Devastating death toll and lack of support from VA force members of the ‘Forgotten Battalion’ to rely on each other
The Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment stationed in Afghanistan saw constant combat, death and devastation. The result, thirteen suicides from this unit since 2007. That rate is unprecedented, even in the face of the high suicide rate among military veterans.
Some of these casualties sought help from the VA, but that help failed them. Some just gave up.
When these guys gathered together to mourn yet another comrade’s death in 2012 they formed a pact to do something to stop the death toll. Using social media and software, they created an intervention group to come to the aid of their brothers in arms.
You can read their personal stories below and learn about what the VA knows, and doesn’t know about suicide.
After the sixth suicide in his old battalion, Manny Bojorquez sank onto his bed. With a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam beside him and a pistol in his hand, he began to cry.
He had gone to Afghanistan at 19 as a machine-gunner in the Marine Corps. In the 18 months since leaving the military, he had grown long hair and a bushy mustache. It was 2012. He was working part time in a store selling baseball caps and going to community college while living with his parents in the suburbs of Phoenix. He rarely mentioned the war to friends and family, and he never mentioned hisnightmares.
He thought he was getting used to suicides in his old infantry unit, but the latest one had hit him like a brick: Joshua Markel, a mentor from his fire team, who had seemed unshakable. In Afghanistan, Corporal Markel volunteered for extra patrols and joked during firefights. Back home Mr. Markel appeared solid: a job with a sheriff’s office, a new truck, a wife and time to hunt deer with his father. But that week, while watching football on TV with friends, he had wordlessly gone into his room, picked up a pistol and killed himself. He was 25.
Still reeling from the news, Mr. Bojorquez surveyed the old baseball posters on the walls of his childhood bedroom and the sun-bleached body armor hanging on his bedpost. Then he took a long pull from the bottle.
“If he couldn’t make it,” he recalled thinking to himself, “what chance do I have?”
He pressed the loaded pistol to his brow and pulled the trigger.
Mr. Bojorquez, 27, served in one of the hardest hit military units in Afghanistan, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. In 2008, the 2/7 deployed to a wild swath of Helmand Province. Well beyond reliable supply lines, the battalion regularly ran low on water and ammunition while coming under fire almost daily. During eight months of combat, the unit killed hundreds of enemy fighters and sufferedmore casualtiesthan any other Marine battalion that year.
When its members returned, most left the military and melted back into the civilian landscape. They had families and played softball, taught high school and attended Ivy League universities. But many also struggled, unable to find solace. And for some, the agonies of war never ended.
Almost seven years after the deployment, suicide is spreading through the old unit like a virus. Of about 1,200Marineswho deployed with the 2/7 in 2008, at least 13 have killed themselves, two while on active duty, the rest after they left the military. The resulting suicide rate for the group is nearly four times the rate for young male veterans as a whole and 14 times that for all Americans...
Photos of Manny Bojorquez, which his mother keeps at home, as a child and with members of the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment in Afghanistan.Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times
…The most recent suicide was in May, when Eduardo Bojorquez, no relation to Manny, overdosed on pills in his car. Men from the battalion converged from all over the country for his funeral in Las Vegas, filing silently past the grave, tossing roses that thumped on the plain metal coffin like drum beats.
“When the suicides started, I felt angry,” Matt Havniear, a onetime lance corporal who carried a rocket launcher in the war, said in a phone interview from Oregon. “The next few, I would just be confused and sad. Then at about the 10th, I started feeling as if it was inevitable — that it is going to get us all and there is nothing we could do to stop it.”…
…Feeling abandoned, members of the battalion have turned to a survival strategy they learned at war: depending on one another. Doing what the government has not, they have used free software and social media to create a quick-response system that allows them to track, monitor and intervene with some of their most troubled comrades.
Their system has made a few saves, but many in the battalion still feel stalked by suicide.
“To this day I’m scared of it,” said Ruben Sevilla, 28, who deployed twice with the 2/7 and now works for a warehouse management company called Legacy SCS near Chicago. “If all these guys can do that, what’s stopping me? That’s what freaks me out the most. I haven’t touched a gun since I got out of the Marine Corps because I’m afraid to.”
