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Veterans fighting the enemy within

The Marine from Downey had the muzzle of an assault rifle in his mouth and was ready to pull the trigger when his fellow Marines saved him. Back home, he tried to overdose on Valium and he once called a suicide hotline with a gun in his hand and police at his door.

The Air Force man from the Los Feliz area says he has twice downed everything in his medicine cabinet and blacked out. Each time, he was surprised to wake up and find he was still alive.

The two men and I have gathered on a recent Saturday morning in an office at the VA in West Los Angeles to watch a short, powerful film about their service, their death wishes and their struggle to stay alive.

The Marine, Roger, sits next to me and weeps through much of the film.

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“Something was taken away from me when I was out there, when I got hurt,” the Roger on the screen is saying. “And I get mad, but they did take something away from me and it’s affecting everybody in my family.”

John, who was an Air Force radar specialist, seems tortured anew as he watches himself.

“I think anybody that’s ever tried to commit suicide comes to a wall where they’ve tried everything else and they don’t believe that anything will work, that anything will get better, and they’re just done,” John says in the film.

Tana Teicheira, who runs the suicide prevention program at the VA, studies Roger and John’s reactions to the 20-minute video, stopping the film at times to make sure they’re OK and to remind them they don’t have to do this.

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Roger, 33, and John, 35, insist they want to be here, not just for their own needs, but as a service to all the others who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with invisible wounds. Like many combat vets, they’ve known nightmares, angry outbursts, insomnia, brain freezes and suffocating depression.

It seems a pity that during months of mid-term campaigning marked by heated battles over the size of government, there was no mention of the staggering costs, fiscal and otherwise, of two enduring wars. Nor any talk of doing more for those who come home in need of help.

A lot of men and women resume their lives without medical needs. But the VA reports that in the 12-month period ending in September 2009, there were 1,868 suicide attempts — and 98 deaths — among men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among active duty personnel, a recent Department of Defense report found, an average of one active duty member committed suicide every 36 hours between 2005 and 2009.

The VA also reports that the suicide rate is lower for those in treatment, and Teicheira is hoping to soon distribute the film so Roger and John — and a third veteran who’s featured in the video — can help others fight past the military culture of denying or burying the hurt. She also intends to use the film as training for mental health professionals, so they can better identify suicidal tendencies.

“Vets are at twice the risk of the general population,” says Teicheira.

Roger had the flesh blown off his hands in Fallujah when his unit came under attack. Either shrapnel or bullets flew through his face and rattled his skull. The assault was so intense that he had to wait eight hours to be safely evacuated to a hospital.

In the Air Force, John had no hand-to-hand combat but often came under fire on three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He suffered a head injury when his pilot took evasive action and the plane dropped out of the sky like a rock, slamming John’s head into the ceiling.

Roger came home to a wife who was divorcing him and a daughter he couldn’t embrace, maybe because he’d become too desensitized, or too aware of human fragility.

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Often, Roger and John say, they get lost in mid-sentence or can’t remember what they were supposed to buy at the store.

“I forget what I’m talking about,” Roger tells me.

“Exactly,” says John.

“I feel like an idiot,” adds Roger, who says he was a high school honors student.

John couldn’t find a job or a girlfriend after coming home, and his family connections were fractured. He fumed over a military diagnosis that he was bipolar before he enlisted, rather than traumatized by combat tours. After a struggle, he got a disability designation that pays him enough to scrape by.

“I cried a lot and it was surreal to me,” John says in the movie, adding that his father had always preached that men don’t cry. “I was crying during AT&T commercials and things like that, that you just shouldn’t be crying” about.

John ended up in therapy after his second suicide attempt. Roger, who had the police at his door, says he wanted to “go out shooting” and commit “suicide by cop.” But someone on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK, helped keep him alive and he surrendered to police.

John and Roger now see VA psychiatrists. They’re learning to talk to friends and family instead of sinking, alone, into darkness.

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Roger, who just found work as an electrician, fights through the physical pain from his war injuries each day. He says he’s better now, but he knows his troubles haven’t ended.

“I’m still a stranger in a civilian world,” he says.

Roger is in a new relationship now, with a newborn, and he’s trying to stay alive for both his children. In the movie, he says he would have killed himself if not for his daughter.

He says she asks him, “Are you OK, Daddy?” And he says yes, even when he’s not.

“Just to see a smile on her face.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

The documentary in which John and Roger participated has been broken into two parts and posted on YouTube. On the YouTube home page, search for suicide prevention, a simple question.


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