Mary Coghill Kirkland said she asked her son, 21-year-old Army Spc. Derrick Kirkland, what was wrong as soon as he came back from his first deployment to Iraq in 2008.
He had a ready answer: “Mom, I’m a murderer.”
He told her how his team had kicked in the door of an Iraqi house and quickly shot a man inside. With the man lying wounded on the floor, “my son got ordered by his sergeant to stand on his chest to make him bleed out faster,” Kirkland said. “He said, ‘We’ve got to move, and he’s got to die before we move.’ ”
Not long after, Derrick told her, he had fallen asleep on guard duty, awakening as a car was driving through his checkpoint. He yelled for it to stop, but the family in the car spoke no English. “So my son shot up the car,” she said.
Summing up her son’s mental state after that deployment, Kirkland said: “What’s a nice word for saying that he was completely [messed] up?”
Kirkland relates the remaining years of her son’s life as if reading a script: He was depressed by his wife’s request for a divorce. On a second deployment in Iraq, he was caught putting a gun in his mouth and evacuated on suicide watch to Germany. There, he tried to overdose on pills. He was flown back to his home base here in Washington state. After a brief psychiatric evaluation, he was left alone in his room. He hanged himself with a cord in his closet.
Apparently worried that no one would notice, Spc. Kirkland left a note on the door of the locker in his room. “In the closet, dead,” it said.
Wars have always sent many of their practitioners home with lingering emotional scars, but the growing toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts is catching up not only with the U.S. military, but with communities like this.
“It’s very much a local issue,” said Democratic state Rep. Tina Orwall, who led a hearing in December on how state and local officials can help returning soldiers land on their feet.
Around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a major staging base for the wars, the working-class suburbs are almost indistinguishable from the base itself. Towns like Lakewood, DuPont, Spanaway and Parkland are home not only to military families, but to thousands of veterans who over the years have stayed on after their enlistments.
Among them are many with mental health issues.
More than 13% of the Army, which has borne the brunt of the fighting, now meets the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Senior officers point out that today’s soldiers are under unique stresses.
“At 24 years of age, a soldier, on average, has moved from home, family and friends and has resided in two other states; has traveled the world (deployed); been promoted four times; bought a car and wrecked it; married and had children; has had relationship and financial problems; seen death; is responsible for dozens of soldiers; maintains millions of dollars worth of equipment; and gets paid less than $40,000 a year,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said in a report last year.
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, described by the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes last year as “the most troubled base in the military,” all of these factors have crystallized into what some see as a community-wide crisis. A local veterans group calls it a “base on the brink.”
In a recent series of community meetings, the group warned that the trauma of multiple deployments had begun to show up in troubling numbers outside the base. The recent reports of suicides -- seven confirmed and five under investigation, with a total of 62 since 2002 -- parallel those of murders, fights, robberies, domestic violence, drunk driving and drug overdoses.
The local crime wave became apparent as early as 2004, when three elite Army Rangers were among a group of five men who stormed into a Bank of America in Tacoma armed with AK-47s, took over the branch and walked out with $54,011.
Over the last two years, an Iraq veteran pleaded guilty to assault after being accused of waterboarding his 7-year-old foster son in the bathtub. Another was accused of pouring lighter fluid over his wife and setting her on fire; one was charged with torturing his 4-year-old daughter for refusing to say her ABCs. A Stryker Brigade soldier was convicted of the kidnap, torture and rape or attempted rape of two women, one of whom he shocked with cables attached to a car battery; and an Iraq war sergeant was convicted of strangling his wife and hiding her body in a storage bin.
In April, 38-year-old combat medic David Stewart, who had been under treatment for depression, paranoia and sleeplessness, led police on a high-speed chase down Interstate 5 before crashing into a barrier. As officers watched, he shot himself in the head. His wife, a nurse, was found in the car with him, also shot to death. Police later found the body of their 5-year-old son in the family home.
“My daughter played with the little boy, and even now when they’re playing outside, the kids are screaming, ‘Jordan lived in there. Jordan died in there.’ So it affects everybody, even the kids,” said Jackie Baleto, who lives nearby.
“I can tell you that in the last two years, we have had 24 instances in which we contacted soldiers who were armed with weapons,” said Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar. “We’ve had intimidation, stalking with a weapon, aggravated assault, domestic violence, drive-bys.”
The military is redoubling efforts to provide suicide hotlines and counseling.
The flagship effort is the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, designed to make troops healthy and resilient before they go to war.
“We teach them about patience, about maturity, about how it’s OK to have issues, because everybody has issues,” said Col. Michael Brobeck, who commands the 555th Engineer Brigade at Lewis-McChord, about a fourth of whom are currently in Afghanistan.
The local Madigan Army Medical Center this year opened a $52-million “warrior transition” barracks for 408 wounded or stressed soldiers and their families. The center has seen a big increase in behavioral health visits -- more than 118,000 this year. Brobeck thinks all this is helping.
Over the last two years, he said, the number of his soldiers exhibiting an extremely high risk of mental health problems has declined. “Out of 4,000 [troops] when I started doing it about two years ago, we were in the 70s. Now I’m down in the 50s or low 60s,” he said.
Yet in the tough warrior culture of Lewis-McChord, some say soldiers who go to counseling or say they aren’t emotionally prepared to go back to war can be humiliated or ignored.
Kirkland, when he returned to Lewis-McChord after his first two suicide attempts, was set upon by the unit’s acting first sergeant, said Kevin Baker, who served with Kirkland in Iraq and was in the office that day.
“As soon as he walked in the door, [one of the sergeants] called him a coward” and worse, recalled Baker, who recently left the Army.
Ashley Joppa-Hagemann of Yelm, Wash., a mother of two young children, said her husband, 25-year-old Staff Sgt. Jared Hagemann, begged Army commanders this year not to have to return for what she said would be a ninth deployment overseas. She said she went herself to the base commander, all to no avail.
“He was always drinking, and he became very violent and aggressive. There was just hatred in his eyes,” she said.
Joppa-Hagemann went to court on June 27 to get a restraining order to keep her husband away from her and the children, telling the court that her husband had threatened to kill himself “and take as many folks down with him as possible.”
The order couldn’t be served, as it turned out. Hagemann’s body was found the next day in a training field at Lewis-McChord, shot through the head.
“We told them. We told everybody there was something wrong,” she said. “Nobody would listen.”