Photo Credit: Stars and Stripes
By Major Christopher Mercado, Guest Contributor
A single gunshot pierced the chill of the Afghan air. Rushing into Staff Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery’s room, a fellow soldier found Sergeant Montgomery lifeless next to his bed, with an apparent gunshot wound to his head.
In the following hours, muddled reports of Monte’s death reached his son, Thaddeus Montgomery III, fiancée, two siblings, and his utterly devastated parents.
“I have to learn to live with the pain,” Monte’s mom Debra said. “But I’ll never get over it. He is still my son.”
Thaddeus Montgomery, a Staff Sergeant in the US Army, was on his third combat deployment in only six years. Monte was widely respected by his soldiers and known by his leaders for being calm and steadfast under pressure. As a sniper team and infantry squad leader, he had fought and survived the deadliest fighting in some of Iraq’s most dangerous zones, including Habbaniyah, Ramadi, and Baghdad’s al-Dora district. As Monte patrolled the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province during his most recent deployment, however, something was evidently amiss with the decorated combat veteran.
Some speculated that Monte was taking the recent loss of another soldier particularly hard. A few believed that the cumulative stress of repeated deployments had taken its toll. Others speculated that Monte hadn’t been the same since a newly constructed bunker collapsed on him only five days before he took his life. It was unclear if Monte sustained a traumatic brain injury from the bunker’s collapse or if one of the other factors led to Monte’s suicide. One thing was clear: the cool, composed, reggae-loving sergeant that had always inspired confidence in others was now on edge.
“Sergeant Montgomery began acting strangely immediately following the collapsed bunker,” one soldier said. Monte had been “acting paranoid, and was grabbing his rifle every time he was startled by a strange noise.”
Concerned by Monte’s change in behavior, a fellow non-commissioned officer had followed Monte into his room after a particularly worrying outburst to make sure he was okay.
“I’m good,” Monte said, “unless you’ve got something for me.”
“Just love, brother,” came the sergeant’s response. “What else would I have for you?”
Leaving Monte alone in his room, the sergeant carried Monte’s Army-issued rifle to the door, worried about what Monte might do if the rifle was left within reach.
Merely moving the rifle was not enough, however: moments later, Staff Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery was dead.
A 2012 Suicide Data Report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs indicated that as many as 22 veterans take their lives every single day.[i] That figure, which accounts for veterans of all eras and equates to over 8,000 per year, is more than the total number of fatalities in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Critics of the VA report are quick to point out that that number—22—is taken out of context, that it is not representative of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that it more accurately reflects the rate of suicide among older veterans.[ii] But arguing over the specific numbers in the VA’s Suicide Data Report is an entirely irrelevant exercise. Even one veteran or service member lost to suicide is one too many. Staff Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery is one too many. And, so far, our nation has failed to provide adequate support to its veterans and service members in their moment of greatest need.
Justin Miller, one of Monte’s squad-mates in Iraq, is one such veteran who still blames himself for not being there for Monte in his final hours.
“I blamed myself for the longest time,” Justin said. “I thought that if I was there with Monte that I would not have left his room that day.”
A few months after leaving the Army, Justin himself was contemplating suicide. Unemployed and struggling with his survivor’s guilt, Justin contacted his local Veterans Administration Medical Center.
