As the tragic pace of military suicides continues across the United States, as profiled in the TEGNA series ‘Charlie Foxtrot’,multiple organizations formed to combat the problem, often staffed by veterans themselves, continue to grow in North Texas.
They are battle lines that Charles McKinney wishes had been drawn more aggressively back in 2007. McKinney doesn’t think his son Master Sgt. Jeffrey McKinney would have had a chance even if he’d made it home alive from his final tour in Iraq. He doesn’t think the services afforded veterans in 2007 would have been enough to keep his son from taking his own life.
"It hurts. It still hurts. It hurts a lot still,” McKinney said from his home in Hurst near Fort Worth.
McKinney keeps a memorial room in his home complete with his son’s dog tags, photos of his time in Iraq, the American flag given to him at his son’s funeral.
"I look at that sometimes and I say, you know, I know he had a full life but 20 years of his life is wrapped up in one little box,” he said touching the flag.
Jeffrey McKinney was a respected career soldier. But in Iraq he survived the concussions of at least five roadside bombs. He witnessed unspeakable death, picking up body parts of his fallen soldiers.
"They had like 32 killed in that year,” his father said. “And he felt like, responsible for each one of them."
In one fire fight women and children, used as shields by the enemy, were caught I the crossfire.
"And then the mothers screaming it's your fault, it's your fault. That really affected him."
Depression set in. He stopped eating and drinking. His superiors were concerned but he wasn’t removed from duty.
"Jeff had problems, he had issues. And couldn't help himself. And no one helped him,” Charles McKinney said.
Then, while on patrol, McKinney stepped out of his Humvee. It was July 11, 2007 in Adhamiyah, Iraq. He fired two shots at a random building then put his own rifle to his neck and pulled the trigger.
"We want everyone to know that Jeff was not a coward,” McKinney said of his son now buried in Germany. “Jeff didn't take his own life because he was afraid.”
By 2012, Matt Olson in Grapevine and his little brother Zach hadn't chased their demons away either. They'd both joined the Marines. Both served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We had similar experiences, seeing death,” said Olson who served his time overseas providing security with a military contractor. His brother Zachary was an active duty Marine in different parts of the two countries.
And by the time they came home to Texas, both brothers were dealing with the trauma of everything they saw, everything they had to do.
"Like hey come move in with me and we can deal with our demons together,” Matt Olson says he told his little brother. "And I thought it was going to help me and I thought I was going to help him. But really we were just a wreck. I mean he'd wake up screaming in the middle of the night."
Matt decided to take one more job in Kuwait, leaving his brother behind here in Texas. He thought his brother was stable enough to make it, for a while, on his own.
"Before I left he swore to me that he wouldn't, and I wouldn't (take my life). The whole pact thing. We'll just do this thing called life together and we'll be alright."
Zach wasn't alright. One night alone, he took his life too – a single .22 caliber bullet.
But Zach wasn’t the only ‘brother’ Matt Olson lost.
"Seven,” he said. Seven fellow warriors lost to suicide including his younger brother after they came home from war.
"It's not suicide in our world,” Olson said attempting to explain the mindset of a post-war veteran struggling at home. “Because you can call getting out of a vehicle under fire suicide. You put the round in the chamber and spin the barrel on life while you're overseas. And you come back, and to pull the trigger sitting on a couch in your living room, it’s not the same. You already risked your life a ton and you did stuff that no one else would. So really it's just punching out, cashing in your chips, you know, saying I've had enough and you back away from the table and you're like I'm done playing."
Army Scout Tom Rasmussen lost eight fellow soldiers in battle, in a single firefight, on his last tour in Afghanistan. And, since he’s come home, he’s lost four more to suicide.
“You see things your brain isn’t supposed to see and try to process things your brain was never meant to try to process,” he said.
Which is why he now works at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic in Addison, part of Metrocare Services. He is an Outreach Coordinator trying to bring more struggling soldiers, and their families, into the treatment program. The Dallas-area facility opened in June and has already counseled more than 200 families, accepting each case regardless of someone’s ability to pay and regardless of their discharge status from the military.
“We are trying to break that wall down, understand that it's OK to go get help,” said Rasmussen who admits he has had battles with demons of his own. “We're here to help. And there's a lot of people in this community that want to help you."
"We're able to respond to that and really connect to other resources that are there in the community so that we can help, quickly,” said Caitlin Schraufnagel, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and training director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic. Before joining the clinic, Dr. Schraufnagel spent several years working exclusively with post 9/11 veterans on a large scale clinical research study for treatment of PTSD and specializes in providing individualized evidence-based care to soldiers and families impacted by trauma, depression, anxiety, relational difficulties and other mental health issues.
"Whether it be crisis lines and so forth, those are there for that rock-bottom moment. But we really want to put that focus on what we can do to help reach people earlier,” said Schraufnagel adding that an estimated 40% of veterans struggling with PTSD symptoms aren’t getting any help at all.
“If you can get here in 10 minutes, get here,” said Rasmussen. “We'll get you the help you need, the help you deserve, we'll get you set up, we'll get you on a path to success. And if it's something we can't do we'll hook you up with somebody that can."
Matt Olson isn’t taking his brother’s death quietly either. He wears a black ring on his right index finger. It is the symbol of the group 22Kill: a non-profit attempting to fight the estimated 22 military suicides a day by connecting veterans with the now dozens of groups formed in North Texas to help veterans fight their demons, and win their battles.
"I couldn't be there for my brother when he passed. I did try to do everything I could,” he says explaining why he now works at 22Kill to intercept and prevent any further suicides.
“Yes,” he said. “It's just doing my part. "
And because so many others, like Matt Olson, Tom Rasmussen, Caitlin Schraufnagel are joining the fight, a family whose son never got help, never came home sees more hope for soldiers struggling now.
"Like that one 1st Sgt. told me,” Charles McKinney said. “Jeff didn't take his own life in Iraq. Iraq killed Jeff.”
"At that time there wasn't as much out here, 10 years ago,” as there is now,” Jeffrey McKinney’s mother Rhonda McKinney said.
"So we want somebody to help these now, today,” said Charles McKinney.
"I'll see him someday but it's just not today,” Matt Olson said while standing at his brother’s grave at Grapevine Cemetery. “My season's not over yet. I’ve got to keep truckin."
And a growing group of veterans’ organizations are promising to do just that.
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