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Mom: Military needs to stop soldier suicides

Posted August 13, 2012

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— U.S. troops committed suicide at a rate of roughly one a day in the first five months of this year, according to the Pentagon. Lillington resident Angie Selvia knows the sad statistics. She lost her daughter and soldier son-in-law on Feb. 4.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” she said.

The Pembertons’ tragedy is one snapshot in the bigger picture of violence and suicide among active-duty military members.

The Pentagon reported 154 suicides among active-duty military members this year from Jan. 1 through June 3, compared with 124 killed in Afghanistan during the same period. The death toll has exasperated military leaders from Washington to Fort Bragg.

Selvia says she saw no sinister signs and felt no bad vibes last Christmas – the last time she saw her daughter, Tiffany Pemberton, and son-in-law, Jason Pemberton, 28. A little more than a month later, Jason Pemberton shot and killed his 25-year-old wife and then turned the gun on himself, committing suicide.

“She was his world, and he was her world,” Selvia said. “I really did not (see any signs) … If he had been in his right mind, he never would have done that. Never.”

Medically discharged from the Army after three deployments to Iraq, Jason Pemberton received three Purple Hearts for his injuries. The former warrior came home, moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., with his wife and enrolled in a motorcycle repair school.

Despite the distance, Selvia and her daughter remained close.

Jason and Tiffany Pemberton Mother-in-law: Military needs 'to find a solution' to stop suicides

“There was not a day that went by that we did not speak over the phone,” Selvia said, noting that they would often talk four or five times a day.

Selvia said she knew her son-in-law’s mind had become a battlefield, full of depression and post-traumatic stress. James and Tiffany Pemberton went to the Veterans Affairs hospital a couple of times shortly before he ended it all.

“They would tell her, or would tell him, that they couldn’t help him anymore. They didn’t know what else to do for him,” Selvia said. " (My daughter) knew that he struggled. She knew that he struggled every day, and she was right there with him, struggling and trying to help him.”

Earlier this summer, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called suicides "the most frustrating challenge" he has faced as secretary. He says it's up to military members of all ranks to look for signs of stress among their comrades and aggressively urge them to seek help.

Maj. Gen. Michael Garrett, former chief of staff for the 18th Airborne at Fort Bragg, said earlier this year that officials have examined every suicide at Fort Bragg, and they have seen four common threads – relationship failures, professional failures, alcohol abuse and drug abuse. Those factors can be caused or worsened by multiple deployments, he said.

“We have just not come up with the answer that would help folks solve problems without killing themselves,” Garrett said. “I think that 10 years at war is the reason we’re having many of the challenges that we do,” Garrett said.

Something that makes the phenomenon so puzzling is that about half of the service members who committed suicide were never deployed. That has led some to reason that the tough economy, combined with the rigors of military life, is also to blame.

If they're not killing themselves, troubled troops sometimes commit high-profile acts of violence. In January, Staff Sgt. Joshua Eisenhauer fired a gun on firefighters and police officers from his Fayetteville apartment, sparking a four-hour standoff.

A former squad leader said Eisenhauer had been depressed after returning from his third deployment. He was assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, where soldiers recover from physical wounds and mental health problems.

Richard Varela is a licensed mental health counselor and Vietnam veteran whose Fayetteville clientele is mostly military. Whether a soldier has seen combat or not, he says, there is still a perceived stigma in asking for help.

“You’ve got great soldiers. They do a great job, but we’re taxing their coping skills to the max,” Varela said. “One of the problems with soldiers is that they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs. They’re afraid they’ll lose their careers. They’re afraid they’ll lose their security clearances if it’s perceived they have a problem.”

Varela says many troops come back from combat feeling lost.

"One of the most dangerous times for anyone is when they lose their concept of self. In other words, where are they in space and time? When they can’t get that kind of connection, they float," he said.

"A small situation in your mind can become blown up to the point that you’re now hopeless and helpless, and maybe the last thing you’ve got control over is your own life," Varela added. "And then the familiarity with death, having seen so much of it in other countries, is like huh, just another day at work.”

Some soldiers see getting help as a weakness, but Garrett says that culture is changing.

“Soldiers today, family members today, have more outlets and are more comfortable talking about challenges and seeking help,” he said, noting the "ACE" approach, which stands for Ask, Care and Escort. "My sense is that we have reduced stigma. Soldiers are comfortable."

Still, Selvia says, the military needs to do more.

“They created this problem. Now they need to find a solution for it,” she said. " I would never want another family to deal with anything like this.”

71 Comments

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  • gunny462 Aug 15, 4:30 p.m.

    "I agree with alot of posts...such as Bush didn't lie; there were WMD's in Iraq and even IF they hadn't found any, he WAS given the intelligence that there were"

    Actually saw those WMDs after DS/DS. The problem was with the 'agents' used by the French and ??? (can't remember the other country) who were given false intel.