“I called the VA after having a particularly bad nightmare and told them I needed to see someone now,” Justin recalls. “They scheduled me an appointment for two days later. Here I am, on the verge of killing myself, and I need to wait two days to see someone.”[iii]
Wait times are not the only problem plaguing the VA’s response to veteran suicides. On February 12, 2015, President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act. Named for a Marine sniper who committed suicide in 2011, the SAV Act aims to improve suicide prevention services at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the SAV Act, which is estimated to cost $24 million from 2015-2020, will do little to abate the torrent of veteran and service member suicides.[iv]
Specifically, the SAV Act requires “annual third-party evaluations of the VA’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs, a centralized website with resources and information for veterans, and collaboration on suicide prevention efforts between VA and non-profit mental health organizations.”[v] The SAV Act also provides student loan repayment for individuals pursuing a degree in psychiatric medicine, and extends eligibility for health care by one year for combat veterans discharged between 2009 and 2011 only.[vi]
The SAV Act fails to provide any direct or immediate support to veterans who are contemplating suicide. Absent a new mechanism for preventing a veteran from committing suicide, third-party evaluation of the VA’s suicide prevention programs only validates what we already know: we aren’t doing enough. It is also unclear how extending the healthcare benefits of a very small minority of combat veterans for one year is expected to halt this alarming trend. Further, while repaying the student loan debt of future VA counselors has potential long-term recruitment and retention benefits, it does absolutely nothing for veterans contemplating suicide now.
In another example of well intentioned but wasteful spending, the Veterans Affairs Medical Clinic in Atlanta spent $850,000 installing a 10-foot tall ‘anti-climbing’ fence on their parking garage. Built in response to a spike in suicide attempts at their facility, the Atlanta VA Medical Clinic fence is designed to make it more difficult for veterans to take their own lives by jumping off the garage.[vii]
At its best, the SAV Act is a half-hearted platitude, emblematic of our policymakers’ indifference to veteran suicide. It illustrates just how disconnected our society is from its warfighters and how easy it is to spend a little money and pretend the problem has been solved. At its worst, the SAV Act is a waste of $24 million, with little of that financial support translating into meaningful solutions for our most troubled veterans. Adrift, the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s near million-dollar fence is a visible symbol of that organization’s inability to provide the preventative care and lifesaving intervention our veterans need. Instead of thinking critically about this problem, the VA literally built another barrier.
What we need are policies and programs that provide an immediate and life saving benefit to veterans and service members who are contemplating suicide. Building safety fences and repaying student loans isn’t enough; progress can only be made with policies that improve preventative care, eliminate wait times, and that ameliorate the conditions that put our veterans and service members at risk.
Losing even one more service member or veteran to suicide is intolerable. From her bucolic home in northern Kentucky, Monte’s mother Debra responds to those who question the extent of the problem of suicide among our warfighters, saying simply, “remember, these are human beings we’re talking about.”
She also has an important message for our veterans, one they all need to hear: “Your family is not better off without you, damaged or not – we love you unconditionally.”
Whether or not the number 22 is an exact statistic, one thing is certain: the only number that matters is zero. We need to do better.
About the Author
Christopher Mercado is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army who is currently attending Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program as a General Wayne A. Downing Scholar of the Combating Terrorism Center, USMA. Christopher served with SSG Thaddeus Montgomery in 2–12 Infantry at Fort Carson, CO and while deployed in Baghdad, Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Georgetown University, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.
[i] Kemp, Janet, and Robert Bossarte. Suicide Data Report. Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services, 2012. http://www.va.gov/opa/docs/suicide-data-report-2012-final.pdf.
[ii] Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. “The missing context behind the widely cited statistic that there are 22 veteran suicides a day.” The Washington Post, February 4, 2015; Bare, Stacy. “The Truth About 22 Veteran Suicides A Day.” Task & Purpose (blog). June 2, 2015. http://taskandpurpose.com/truth-22-veteran-suicides-day/.
[iii] Mercado, Christopher. “The Human Costs of War: Justin Miller’s Story.” The Strategy Bridge (Medium.com). May 11, 2015. https://medium.com/the-bridge/the-human-costs-of-war-ed9888fa23d3#.j84muvn6j.
[v] Brayton, Jenna. “The Clay Hunt Act: What the President Just Signed.” Whitehouse.gov. Last modified February 12, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/02/12/clay-hunt-act-what-president-just-signed.
[vii] Schrade, Brad. “VA builds $850,000 Fence to Help Prevent Veteran Suicides.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 25, 2016.