Suicide In Our Community — Part 3
Deployment, Depression, and Sometimes Death
Unique challenges for vets returning from war
By Amy Hamilton
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?”
Service members see increasing focus on suicide, crisis services
By Amy Hamilton
There’s a running joke among military veterans who receive care at Grand Junction’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center that they can’t go anywhere inside the building without someone asking whether they’re suicidal.
It didn’t used to be that way.
Since 2005, when officials started to take note that the suicide rate among veterans had risen precipitously, the local veterans’ hospital was ordered to bolster its suicide prevention efforts. Now veterans are queried at every medical visit whether they are feeling suicidal or thinking about hurting themselves. Veterans also can’t venture anywhere in the facility without taking in the phone number for the Veterans Crisis Line. It’s 1-800-273-8255.
Yet getting veterans to talk about their feelings — or simply the thought of being asked what had long been viewed as a guarded personal matter — wasn’t immediately embraced.
Sonja Encke, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with the hospital, said she received her share of cold stares and disbelief eight years ago when she started asking such probing questions.
“They’d look at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ or ‘That’s none of your business,’” Encke said of conversations in those early days.
Those attitudes are melting away at Grand Junction’s VA, Encke said, since the agency has zeroed in on suicide prevention efforts. In 2012, three veterans were among the 47 people who completed suicide in Mesa County. One veteran had been registered with the VA, another was registered but hadn’t yet received services and the third was not registered in the VA program, Encke said. Nationwide, an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day, the majority of those being over the age of 50.
“We have had a culture change at this VA,” she said of the sea change over the years in addressing suicide. “People here are more apt to talk about it.”
Additionally, veterans have another tool to get help in peer support specialist Erin Chacon.
Chacon, an 8-year U.S. Army veteran, served as a medic and did a tour in Iraq.
Making a first connection with a fellow veteran can build a foundation of trust, Chacon said.
She knows first-hand how isolating it can be to return home to an area like Grand Junction, which does not have a military base. After serving their terms, veterans often return home, only to be burdened with a host of new responsibilities.
“A lot of them don’t want to talk to a civilian,” Chacon explained. “A lot of them are worried about labels. They’re so busy focusing on everything else that they forget to focus on themselves.”
Veterans’ officials push the agency’s crisis line. The line is open to any member of the military, including members of the National Guard and reservists. Family members of military personnel who are worried about their loved ones are encouraged to call. One doesn’t have to be in a suicidal crisis — any kind of crisis is OK — to dial the number. Calling the line also can be a launching point for veterans to enroll in the Veterans Affairs system. People can further access crisis services through texting or chatting online.
Although the line is connected to a national phone bank, callers can be directed to local services, officials said.
Veterans’ officials encourage veterans to use the line because they know it works, Encke said.
Since the crisis line was started in 2007, workers have answered more than 890,000 calls and saved more than 30,000 lives, the VA reported.
In addition, as part of the VA’s push for suicide prevention, local staff members are required to host at least five outreach programs a month.
Encke said she is available to talk to any type of group to help educate people about the issue.
‘Was I blind?’ The agony of scrutiny after suicide
By Penny Stine
I became a member of a club that I never wanted to join in April 2009, when my oldest son, Had, committed suicide a month after his 21st birthday. He was such a happy and contented kid, so full of life, joy and possibilities. He was smart, funny, kind to little children (at least the ones that weren’t his brothers) and always seemed to come out of every tricky spot in life smelling like a rose.
I never thought suicide would enter our lives. I never thought I would become a suicide survivor.
Looking back, I can see that somewhere during his teenage years, my son began to exhibit signs of depression, which continued through his short journey into manhood. It’s only hindsight that gives me clarity. I never saw it at the time.
Was I blind? Why couldn’t I see that some of the rebelliousness, apathy and anger we saw in him was not mere teenage angst but likely a manifestation of the depression that dogged him? Why couldn’t I save him? Why didn’t I say some magic words that would have convinced him that life was worth living?
I don’t ask myself those questions, although that’s the type of scrutiny suicide survivors are sometimes made to endure by those who don’t know any better.
My husband and I became Christians when we were in college, we went to church every week with our boys and tried to teach them about the love of God and what it meant to be a Christian. Had was a star Sunday School pupil. He went to church camp as a teen, was involved in youth group and helped teach Vacation Bible School.
I prayed for my boys constantly when they were growing up.
There is a passage in the Bible where Jesus teaches that if a child asks for a fish, a good father won’t give his child a snake; Jesus goes on to add how much more eager our heavenly father is to give us good gifts. After Had’s death, I wasn’t just struggling with one snake, I felt like I had been thrown into a pit of vipers.
My prayers were earnest and heartfelt, why didn’t God answer them? How could a loving God allow my son to sink into despair so deep that suicide became the option he chose? I never believed in the health and wealth gospel, which seems to suggest that the entire reason for Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was to make us all healthy, wealthy and happy on earth, and I never thought that life would be all rainbows and sunshine simply because we were Christians. Nonetheless, when I was a young mom 20 years ago reading the story of David and Goliath to my three goofy, happy little boys, if someone would have told me that we’d end up walking down this heartbroken road, I would have told him he was smoking crack.
Our youngest son is now older than our oldest son will ever be. I delight in the adult relationships I have with my two surviving sons, but sometimes I’m overcome with melancholy about the adult relationship I’ll never enjoy with Had.
I’ve worked my way through the grief, loss, bitterness and bewilderment, although occasionally I find myself visiting those dark holes once again. I spent four years studying scriptures to come to a new appreciation of God’s grace and the overwhelming depth of love He has for flawed human beings, but Had’s death left me profoundly wounded and damaged. It’s OK, though, because the world is full of wounded, damaged people like me who are simply doing the best we can.
Had’s favorite high school teacher is a member of the same gym that I am, and I saw him out of the corner of my eye several times over the summer. I usually avoided his gaze and hurried on to my class. I have nothing against Ralph, who’s a lovely human being and a good German teacher, but it just hurts too much to talk to him and wonder what could have been. Had really had a gift with languages, accents and words.
I can’t listen to the song we played at Had’s funeral without crying. I don’t thumb through family photo albums anymore. Although my family has recovered and learned how to have joy in spite of the sorrow we share, at times we still grieve over our son and our brother. We simply miss him and wish he were here with us.
We’ll never get to watch Had beam with joy while he watches his son sing at a Christmas concert. I’ll never dance with him at his wedding. We’ll never laugh with him over the funny things he did as a kid.
Suicide is such a permanent and terrible solution to temporary problems. It leaves those left behind with such a sad, confusing, guilt-ridden tangle of emotions and it robs the person who commits suicide of life, in all its glorious joy, weirdness, hope and pain. Suicide isn’t an end to the pain; it’s simply passing it on to others.
For those who think it’s an option when life gets unbearable, remember that no one will be better off without you. No one will be glad you’re gone. You will be missed, grieved and your death will plunge those who love you into the same anguish you must be feeling.
Please don’t give up. Please don’t throw away life. Whatever pain, despair and anguish you feel is temporary, but life, with all of its beauty, awe and quirkiness, lasts a long time and there are a thousand reasons to hope and try again.
Mesa County has some of the worst suicide statistics in the country. I don’t have any solutions, magic wands or words that are guaranteed to convince those who are in distress to get help, but in Mesa County, one female commits suicide for every three males who commit suicide. Until we figure out a way to give men solutions, perspective and hope in dealing with the issues that plague their lives, we’re only kidding ourselves to think that we’ll end suicide.
Penny Stine has been married to Kent Stine for 29 years and has worked at The Daily Sentinel since 2006. Penny, Kent and their three boys moved to Grand Junction in 2000 after living near Seattle, Washington for 15 years. Had attended West Middle School and graduated from Grand Junction High School. He played soccer and football and wrestled. He loved to read and would often stay up all night just to finish a book.
