They were high school sweethearts from Sarasota, married at a young age and whisked into the tumultuous life of military service.
But when Richard Stumpf came back from the Gulf War in 1991, his wife noticed he wasn’t the same man. He was moody. Drank more. Distanced himself from family. A drill instructor, his performance with the Marines was slipping.
Three years later, at the age of 24, he took his own life and now, Carla Stumpf-Patton — who missed his funeral to give birth to their son — spends her days helping other military suicide survivors cope.
"He came back changed, and I was not prepared to deal with that," said Stumpf-Patton, director of suicide postvention programs for an organization called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. "We want people to know there is help, and that with that help, hope exists."
Starting Friday, TAPS is welcoming surviving parents, spouses, children, siblings and others grieving the death of a military loved one to its 10th annual TAPS National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp.
The event runs through Sunday at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor and nearly 1,000 adults and children, military mentors and professionals in the field of suicide are expected to attend.
TAPS provides compassionate care for the survivors of those who die serving in the military and has offered support to more than 80,000 family members and their caregivers since 1994, according to its website.
Stumpf-Patton, a psychologist, said efforts to address the risks of suicide have grown since her husband’s death. There is a greater awareness of the warning signs, more programs to help and less of a stigma for those who seek them out.
"I was young," she said. "I didn’t want to ruin his military career by speaking out and asking for help. Looking back, I wish I did. I’d rather he hate me and still be alive."
Suicide remains a scourge among service members and veterans.
Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs released its most recent suicide studies, which offer both hope and red flags.
The good news is that the number of veterans taking their own lives dropped nationwide from 6,281 in 2015 to 6,079 in 2016, the most recent year statistics were available. In Florida, that figure dropped slightly as well, from 557 in 2015 to 530 in 2016.
But the suicide rate for veterans 18 to 34 increased substantially, from 40.4 deaths per 100,000 population in 2015 to 45 deaths per 100,000 population in 2016. And overall, veterans were 1.5 times more likely to take their own lives than the population as a whole — 1.8 times among female veterans.
Stumpf-Patton, 49, knows well the struggle young troops and veterans face. She was 24 when her husband ended his life.
"In that age group, oftentimes we are lacking some of the life skills and maybe some of the wisdom we might have acquired along the way."
The seminar and camp will focus on providing support and resources to surviving families as they connect with fellow survivors and share their stories of loss. This year’s seminar will also feature a Saturday evening TED-style talk with Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt after jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
For children, the seminar will include a TAPS Good Grief Camp, where those grieving the death of a parent or sibling will learn coping strategies and meet others their age who have experienced a similar loss. During the camp, the children will be paired with mentors who are TAPS-trained military service members.
Stumpf-Patton’s son Asher Patton, born days after his father’s death, is now the same age as the father he never got to know. And like his mom, he is dedicated to helping others who have suffered loss.
"I was able to talk about this very openly in the family throughout his life," Stumpf-Patton said.
"He recently graduated from college and is working, but he has come back to TAPS as a legacy mentor to other grieving children."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman