Deployment, depression, and sometimes death
Unique challenges for vets returning from war
A shadowbox displayed on the living room wall contains a black and white photo of Wayne Telford as a 20-something officer in the Vietnam War. He’s flanked, in two other photographs, by his father and his wife’s father, World War II veterans also frozen in time. Three young men, heads held proudly in their service for their country.
Both generations went to war, then came home. No doubt the soldiers suffered their own scars, internal wounds they sifted through for years.
Brooke Leigh Caffrey, the daughter of Wayne and Lana Telford of Grand Junction, also returned home from war.
After a 17-year enlistment in the U.S. Air Force that included four deployments, something broke inside that couldn’t heal quickly enough for the 36-year-old airman and mother. She took her life just three months after touching down on U.S. soil.
The woman with the shimmering, cocoa brown eyes and wide smile who helped nurture other younger female recruits knew she should seek some mental help. She made an appointment.
It turned out, to everyone’s broken heart, she needed help immediately. Caffrey, a 1994 Fruita Monument High School graduate, killed herself 21 days before that first mental health screening. It was Jan. 5, 2012.
“Her head was still there in Iraq. I could tell,” her father remembered from the family’s Redlands home, where she spent her last Christmas. “Overall I could tell she was sad. I asked if she sought help. She made the comment that it would ruin her career. I think she perceived (getting help) as a sign of weakness.”
VETS AT HIGH SUICIDE RISK
Brooke Caffrey’s family never again will joke around with her. Her only child, Uriah, now a young teenager, will graduate from high school, likely get married and start his own family, all without his mother.
Wayne Telford wasn’t about to let his daughter’s death be for nothing. He joined a panel commissioned by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to identify how to tackle the issue of veteran suicide. Some of those ideas include educating families to spot risky behavior and connecting veterans to mental health services before they are discharged.
Telford said he helps because “I don’t want to see other families go through this.”
“There are good days and bad days,” he said. “I found that being involved in this is helping me to deal. I jumped into this thing because I love veterans.”
Veterans are one group at an extraordinarily high risk of suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A report released last year revealed an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day — the numbers of suicide deaths now more than those who die in combat.
While the majority of those veterans committing suicide — 69 percent — are 50 years or older, officials also worry about the thousands of troops returning home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Three of the 47 people who committed suicide last year in Mesa County were veterans, according to Sonja Encke, an adult psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Grand Junction.
Every day she talks to veterans asking if they are considering killing themselves, and she’s not shy about it. Mental health officials suggest people ask those questions directly.
“Don’t ask them like you’re looking for a ‘no’ answer,” she said. “It does get easier, but you have to talk about it.”
Encke’s hope is that people will talk about suicide as commonly as cancer is discussed now. A dozen or two dozen years ago, talking about cancer was taboo, but that stigma no longer sticks, she said.
Veterans, because of their training, may be at a higher risk for suicide than civilians, she said. They typically have access to weapons and know how to use them. They also may have sustained brain injuries in combat or suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. They are regularly separated from families, sometimes in lengthy deployments. Maybe most detrimental to their health, they are trained to act, Encke said.
“Vets are trained to be impulsive,” she said.
A CHALLENGING DEPLOYMENT
Looking back, Wayne Telford now can spot his daughter’s downward spiral. She returned from an especially challenging assignment in Iraq, training Iraqi soldiers how to take over. They were often critical and angry with American troops for pulling out, Telford said his daughter told him.
“What was all this for?” she asked her father. “Three thousand people killed, others injured. Leaving billions of dollars of aircraft. These people aren’t grateful. They’d say, ‘You can’t leave us.’ They would get in her face,” he said.
After being deployed, Caffrey was home alone for two weeks. Her husband was deployed and their son was staying with relatives.
Not one to be tardy, her superiors knew something was wrong when she was a couple hours late to report back to duty. An airman was sent to her home to check on her.
Here’s where the unfathomable starts. The running car in the garage. Her Bible open to the book of Psalms on the seat next to her. Elaborate, loving suicide notes to her family and friends. She wanted her ashes spread on the ledge at the top of Lands End Road, “where the chipmunks are.”
“No way did we think it would come to this. At first it’s not reality,” Telford said, reliving some of the pain of those early days. “You’re going to wake up and it’s going to be fine.”
Telford stopped drinking last November, realizing it wasn’t really helping him cope with his daughter’s death. The Vietnam veteran also remembers the phone call he got years ago in the middle of the night from a friend, a fellow Vietnam veteran. He was pointing a .45-caliber gun at his head.
After talking for about an hour, his friend calmed down and lowered the weapon.
“Thank God he called me,” Telford said.
What Telford wouldn’t give for a phone call from his daughter.
These days he lives in memories, like when he welcomed his daughter home to the Arizona airport. Pride swelled inside him upon seeing her walking toward him in a black turtleneck and camouflage pants. She first had to clear security to get her weapons from the airport, including a rifle in a case that her father proudly carried for her.
A “knock-out,” as he likes to describe her, with almond-shaped eyes and a demure smile lives forever on a poster in her parents’ living room. There are more photos in the garage. One wall is covered in a montage of photos and mementos of patriots and veterans.
There’s Brooke on duty with an M-16 slung over her back. There she is again with smiling eyes peeking over a breathing apparatus in preparation for a ride in an F-16 fighter jet. Most touching is the sight of her camouflage “boonie” hat, strikingly similar to the one right next to it that her father wore more than 30 years ago in Vietnam. Her boonie boots hang with her dog tags right beside her father’s.
“It’s been a year and a half. Sometimes it feels like yesterday,” Telford said haltingly. “When’s the phone going to ring? Is she going to show up?”