People who complete suicide often don’t think through consequences
By Amy Hamilton
Landon Orcutt wasn’t thinking about missing out on his twin brother’s wedding. He didn’t consider that his mother would grieve each day, devastated not knowing what great things her talented son could have accomplished.
At least 300 other people who arrived with broken hearts to Orcutt’s memorial service mourned the loss of the sensitive and popular 21-year-old who loved to play the viola, act and sing. Orcutt, who family members later learned was in a bout of depression and anxious about his next stage in life, leapt 57 feet to his death off a rock in California during his fifth year of college. Although the 2002 Grand Junction High School graduate left three suicide notes, family and friends endured more than an agonizing year searching for his remains.
“The worst part of it was not knowing,” said Gretchen McGeeney, Landon’s mother. “I got to the point where I just didn’t care what the answer was. Your mind does crazy things. Did someone kidnap him? Was he in some sort of cult?”
McGeeney was about five years off from paying off her Grand Junction home when Landon completed suicide. Yet even before his body was found, his student loans came due, on which McGeeney had been a co-signer. Weary of the persistent phone calls from debt collectors, she refinanced her home back to its 30-year loan and paid off the $22,000 student loan debt.
“I’ll never pay this house off,” she said matter-of-factly.
McGeeney said she worries about the overriding notion that men who are going through depression often fail to seek help. Depression, after all, often can be explained by a chemical imbalance in the brain, she said. Seeking mental health help should be no different than seeking medical help for a broken bone or for cancer, McGeeney reasoned.
Since her son’s death, McGeeney has written about 15 songs to help her with the grieving process. She attends meetings at Heartbeat, a support group for loved ones of people who complete suicide. An Austrian pine tree in her backyard planted in memory of Landon was shorter than her 5-foot-frame when it was planted. Today McGeeney peers 25 feet up to view its top branches.
“Landon’s death has made me more compassionate of the pain people go through,” McGeeney said, choosing her words thoughtfully. “It has made me less tolerant of the little things people worry about.”
Reaching out to men, and shattering a stigma
By Emily Shockley
Kim Archuleta’s brother, Troy Goad, gave great bear hugs. He loved being in the mountains. He was a landscaper in the Aspen area and was “sweet as sweet could be” to his elderly clients.
It helps Archuleta, 43, of Grand Junction, to talk about her brother, but most people don’t ask about him. Few know what to say after he killed himself at the age of 39 on May 25, 2012.
“It’s a taboo subject,” she said. “There’s still a stigma and I don’t know how to break that.”
Archuleta hopes to chip away at that stigma by hanging posters in men’s bathrooms and placing coasters in bars that promote suicide prevention site mantherapy.org.
“I want to break the cycle of men not feeling like they can get help,” she said.
Her brother was depressed after developing a bone problem that left him unable to work or hike into his beloved mountains. He moved from Basalt to his parents’ home in Grand Junction. He would get angry, complain, then bottle up his feelings. His brothers were worried about him and took his guns away. When his parents were gone one day, he found his grandfather’s gun and shot himself with it.
Archuleta’s parents were in shock, so, as the eldest of six siblings, she signed the coroner’s note and collected his wallet and jewelry, all while she herself was in disbelief.
“You have this sense of blame. I wish I could get rid of the guilt,” she said. “It’s a strange loss to know they purposely did that.”
After finding some local suicide support groups had members who have been dealing with their loved ones’ suicide for years, she decided she wants to start her own group for people who have lost someone more recently. She will wait a few months longer on the advice that people who have gone through a loss often wait two years to start a support group.
She didn’t know how many people in Mesa County commit suicide until her brother became part of that count. She said she wishes she had offered him a place to live or talked to him about depression. Her new goals are to raise awareness and console other families through Facebook groups like Putting a Face on Suicide.
“I can’t change the fact that my brother is dead, but I may be able to help one person save their family that grief,” she said.