Steve Von Jett’s knees fell on the gravel and he began to weep. His body shook as he wailed uncontrollably. The news left the captain inconsolable.
Two hours earlier on that September morning in 2010, he and fellow U.S. Soldiers had breakfast with his friend, Maj. Paul Carron at Forward Operating Base Lagman in southern Afghanistan. A tall, lanky officer with protruding ears, Carron impressed his peers with his wit and enthusiasm.
Von Jett and Carron had deployed to a forward operating base just outside of the barren Afghan city Qalat, and they met each day before Von Jett took his post as a logistics officer who coordinated supplies for U.S. forces and Carron assumed his as a joint operations officer.
The friends sat on picnic tables in plywood-walled huts within the FOB. They talked about when they’d meet that night and what movie they planned to watch as they typically did during the year-long deployment.
Later that day, as Von Jett issued weapons and armor stock for infantry units deploying throughout the small urban center, his friend, Capt. Adam Sperry pulled him aside.
Something had happened to Paul, he said.
Concerned, Von Jett took the five-minute walk from the supply tent to Carron’s quarters, which sat across from the one where Von Jett slept. As he approached the gathering crowd, another Soldier, Aries Rebugio, a youthful looking captain of Asian descent stopped him.
“You don’t need to go over there,” he said, as a grim expression crossed his face. In a low voice, Rebugio told Von Jett what happened to Carron.
Von Jett didn’t want to believe it. He couldn’t believe it.
Unknown to his peers and even his own family, Von Jett had already been fighting his own battle with suicide for more than three years before that 2010 mission.
The notions started permeating in his mind in the months following his first deployment as an enlisted signals intelligence voice interceptor in 2006. At any moment, he said the desire to kill himself could surface.
“Dark thoughts would be entering my mind all the time,” he said. “I was living in a fog.”
Von Jett said the ideas plagued him every week.
There were times when Von Jett found himself alone in his car with a firearm. He said some fortunate twist of fate always intervened; either another Soldier walked by, or he received a text or phone call that would jolt him from taking harmful action.
Von Jett said he has failed in his attempts to take his own life.
“I’ve been saved by circumstance,” Von Jett said, now a major and instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade. Today Von Jett trains public affairs officers to be the Army’s representatives to the media and surrounding communities.
Suicide has impacted the Army at each level from the smallest unit to the largest brigade with young enlisted male Soldiers being the most vulnerable.
To help the Army continually curb suicide numbers, Von Jett teaches a segment of the Public Affairs Communications Strategy Course that focuses on prevention, response and identifying the factors that lead to suicide.
He bases the curriculum on his own experience. After 21 years in the Army, Von Jett has seen both sides of the tragedy of suicide, as a survivor and as a friend of those who succumbed to it.
The stress had been building in the days and weeks leading up to the morning that would change the course of Von Jett’s life in July 2006.
He spent years training and preparing for the 2006 deployment, which would test his mental and physical limits. For three years, he studied land navigation and map reading until he had mastered those skills.
Finally, as a member of a low-level voice intercept team, Von Jett would embark on missions with different infantry units including 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.
He once saw an IED strike a school bus filled with women and children. He witnessed suicide bombers blow off limbs and body parts after accidently igniting explosive devices.
On that 2006 mission Von Jett and his unit tracked Taliban fighters through the winding, rocky paths of the Hindu Kush, wary that any second an enemy sniper could have eyes on them. To conceal themselves, they had to huddle on the mountainside and live off the land with few amenities. They huddled in makeshift shelters in the Larzab Valley while warming themselves from the sudden Afghan temperature drops.
The Soldiers went weeks without a hot shower or seeing a military base.
Any descending movement could clue a Taliban sniper to their position. A faulty motion could mean death for a member of the party. Von Jett used radar and sonar equipment to track enemy positions then transmit the data to air and ground forces.
To help cope with operating under grim circumstances, Von Jett bonded with his fellow troops, especially Sgt. Rob Kassin, a square-jawed Soldier from Las Vegas.
Von Jett and Kassin shared their love of Stephen King and science fiction novels and played chess to pass the time when they met at FOB Lagman.
The exhilarating rush from working outside the wire excited Von Jett.
Von Jett’s innovative abilities as a translator impressed his peers so much so that his supervisor recommended him for officer candidate school.
On July 16, 2006, before dawn broke over the Larzab Valley, Von Jett agreed to sign paperwork that would extend his enlistment and would use that time to attend OCS. He would also receive a signing bonus of $10,000.
To reach the FOB, Von Jett had to ride a Humvee out of the valley toward the base which sat outside the nearby village. And that meant leaving his unit in the valley behind. Before Von Jett left, he talked with Kassin about how they would catch up and finish their last chess game.
As the vehicle sped along a dusty road through the lush Afghan countryside, Von Jett heard about a casualty over the radio.
He recognized Kassin’s call sign and his heart sank. Later that day, Von Jett would learn that his friend had gone on a security patrol with a fire team that morning.
Kassin and fellow Soldiers walked the perimeter surrounding their camp in Larzab near the Zabul Province. The Afghan snipers Von Jett had tracked earlier opened fire on the squad, striking Kassin.
The 29-year-old sergeant died before his body hit the ground.
Kassin’s death left Von Jett numb. He knew if he had remained with his unit, he could have used his grid tracking system to locate the Taliban fighters and prevented the tragedy.
Could he have saved him? Now Von Jett would never know, and the guilt grated him.
Von Jett struggles to recall the details of the remaining months of that deployment, likely a side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder, Von Jett said.
He does remember the afternoon he returned home to Fort Polk, La. His wife, Bridgette, noticed his listless expression as he climbed in their car on the drive home.
She told her husband that he did not return home as the same man after the 2006 tour, Von Jett recalled. He no longer enjoyed watching scary movies, the jump scares triggered his PTSD. He no longer attended concerts or shopped at malls; crowds and loud noises made him anxious.
When he visited his hometown of Joplin, Mo., for the holidays, he shocked his parents when he casually mentioned the graphic details of casualties he witnessed.
And then the thoughts started coming. As the months passed and Von Jett attempted to settle back into his life, he increasingly blamed himself for Kassin’s death.
Although Von Jett had followed his leadership’s advice to accept the signing bonus, he still wondered if he could have passed on the award and remained with his unit.
“And when you realize that you took $10,000, and it resulted in a … father, a son, a sibling, [an] American soldier losing their life, so you can have a little bit of goddamn money?” he continued.
“Whether that’s 100 percent true or not … it’s a core belief. It’s sewn on your heart … That’s something that is real hard to shake off. A lot of self-doubt starts to creep in.”
When Von Jett attended officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga., in early 2007, he decided he no longer wanted any part of the Army. He had seen his fellow Soldiers die and did not want to see it again.
Von Jett likened his depression to a dual cassette player.
On one side, the soundtrack of all the good in his life would play; his wife’s smile, the camaraderie among his fellow Soldiers; and on the other, his depression, and the guilt he felt from Kassin’s passing would be continuously blaring. In 2007, the depression track overtook the good.
He told his instructors that he wanted to go home. He decided that he would purposely fail his physical training courses. Then he received a message.
Over dinner in a hotel room in the coastal city of Mobile, Ala., his wife told him she was pregnant with a baby boy. Von Jett knew what he had to do.
“You decide to go forward because you realize you got a baby on the way,” he said. “I mean, sometimes the world is just bigger than us sometimes. I think that’s why I’m still here.”
Von Jett would graduate from OCS that spring and earn the bars that certified him ready to lead Soldiers. Three years later, his mental strength would be tested once again, in the spring of 2010 in Afghanistan.
Von Jett met Paul Carron after the Soldiers received an assignment to the Vilseck Rose Barracks near Grafenwoehr, Germany. Von Jett, then still a new platoon leader who completed his first overseas tour in Iraq, saw Carron, three years his senior, as a mentor.
“He was the type of leader that I wanted to be,” Von Jett said. “He always seemed to be two steps ahead of us.”