The morning after Manny Bojorquez tried to shoot himself in 2012, he opened his eyes to sunlight streaming in his window and found the loaded gun on the floor. Through his whiskeyheadache, he pieced together that his gun had jammed and that he had passed out drunk.
A week later, he stood alongside more than a dozen other Marine veterans atMr. Markel’s funeralin Lincoln, Neb. The crack of rifles echoed off the headstones as an honor guard fired a salute.
Mr. Bojorquez offered his condolences to Mr. Markel’s mother after the funeral. He thought about how life seemed increasingly bitter. The thrill of combat was gone. Only regrets and flashbacks remained.
Mr. Markel’s mother pressed something into Mr. Bojorquez’s palm at the funeral, a spent brass shell casing from the honor guard. Promise me, she said to him, that you will never put your mother through this. Mr. Bojorquez promised.
That began a three-year odyssey in which the deaths of his friends weighed on Mr. Bojorquez, who tried repeatedly to get help from Veterans Affairs but ultimately gave up.
“I was lost then. I still am kind of lost,” he said in a recent interview. “I was just trying to look for something that wasn’t there. I was trying to look for an answer that I don’t have — that no one does.”…
‘The Forgotten Battalion’
In Afghanistan, after the men of the 2/7 realized the scope of their mission, they began calling themselves “the Forgotten Battalion.”
In the spring of 2008, they deployed from their base at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., to an untamed stretch of Afghanistan surrounding the city of Sangin.
Their job was to pacify a Taliban stronghold the size of Massachusetts that had never been controlled by coalition troops, or anyone else. Opium poppies grew in fields as vast as those of corn in the Midwest. Roads were pocked with the rusting hulks of Soviet tanks destroyed in a different war.
The Marines were spread out in sandbag outposts, hours from reinforcements, and often outnumbered. With the Pentagon focused on the surge in Iraq, equipment was scant. There was no dedicated air support, few mine-sweeping trucks, often no refrigeration. The only reliable abundance was combat.
“Machine guns, mortars, rockets, RPGs, I.E.D.s, constant fighting. It was like the Wild West,” said Keith Branch of Austin, Tex., who was a 20-year-old rifleman who patrolled a village calledNow Zad.
In that village alone, two Marine platoons fired more than 2,500 mortar rounds, called in 50,000 pounds of explosives from aircraft and killed 185 enemy fighters, battalion documents show.
Many of the Marines haddeployed to Iraqjust eight months before. At least two had been shot by snipers and one was hit by a grenade in Iraq, but they were redeployed to Afghanistan anyway. All three later killed themselves.
The I.E.D.s, or improvised explosive devices, plagued patrols. The first convoy arriving in Sangin hit two. In the next two weeks, an I.E.D. hidden in a bicycle killed a medic, an I.E.D. packed in a culvert killed three Marines in a Humvee, and an I.E.D. discovered in a dirt lane killed a specialist trained to defuse the explosives…
…By the end of the deployment, 20 Marines in the battalion had been killed and 140 had been wounded. Many lost limbs. Some were badly burned; others were so battered by blasts that they can scarcely function day to day.
Others returned unscathed, but unable to fall in with civilian life. Members of the battalion say what they brought home from combat is more complex than just PTSD. Many regret things they did — or failed to do. Some feel betrayed that the deep sacrifices made in combat seem to have achieved little. Others cannot reconcile the stark intensity of war with home’s mannered expectations, leaving them alienated among family and friends. It is not just symptoms likesleeplessnessor flashbacks, but an injury to their sense of self…
One Mission’s Toll
Beginning in 2005, suicide rates among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans started toclimb sharply,and the military and Veterans Affairs created a number of programs to fight the problem. Despitespending hundreds of millionson research, the department and the military still know little about how combat experience affects suicide risk, according to suicide researchers focused on the military.