    Also, if any of these intellectual know-it-alls could/would read what a WMD comprises they'd be amazed.

  • gunny462 Aug 15, 3:56 p.m.

    "a blind fool if you don't see there are cover-ups everywhere in the military & gov't"

    Yup area 51 for sure.....

    "There is a suicide and/or murder just about every day - this article even states that the Pentagon said 30 more soldiers died earlier this year from suicide than in combat/deployment situations"

    And the military covered it up?

    "When you've lived around a military base your entire life, you see & hear a whole lot more than is reported"

    uhuh... little green men. btw, 24 years in the A.F, 2 in GS working for Command I.G. I had a friend who killed 2 people and committed suicide and I know for a fact that 1. I couldn't have stopped him from killing those people nor 2. stopped him from killing himself and 3? There was no cover up.

    I've stated this before and will attempt to enlighten you again. The armed services is legally bound to report all deaths, war or otherwise.

  • seven74215 Aug 15, 1:16 p.m.

    I was in the service for four years. Never had or saw or know of any of my fellow soldiers who suffer or have suffered from PTSD from anything that the military has caused. Not saying it doesn't exist. I'm saying that it's not just one factor (the military) causing them to commit sucide. That might be a part of it but its not the underlying factor.

    America's suicide rate has been proven to rise and fall in relation to how well the economy is doing, according to the first-ever study to compare suicide rates to U.S. business cycles. I've tried to put the link to a site in here by copying and pasting but it didn't work. Just google Sucide rate in America and you can find the link. The study was done in 2011.

  • cherilinton Aug 14, 6:33 p.m.

    First off I am so sorry for your loss. Fortunately I still have my soldier with me, barely. He had a major break in Dec and asked his VA "team" to help. Every week they would tell us still trying to figure out what to do. The end of Feb all he wanted was to die(and not the first time). As things escalated I had to leave the house for my own safety. I ended up calling 911 to save him. Because of my initial presence and the ivolvement of a weapon the state's answer is to charge him with felony assault. Here is one of our wounded warriors that asked for help when he really needed it and was put off. It could have been the end of us both and then my mother would have been in your shoes. The way it stands now legally my hands are tied and can no longer call for help or we lose our house and he goes to prison. All I can do is to cross my fingers and hope we both wake up the next day. They have to fix this.

  • NH Aug 14, 5:02 p.m.

    I saw this article earlier and wow the comments that have posted since then! I agree with alot of posts...such as Bush didn't lie; there were WMD's in Iraq and even IF they hadn't found any, he WAS given the intelligence that there were. Iraq's timing may have been off but we should have rid the world of Hussein long long ago...the UN actually should have done something long ago. We absolutely belonged in Afghanistan and anyone who can't see that really needs a wake up call. The military does try to work with PTSS and many times medication is the only way to begin treatment. Yes, many of our problems do stem from a lack of morals and from what has become an entitlement society. I still feel sad for this family and pray healing for them can begin. I know many times many govt agencies have "cover ups" but I think this excuse is way overused!

  • brassy Aug 14, 3:11 p.m.

    My heart breaks for this family!

  • jjordan231179 Aug 14, 3:08 p.m.

    "Prevention programs are good but if you really want to help the military out we need to bring evceryone home"

    Sounds GREAT!! Too bad Americans keep voting for warmongers like Obama and Romney.

  • daughters of anarchy Aug 14, 2:54 p.m.

    @jwood011...Where is your proof in a military cover up? I have plenty of Troops around me everyday who have been deployed multible times and they are just fine! Sorry about your friend because that is tragic but some people just can't take it at all.dwolfkeeper2-----------------
    It has everything to do with their MOS sometimes too. And when they were there. Where they were. Ground pounders such as my husband and son are exposed to way more than say motor t.

  • kaiser22006 Aug 14, 2:54 p.m.

    angel100912 Thank you for your apology. I apologize as well for assuming things that are incorrect. This story was to get recognition for the returning troops that may be faced with these same problems and for the ones that are here now dealing with this exact issue. I wish you and your family now the best also. Again, thank you and please accept my sincere apology.

  • daughters of anarchy Aug 14, 2:50 p.m.

    If I may state my humble opinion once more,... I don't care who started the war. Does it do us any good to blame anyone? Are they going to be held accountable? Will it bring back all of our dead Hero's? Will they do prison time? Repay all the money that has been spent? This is where we are. What I do see as a mistake however, is how long we have been engaged in both of these wars. We should have had a clear objective. Our troops should have been given their orders and been allowed to carry them out without the current ROE, (rules of engagement) and get this done with Godspeed and come back home. Our troops have been deployed and deployed again and again. They are fighting a war that they do not believe can be won as in past wars.

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