1. Military

Another suicide in a Marine unit battered by loss

Paul McShan, right, bows his head in prayer after the funeral for Tyler Schlagel, a veteran of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, in Longmont, Colo., on Dec. 17. Schlagel went camping and shot himself in the head, becoming the 14th member of his unit to commit suicide since a 2008 tour of duty in Afghanistan; McShan's son Richard was the first. [Todd Heisler | New York Times]
Paul McShan, right, bows his head in prayer after the funeral for Tyler Schlagel, a veteran of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, in Longmont, Colo., on Dec. 17. Schlagel went camping and shot himself in the head, becoming the 14th member of his unit to commit suicide since a 2008 tour of duty in Afghanistan; McShan's son Richard was the first. [Todd Heisler | New York Times]
Published Dec. 30, 2015

LONGMONT, Colo. — Tyler Schlagel slipped out of his parents' house while they were asleep three weeks ago and drove through the wintry darkness to his favorite fishing lake high in the Rockies.

Schlagel, a 29-year-old former Marine corporal who was stocking shelves at a sporting goods store, carried with him the eight journals he had filled during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also carried a .40-caliber pistol.

Under the bright mountain stars, he kindled a small campfire. When the flames grew high, he threw the journals into the fire, then shot himself in the head.

Schlagel's death Dec. 9 was the 14th suicide in his military unit — the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment — since the group returned from a bloody tour in Afghanistan in 2008. Many other members have attempted suicide, one just three days after Schlagel's death.

The suicide rate for the 1,200 Marines who deployed together — most now out of the military — is nearly four times as high as for young male veterans as a whole and 14 times as high as that for all Americans.

After a New York Times report in September about the suicides underscored shortcomings in the government's ability to monitor and treat mental health problems among veterans, members of Congress called for the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs to address the issue. But those efforts have remained halting and incomplete, critics say.

A big part of the problem is that the veterans of the unit, like hundreds of thousands of other young veterans, fall between the cracks of the two enormous institutions. The military's authority stops when troops leave active duty. The VA's starts only if veterans come in for benefits or medical care — and many do not seek that care.

There is also little formal tracking of suicides among veterans, so although members of other units say they have high suicide numbers like the 2/7, as the battalion is known among members, the extent of the problem remains unknown.

The Marine Corps formed a task force this fall in response to the battalion's plight, but it has largely focused on how to prevent suicides in future veterans. The VA said in a statement that it could not contact members of the battalion and other war-scarred units because some members may still be in the military and therefore outside the VA's authority.

"I don't understand — they should at least do something," Madelyn Gould, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who helped create national guidelines on responding to suicide clusters, said in an interview.

Clusters can form in tightknit groups, such as schools or military units, she said, where one death can spur others until suicide becomes what she called "a cultural norm." She said care providers could intervene to discuss the problem and teach effective ways to respond and cope. But that requires identifying those groups and reaching out to them.

Friends said Schlagel often dismissed suicides in the battalion — including the deaths of two friends — as cowardly acts. His stance made his death that much more perplexing to the others.

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"I didn't see it coming, not from him," a battalion member, James McKendree, posted to other members' Facebook pages the day after his death. "Why our battalion? I'm at a damn loss. The VA can't fix it. WE have to fix it. YOU have to fix it, and I'm talking to every 2/7 vet out there. You're not a VICTIM. Quit drinking / pill-popping yourself into oblivion. Pull yourself up by your damn bootstraps."

A few days later, the song of a solitary bugle playing taps floated through frigid morning air at a cemetery near the farm where Schlagel grew up.

As family and friends gathered in the shin-deep snow, they recalled him as a happy child who had raised prizewinning sheep and pigs when he was not hunting or fishing with his father, grandfather, cousins and brothers.

"He was loved and did what he loved," said his uncle, Terry Vanzant. "There was nothing in his background that would point to this."

But after serving in Afghanistan, Schlagel became withdrawn. He continued to hunt and fish with his family. But he also spent much of his time in his parents' basement and resisted family pleas to go to counseling.

When the bugle finished, two silver-haired men from the local American Legion post, wearing white gloves, presented a crisply folded flag to Schlagel's family, then saluted, standing silently as his mother wept.

"Tyler, he had his ups and downs," Jo Dee Schlagel, his mother, said later, clutching her arms tightly across her chest. "But after six years, we really thought he was going to be okay."

For the dozen Marines who came to pay their respects — roughly a quarter of the platoon — Schlagel was the last person to suspect was struggling. He had been a squad leader and the platoon's designated marksman who had taken the most dangerous spot at the front of patrols. He had seemed fearless, joyful, steady. His suicide made some question whether anyone was free of risk.

"He was always the one you wanted there, just a great Marine," David Gwinn, a Navy corpsman who was one of the squad's medics, said as he sat at a table in a dim reception hall of the local American Legion post after the funeral.

Schlagel's best friend was killed by a suicide bomber in a crowded market, Gwinn said — the body so charred and mixed with civilian body parts that the squad never found the man's wedding ring to send home.

"Schlagel was the only one who wasn't crying" when they returned to the base, Gwinn said while looking down at the table. "No tears. He was just able to deal with things. That is why we are so shocked about this."

When the battalion came home, Gwinn tried to kill himself twice by overdosing on pills, and he spent months in military hospitals.

Since then, he has grown a wild beard and long hair. He now has a job and family, and says that he is no longer suicidal, but that finding stability was hard.

"Other people didn't come home, and you did," he said. "But sometimes, you wish you didn't. They set up all these hotlines and things for guys to get help. But what do you do when most of the guys don't want help?"

Battalion members have built an emergency response network through Facebook to try to stop more suicides. Three days after Schlagel's death, it had its latest intervention.

A Marine veteran in Los Angeles texted his friend in Chicago, saying he had just taken a lethal dose of prescription pills and hoped to die. The friend alerted other veterans from the battalion, who frantically called the police and the man's phone.

David Cergol, a former medic, got through to the man and learned he was driving on a busy freeway, slurring his speech as the pills took effect.

Cergol talked him into pulling off the freeway, where he crashed on a side road and passed out, dropping the phone by his feet.

Two 15-year-old boys came upon the car and heard Cergol shouting from the dropped phone. He talked them through clearing the man's airway and pumping his chest.

Cergol has not spoken to the man he saved since that day. He was glad he could help, but more than anything, the procession of suicides leaves him angry.

"At the end of the day, I want to punch the guys that do this in the face," he said. "I get that people are hurting, but use your resources, guys. Reach out to your brothers. There is love there. It makes me mad they wouldn't do that."

Battalion members say connecting with other members is the necessary medicine. But many say it seldom happens.

At Schlagel's funeral, two Marines from the squad stood smoking outside a bar, talking about how good it was to reunite after several years.

When asked if anyone else in the squad had attempted suicide recently, one man said no.

The second said yes. He paused, then said, "Me ... a few months ago."

Without speaking, the two men fell into a deep hug.


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