Many recent studies have focused on whether deployment was a risk factor for suicide, andfound that it was not.
The results appeared to show something paradoxical: Those deployed to war were actually less likely to commit suicide. But critics of the studies say most people deployed in war zones do not face enemy fire. The risk for true combat veterans is hidden in the larger results, and has never been properly examined, they assert.
“They may have 10 times the risk, they may have 100 times, and we don’t know, because no one has looked,” said Michael Schoenbaum, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The men of the 2/7 overwhelmingly see a tie between combat and their suicide problem. Not only were all of the men who committed suicide young infantrymen who struggled with experiences of killing and loss, they say, but it is possible to trace one traumatic moment forward and see how those involved are now struggling…
…Noel Guerrero and Manny Bojorquez were best friends in the battalion As two Mexican-Americans from the Southwest, they bonded in infantry school over a love of Mexican hot sauce. In Afghanistan, they would share bottles sent from home.
On one mission, Mr. Guerrero, then a 20-year-old lance corporal, was a machine-gunner atop a truck at the lead of a supply convoy. He said he was good at finding I.E.D.s and over six months had spotted almost a dozen that the battalion was able to avoid. But one day, the truck hit a big one, and the explosion flung him against his gun turret.
Mr. Guerrero crawled from the smoking vehicle, his head spinning. He watched his sergeant’s Humvee roll in to help. Then suddenly, another blast swallowed the sergeant’s truck in smoke. The truck shot up 10 feet and came down with a crash, falling to its side. Then, chaos. The driver was trapped and screaming, with his arm caught under the wreckage. A medic in the back was pinned by a seat crushed against the truck’s ceiling. The sergeant was dead.
Before Mr. Guerrero could get to his feet to help, enemy fire started thudding into the ground around him. He spotted his machine gun in the dirt, where it had landed after being blown out of the truck, and with his vision still blurred, he began to return fire.
Two other Marines, Cpl. Jastin Pak and Lance Cpl. Tanner Cleveland, scrambled into the wreckage. Mr. Pak crouched over the driver, shielding him until a line of Marines could lift the truck enough to free his arm. Mr. Pak and Mr. Cleveland emerged covered with blood, clutching the wounded, then went back for the remains of the sergeant. The platoon was out of body bags, so they stuffed the sergeant’s remains into a sleeping bag.
When it was all over, Mr. Guerrero picked up a cigarette that had been blown out of one of the trucks and lit it. After he exhaled, he noticed it was spotted with blood. He smoked it anyway.
Since that day, Mr. Guerrero has blamed himself for the ordeal and has tried to kill himself three times. Mr. Cleveland, 26, of Chicago, also tried suicide, and Mr. Pak, of Oceanside, Calif., hanged himself in November.
“You come back and try to be a normal kid, but there is always a shadow on you, a dark shadow you can never take away,” Mr. Guerrero, now 28, said in an interview at his home in San Diego.
“Now, when I meet someone, I already know what they look like dead. I can’t help but think that way. And I ask myself, ‘Do I want to live with this feeling for the rest of my life, or is it better to just finish it off?’ ”
Lacking Data on Suicides
The first few suicides struck the men of the battalion as random. It was only over time that they came to see the deaths as a part of their war story — combat deaths that happened after the fact.
Cpl.Richard McShandied first. He had survived a truck bomb in Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan. Four months after they returned, in the spring of 2009, he put on his dress uniform after an argument with his girlfriend and shot himself in his driveway.
In December 2009, Pfc. Christopher G. Stewart hanged himself from a door in his barracks.
In April 2010, Shawn Jensen, a sergeant who had just gotten out of the Marines and moved home to rural Washington State to work in construction, shot himself during an argument with his girlfriend and mother.
The Marines tended to chalk up these first suicides to foolish impulses or prewar problems. Then came the death that shook the battalion, and prompted many to ask whether something was wrong not just with the men who killed themselves, but with them all.
Cpl. Clay Hunthad been a sniper in the battalion. After he got out of the Marine Corps in 2009 after his second tour, his disenchantment with the war grew, and he sought treatment from Veterans Affairs for depressionand PTSD.
