It was a typical Saturday morning for my family. As typical as it can be when you are a dual-military blended family and your better half is deployed overseas.
We had gotten up, done our household chores, attended guitar lessons, and were on the road to Orlando when I got a call that I’ll never forget – one that impacted me in a way I never thought it could. I’ve begun to doubt who I am, my faith, my core values, and all of my beliefs.
One phone call – six words – has changed my life. Those words have made me take a different look at who I am and what is important to me.
She shot herself in the face.
One of my former soldiers had killed herself.
What led up to that moment is something that has haunted me for the past two weeks, everyday. When I close my eyes at night, I see her as I so often did. Sitting in front of her laptop, or tossing her gear on and heading out on a mission overseas.
I don’t sleep. I’ve lost weight. And I carry survivor’s guilt. What could I have done to change the outcome?
She drifted between Savannah and Lakeland, Fla., for the better part of a year. She finally settled down in the Atlanta area, where she’d lived and worked prior to entering the Army.
Over the past six months, she got mixed up with, and addicted to, cocaine.
She already had an addiction to alcohol, and according to other friends of ours who tried reaching out to her, she was drinking and partying more, and becoming more and more despondent. She drifted in and out of rehab with the VA, and was unsuccessful with treatment.
She was apparently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, something that none of us were aware of. She did not confide in any of us that she was in pain – physical or emotional. My boss and I had both taken her to see counselors several times prior to, during, and after our deployment.
She’d allegedly attempted to overdose on cocaine Friday night, but was unsuccessful; supposedly her roommate revived her. She deactivated her Facebook account Friday night, and in front of her roommate Saturday morning, put a shotgun in her mouth and killed herself.
According to a Facebook posting by her roommate, this is what transpired, “It was exactly one week ago today that my dear friend and roommate took her own life in our home as I stood on the other side of the closet door that she had barricaded herself in. I had been on the phone with 911 for only a few minutes, but enough time to give them our names, address, situation, etc., and I think she must have heard what I was doing and made up her mind that she would not be stopped. As the operator was assuring me that help was on the way, I heard a few clicking noises and then the gunshot.”
I’ll tell you this – I’ve never pulled any punches when it comes to talking as a senior leader about this. I feel responsible for what happened to her. I was hard on her – and wanted her to be better than she was.
She was older than my other soldiers, and I chewed her out for stunts she pulled and knew better about. I was tough on her because I knew she could be better than I was. I was tough on her because I knew she could be a great troop if she set her mind to it. She had the potential to go far in the military if she wanted to, and if she would just get off her duff and do the things my boss, me, and others were trying to help her with.
I feel as though if I’d taken more time to escort her to mental health, taken more time to find out what made her tick, she wouldn’t have gotten mixed up in drugs and maybe had a more positive outlook when she got out of the Army.
My logical brain knows I couldn’t have done anything to stop her, that she would still have done what she did. It is the pain in my heart that won’t go away.
The pain in my heart, knowing that we’ve lost a human life, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend … all to a senseless act when there were resources that could have prevented it.
Yes, I’m beating myself up over this; I feel like I failed her and her family. I feel as though I didn’t do something to protect her; as though I let her and them down.
In the Army, we live by a set of ethics that go like this –
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I understand that in time I will heal, and that the pain will go away; that this was not my fault. I understand I can take my soldiers to counselors but not force them to talk about what hurts them on the inside. But I feel like it is my inherent duty to always protect them – no matter where they are – in and out of uniform, whether we are still stationed together or not. It is what makes us a family.
I’ve written this article in the hopes that it will help others who are hurting. I’ve written this in the hopes of connecting with others out there like me, who have lost someone close to them.
I’ve written this article in the hopes that no leader, in whatever branch of service he or she serves, ever gets a phone and has to listen to those six words.
Editor’s note: Menger was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, where she worked as a public affairs NCOIC before her assignment at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Patrick AFB, Fla. She knew -and supervised – this soldier for approximately four years.