Another Tragedy of War: Suicides at JBLM

John Bartley

As the Iraq War comes to an end, much is being written about the cost of our twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – including combat deaths and injuries, post-traumatic stress syndrome, rising of the national debt, loss of good will around the world, and death and disruption among Iraqis and Afghanis. Less reported are all too many suicides among soldiers.  Just last month in Lakewood, 32-year-old Trent Lloyd Thorpe, a soldier stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord, shot himself in the head.

Police responded to a call from a neighbor and found Thorpe wounded and lying in the street, but still trying to hold his semi-automatic pistol.  When the police ordered the soldier to drop his gun, he pointed it at them and four officers fired, hitting him nine times.  He died at the scene.  Thorpe had returned in May 2011 after an 11-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.  See the coverage of his story in the Tacoma News Tribune.

The police involvement made this a newsworthy story, but the multiple suicides that have occurred among JBLM war veterans are generally not reported in the media.  In the past year ten soldiers and veterans from JBLM have taken their own lives.  Two other deaths are still under investigation.

Many of these suicides follow unanswered calls for help.  Sgt. Derrick Kirkland, once a sunny personality with a natural sense of humor, returned from his first combat deployment with troubling obsessions. During his second tour in Iraq, he attempted suicide and was sent back to JBLM.  Diagnosed with PTSD and facing a third deployment, Kirkland asked for help at the base but did not receive it. In his last days, despite his two suicide attempts, he was officially declared a “low” suicide risk. Hours before his death, he was mocked as a “coward” by his superiors.

Others are dishonored even after dying.  Staff Sgt Jason Hagemann died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on June 28, 2011. Despite eight deployments, he has been denied a battalion military memorial service.  His widow, Ashley Joppa-Hagemann, is determined to reverse this decision. 

There are volunteer efforts around the country to help distressed veterans and raise awareness about their problems.  Locally, GIs can get counseling about their rights at Coffee Strong, a veteran-owned coffee shop steps away from the base. Coffee Strong has also launched a program called Operation Recovery, which promotes improved treatment of PTSD, as well as an end to the deployment of traumatized troops.

In August, Coffee Strong sponsored a panel on the problem of soldier suicide.  Panel members included Mary Corkhill, Sgt. Kirkland’s mother, Sgt. Hagemann’s widow Joppa-Hagemann, and several combat veterans who served with Sgt. Kirkland.

Soldiers on the panel spoke of dealing with haunting combat memories of their own, as well as the moral disillusionment of fighting a war based on false evidence.  Ms. Joppa-Hagemann and Ms. Corkhill gave heartbreaking accounts of their attempts to help their loved ones, and their frustration with the military’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for the mental health needs of soldiers returning from war. 

The discussion also called upon those present to remember that the suffering of war is not limited to the combatants. According to studies published in The Lancet and the British polling agency Opinion Research Business, over a million Iraqis have perished because of the American invasion.   Additionally, untold numbers of Iraqis suffer from PTSD.

As survivors struggle to come to grips with military trauma, it is more and more evident that healing comes through repudiation of the atrocities, and of the lies sometimes used to justify war, invasion, and occupation. This is where speak-outs and other public events are valuable. 

Recently, Joppa-Hagemann confronted Donald Rumsfeld at a book signing and handed him a copy of her husband’s funeral program. The former secretary of defense responded with characteristic nonchalance, stating, “I heard about that.”   Security was hastily summoned and Joppa- Hagemann was asked to leave. 

Mike Prysner, of MarchForward.org, led the Coffee Strong panel.  He concluded the forum by widening the discussion to more general causes of war and stress.

We need to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land and not people whose names we don't know and cultures we don't understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it's profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off our jobs when it's profitable, is the insurance companies who deny us health care when it's profitable, is the banks who take away our homes when it's profitable. Our enemy is not five thousands miles away, they are right here at home.