide ó including children who can take part in the eventís "Good Grief Camp."

Hillsborough County also is expanding support for family members by partnering with the Tampa Vet Center in the new Veteran Resource Center at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, 3602 U.S. 301, said County Commissioner Sandra Murman.

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As he awaited at the airport for the arrival of his sonís body, Ronald Forstrom said he hadnít taken advantage yet of all the assistance available to families. "We have had plenty of folks reach out," he said.

There may be some questions, though, that no one can help with.

"We are still searching for answers about why this even happened," Forstrom said. "It is difficult to explain fully."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.