The VA estimates 22 veterans commit suicide each day. There’s a stigma that surrounds military suicides. When a loved one dies in this manner, grieving family and friends often don’t talk about it openly. But Joanna Gallup Eldridge of Waterford says their stories need to be heard.
Joanna Gallup Eldridge
Two days before Halloween, her 31-year-old husband, Justin Eldridge, shot himself. "He couldn’t take the pain anymore he just wanted to have peace. He didn’t want to see it and feel it anymore," she said.
Eldridge was a Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps assigned to a motor transport unit. He served eight months in Afghanistan. They met shortly after he came home in 2005. She said, “He carried himself with pride. I found that extremely attractive and his smile, his smile was the most wonderful part of him.”
The Marine didn’t talk about his deployment, telling her he’d take the awful things he remembered to the grave. But his silence came at a price. Eldridge was on edge, depressed, and angry. He had insomnia and when he could sleep, nightmares plagued him. His widow said, "It was always unstable at home with his moods and behavior. And he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. He went to rehab and got the help he needed and that was basically our life for a long time.”
Eldridge says her husband missed the military and chose to re-enlist in the Marine Reserves in 2008. But he continued to struggle. He was admitted to a local hospital after his first suicide attempt but it wasn't equipped to handle his PTSD. The VA told them he had to wait three weeks to get specialized treatment. She called her congressman and Richard Blumenthal, then the state attorney general to intervene. It took the VA just three days to admit him.
Blumenthal, who is now a U.S Senator, befriended the young Marine after joining the local chapter of the Marine Corps league. Last week, he took what’s normally a private tragedy to the floor of the Senate. For seven minutes, he spoke about Eldridge's struggles even after getting treatment.
Blumenthal told his colleagues, "Perhaps not the result of the VA or its doctors, or its hospitals, because we are only just beginning to learn how to confront post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury with the specialized diagnosis and care these diseases demand."
Yet according to Kim Ruocco, "The guys who have gotten treatment very often have waited until they're very sick." Ruocco directs suicide postvention programs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors or TAPS. She knows the struggles firsthand. Her husband, a Marine helicopter pilot, killed himself in 2005.
Ruocco said, “A lot of their self worth a lot of their identity is tied around being a member of the military. So taking that issue, the illness, the injury and then the fact that they have this culture that sees help-seeking as a weakness instead of a strength, it’s a dangerous combination.”
This week, the VA announced it’s hired an additional 800 mental health workers. But Joanna Gallup Eldridge wants the military to do more to help veterans re-integrate so suicide isn’t seen as their only option for relief. She said, "Part of me is angry with Justin and as irrational as it may be, I'm angry that he left me and my children. But I'm also happy that he’s at peace and he's not suffering."
Her husband is buried nearby in a private cemetery so she and their four children can visit him as often as they wish, including this Veterans' Day.