Carron, a 1999 West Point graduate and Army Ranger, had taken Von Jett and other lieutenants under his wing and taught them the finer points of being a staff officer. He earned praise from his peers for understanding the needs of his Soldiers and placing their welfare above his own.
Carron would be the first to tackle difficult assignments. At 33, Carron didn’t look much different from his West Point cadet photo; he still had the boyish looks of his academy days.
He enjoyed the combative side of being a Soldier, including going out on the range to practice firing weapons. Off duty, Carron loved being in the wilderness and going hunting. “He was inspiring,” Von Jett said.
He offset his sometimes-serious demeanor with a dry wit and would be the first to crack a joke to lighten the mood.
This made Carron’s decision on the afternoon of Sept. 18, 2010, all the more shocking. An experienced staff officer, Carron’s tour in 2010 marked his fifth deployment.
“It was just unfathomable to us that somebody so driven, somebody with seemingly so much to live for … would resort to such an action,” said Maj. Joshua Frye, now a public affairs officer who served as a military police officer in Qalat in 2010. “You know, that really shocked a lot of people in the unit.”
“This is … a stellar officer and a stellar person. And to think we could lose somebody like him …”
Carron’s suicide came during a period of high tension in the central Asian country on its parliamentary Election Day.
The Taliban threatened anyone who participated in the elections and western media reported attacks in the northern part of the country.
Two hours after Von Jett and Carron had breakfast, Carron’s squadron commander, pulled Carron aside. He delivered some personal news to Carron.
Within minutes of receiving that notice, Carron walked into his tent and committed suicide.
At only 33 years old, Carron left behind his wife, Susan, daughter, Madeline, and his unborn son, Luke. His father Douglas, retired as a sergeant major and his sister also served in the Army. The major earned such respect from his peers, that he received full military honors. The Army buried his remains at Arlington.
Von Jett still gets flashbacks about the day he sobbed uncontrollably in Afghanistan. He can still feel the weight of Carron’s casket when he and three other Soldiers loaded his remains on the helicopter to return to Kandahar and eventually the U.S. The guilt of not being there to save Carron still haunts him.
He had learned by then how to shutter his emotions towards suicide.
Spiraling in the dark
In the years following Carron’s death, Von Jett found it even more difficult to cope with the suicidal urges. He continued to keep his problem hidden from his family, and even experienced panic attacks.
He told his children that he built a woodshop within the family’s house for craft making and special projects. But he actually used it as a private place to shield them from his breakdowns.
When his children went on the rides at theme parks, he stood off to the side, away from the crowds. To avoid a public outburst, he trained himself to suppress his emotions.
“After years and years … I was effectively like emotionally flatlined all the time, until I would hit points where I couldn’t sustain that anymore,” Von Jett said. “And then I would lose control. I would collapse onto the floor shaking, [terrified] … panicking. I couldn’t breathe and would be nonfunctional. All the emotion that I had been hiding and internalizing, was just washing over me and trying to get out. Because I forced myself to not feel anything for so long.”
When Von Jett became a company commander, he’d take his formation out for exercise and would step away and roll up in a blanket inside his pickup.
“I would have a panic attack in the truck,” he said. “And then I would get out and take the company on a run.”
At 42, he still bears a youthful optimism when talking about his years in the Army, as both an enlisted linguist and then as an infantry officer. But lines under his eyes bear a weariness from carrying the burden of guilt and depression for more than a decade.
To this day, Von Jett admits he has not fully found peace yet. He said he does not know if he will ever reach that day. But he believes he can overcome those thoughts by speaking about suicide with others who have the same struggles.
In 2015 he changed career fields to military public affairs, acting as a liaison for spreading information from Army leaders to the media and in turn the public.
The Army assigned him as public affairs officer of the Old Guard, whose sentinels guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Arlington’s solemn grounds. The unit’s sacred duties including performing a final ceremony for the fallen service members and their families.
In 2018, a male Soldier who worked in the Old Guard’s public affairs staff, flustered by the mounting stress, confided in Von Jett that he thought about taking his own life. As they sat in Von Jett’s office on Jackson Avenue, within two blocks of Arlington National Cemetery at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, the Soldier said he had PTSD and struggled to get up in the morning.