He became an outspoken advocate for young veterans, speaking openly about his problems and lobbying for better care for veterans on Capitol Hill. In 2010, he was featured in a public service message urging veterans to seek support from their comrades.
At the same time, Mr. Hunt was fighting to get adequate care at the V.A., encountering long delays and inconsistent treatment, according to his mother, Susan Selke of Houston.
Friends said Mr. Hunt had felt directionless. “There is so much isolation and lack of purpose. We came home from war unprepared for peace, and we’ve had to find a new mission,” said Jake Wood, who was also a sniper in the 2/7. “He struggled to do that.”
Mr. Hunt shot himself in his apartment in Texas in March 2011. He was 28.
After years of lobbying by his family and veterans’ groups, Congress in February passed theClay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which provides additional suicide prevention resources for Veterans Affairs.
“When he died, all the guys, we couldn’t understand it,” said Danny Kwan of San Gabriel, Calif., an ex-corporal who served two tours with Mr. Hunt. “He had done exactly what he had been fighting against.”
At the time of Mr. Hunt’s suicide, Mr. Kwan was fresh out of the Marines. One night when he was drunk and despondent over a recent breakup, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He jerked the gun away as it fired, sending the bullet through a wall.
“At the last moment I decided I wanted to live,” Mr. Kwan said. “We all have our demons. Some more than others.”
No one knows whether the battalion’s suicide rate is abnormally high or a common trait of fighting units hit hard by combat, because no one monitors troops over time. In an era of Big Data, when algorithms can predict human patterns in startling detail, suicide data for veterans is incomplete and years old by the time it is available.The most recentdata is from 2011.
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon say they have introduced a new system, called the Suicide Data Repository, that is faster and more complete.
But Dr. Harold Kudler, chiefmental healthconsultant to the department, said the military and V.A. did not share information that could allow the monitoring of combat units over time.
“Might that be a good idea? It might be a good idea,” he said. “But it’s not in our ability to achieve. It’s not our mission.”
A Pact to Help
In December 2012, Marines from the 2/7 converged on a small town in the Central Valley of California for another funeral. A former radioman named Ufrano Rios Jimenez had killed himself with a shot to the heart.
Mr. Rios had lost a leg in Afghanistan. Once home, he struggled with PTSD. But he gave up on treatment at the V.A. and turned to alcohol, painkillers and eventually heroin, according to his former girlfriend, Allison Keefer. After the suicide of a friend from the battalion, Jeremie Ross, in July 2012, he quit work and slipped into a deep depression.
At the funeral, Mr. Bojorquez stood with the others from the 2/7 as they shook their heads and discussed what to do. A battle-hardened former corporal named Travis Wilkerson spoke up.
Once a fearsome team leader in a deadly sector of Sangin, he was now working as a night manager at a sandwich shop. He was one of several men from the battalion who had changed their lives radically in search of peace, growing a bushy beard and taking a vow of nonviolence.
“Real talk, guys, let’s make a pact, right here,” Travis Wilkerson said. “I don’t want to go to any more funerals. Let’s promise to reach out and talk. Get your phones out, put my number in. Call me day or night. I’m not doing this again.”
His twin brother, Tyler Wilkerson, who had served in the same platoon, stood next to him. After the Marines, he had become a Buddhist and joined Greenpeace. He said he agreed.
Then a three-tour former corporal named Elias Reyes Jr. stepped forward. He had a long ponytail and a degree in philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was hoping to attend medical school.
Enough of this, he said. One by one, the others joined the pact.
Just over a year later, Mr. Reyes killed himself. In combat, he had been flattened by explosions several times and seen friends maimed and killed.
Back home, he was getting counseling at the V.A., family members said, but faced delays and struggled to find a therapist who he felt understood him. In April 2014, he hanged himself in his apartment.
“He was very religious, a Catholic,” his sister, Margarita Reyes, said. “To do what he did, he must have been in so much pain.”