Von Jett felt the sudden urge to console the Soldier, to let him know that he had felt the same pull to commit the same act.
“This Soldier painted a picture of everything that I was going through,” he said. “I saw everything that I was going through in [him].”
Von Jett had been looking for the right time to share his struggle with someone else for 12 years. Now he had someone who understood sitting before him.
The words came out of Von Jett’s mouth before he realized he said them.
“Hey man, me too,” he said. “I also want to kill myself sometimes.”
“We’re both sinking. We’re both in this together.”
The Soldier appeared relieved as he listened to Von Jett publicly talk about his suicidal thoughts for the first time.
Both Soldiers reached a moment of revelation. Von Jett had come to terms with the storm that had tormented him for so long. The younger Soldier suddenly realized that an Army leader of higher rank shared his struggle.
Von Jett, then said the male Soldier went on to seek mental health counseling and Von Jett even presided over the Soldier’s promotion ceremony. He still keeps in regular contact with the Soldier through messages and texts.
In the months that followed, Von Jett would first tell Bridgette, his wife, and then his three children. He would finally confide to leaders at the Old Guard.
A time to heal
Soldiers contemplating suicide or experiencing a mental health crisis, can call the Military Crisis Line by dialing 988 and then pressing one. For those unsure of how or when to use the crisis line, the Army Resilience Directorate developed suicide ideation battle drills that are intended to support the identification of suicide thoughts and plans and how to navigate them. The battle drills cards are for leaders, peers, and family members.
Soldiers and veterans can also visit the Army’s suicide prevention website for additional resources.
Although Von Jett acknowledges the Army’s measures to prevent suicide at its roots have merit, he believes Soldiers can find true healing in the words of peers who share the same experiences, as he did.
Today as an instructor at the Defense Information School, the military’s schoolhouse for training its public affairs professionals, he teaches a segment instructing PA officers on effective messaging to reduce the stigma of suicide and to support prevention. And each semester he speaks candidly about his battle with suicide, and how the deaths of his friends drove him towards the dark thoughts.
In October, Frye, now a public affairs student at DINFOS, attended one of Von Jett’s prevention and response sessions, where he spoke for more than an hour about his experiences battling suicidal ideations and the trauma he experienced following his friends’ deaths.
As a former police officer, Frye has had his own brushes with suicide. He once witnessed the aftermath of a 19-year-old Soldier who killed himself by driving his BMW into a curb at 60 miles an hour in Germany.
The impact sent the Soldier flying into the air. The vehicle rolled over, with the impact trapping the Soldier inside the car, killing him instantly. Following an investigation Frye learned the Soldier struggled to get over a failed relationship.
Frye said Von Jett’s story resonates with students, especially young Soldiers who may contemplate self-harm.
“I’ve never met an officer that has ever discussed their struggles in such a forum, much less in front of 77 people,” Frye said. “It takes a tremendous amount of [courage] I don’t know what drives him … You’re putting yourself out there, you’re risking a lot of emotional vulnerability, and personal vulnerability.”
In February 2022, Von Jett finally sought professional help at Fort Meade’s behavioral health clinic and began attending behavioral counseling sessions. He spends more time with his three children and said he has grown happier than he has been in years.
He still has his bad days. He still feels the guilt of not being able to save Kassin and Carron. But he knows that he can do more good by talking about and sharing the struggles that plagued him for so long.
And that he can finally learn to live with his feelings of guilt, especially about not being there on that patrol in 2006.
Von Jett chose to endure the pain that never seemed to end and the dread that hovered over him. He did it for Bridgette, his college sweetheart that he met while attending Missouri Southern State College, for his three children, and for the Soldiers he served alongside, first in the infantry and then at The Old Guard’s public affairs office.
Von Jett said the haunting memories of his combat deployments remain; he has learned to live with them.
“They’re the scars that we bear to take care of the people we love,” Von Jett said. “They don’t destroy us if we don’t let them. And the way that we survive them, is by talking about them and by getting the help together. All it takes is being open and honest about what’s happened to us because together we are stronger than these hurts.”