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TAPS Danny Weiss photo

Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

Danny Weiss (left) was a paratrooper and U.S. Army Ranger who was inspired to join the military by the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" and its associated oral histories of WWII Airborne troops.

 


Military suicide epidemic compels survivor families to speak out

by Esther Bergdahl
June 05, 2013


TAPS Danny Weiss boots

Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Danny Weiss was a paratrooper, an Army Ranger and a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan. He was 25 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Weiss family keeps rooms full of their son's effects.

TAPS Andy Weiss room

Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

Andy and Julianne Weiss still haven't opened many of the letters of condolence they've received after the March 2012 suicide of their son, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Danny Weiss.

TAPS Juliane Weiss

Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

"He won every award except the one for women," said Julianne Weiss of Danny's graduation from Officer Candidate School in 2009.

TAPS Danny Weiss list of duties

Courtesy of Andy Weiss

Danny Weiss made a list of his duties as a platoon leader. "Lights for [Afghan] farmers," "Bring everybody home" and "Keep civilians safe" are among his top priorities.


Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

"Danny's men didn't want to hear that he had hurt himself."



Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

Andy Weiss describes "moral injury."



Esther Bergdahl/MEDILL

The Weiss family doesn't know why Danny took his own life, but they observed profound changes in him during his time in the service, some unsettling and others gratifying.


U.S. Army 1st Lt. Danny Weiss was a casualty of war, but not of combat.

“You practice saying ‘I lost my son to suicide, he was killed by suicide, gunshot wound to the head,’” Andy Weiss, 59, of Naperville, said.

“When I first said that, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand,” he said. “But it allows you to practice saying the reality, because it's a reality. It's part of your reality.”

Danny Weiss hid any outward signs of suicide risk before taking his life on March 4, 2012. He accelerated his high school graduation to join the military as a 17-year-old. He earned every possible honor throughout his training as a paratrooper, an Army Ranger and an officer. His men loved and respected him. He deployed three times to Afghanistan, and was preparing to return a fourth.

“He had just done his latest evaluation,” said Julianne Weiss, 62. “We saw a copy of it, and it was, 'Stellar, shining, ready to be promoted to captain immediately.'”

On the day Danny died, 21 other veterans and service members also committed suicide, according to a widely cited statistic in a 2012 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study. More U.S. military members died by suicide last year than died in combat in Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press.

“What are we going to do? All we can do is run toward the disaster at this point,” said Andy Weiss.

One organization that confronts the issue of military suicide is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit founded by grieving military families who wanted to help other families with peer support.

“I think it would not be unreasonable to say that the number of people coming into TAPS on a daily basis grieving a death by suicide is comparable to the number of people grieving deaths in combat,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, TAPS public affairs officer.

“Thirty percent of new survivors last year were grieving a death in combat that was viewed as hostile action by the military,” she said. “Right off the bat, 19 percent say [their loved one’s cause of death was] suicide. Another 15 percent say ‘unknown,’ and those 15 percent, most of them are suicide.”

Discussing mental health and normalizing openness about the realities of military suicide is key to fighting stigma and saving lives, said the Weiss family. But Andy and Julianne, as well as their elder son, A.J., said they often feel invisible outside of supportive communities.

“People don't want to talk about mental health,” said Andy Weiss. “People don't want to talk about death. People don't want to talk about suffering. And we represent all of that to them.”

Part of that stems from the relatively low rate of loss in the United States’ current wars, as compared with the Vietnam War or WWII, said Neiberger-Miller.

“The experience of loss was much more universal [then], so people knew people who had lost someone. People knew what gold star banners mean,” she said. “Now it's unusual for people to know [those] families.”

A continuum of attention to suicide risk must begin at recruitment and basic training, said Andy Weiss, and it must include the other people in a service member’s life.

“The family is not prepared for the repercussions of what that human being has become,” he said. “Their loved one is transformed and we can only guess at that transformation. The Army needs to train the families as much as they train the soldier. They need to prepare Blue Star families [who have an active duty family member] for their warrior coming home."

The Pentagon is working to integrate more suicide prevention into the military. The Defense Suicide Prevention Office opened in 2011. Acting Director Jacqueline Garrick testified before a House subcommittee on the office’s efforts in March.Even with preparation and work, after the loss of a loved one, typically five to seven years may pass before families reach “a new normal,” Neiberger-Miller said.

“To survivors that sounds like forever, but to the outside world, I think it helps people understand why they need support for so long, and why they need to get it,” she said. “If families don't progress with their grief and don't address these things in some way, they can get stuck, and that's a terrible place to stay.”

Andy Weiss accepts that “we are still in the dark ages” of understanding mental health and suicide risk. “If we had a blood test, that would be great,” he said, “but we don't.”

Resistance to conversations about military suicide only confirms the need for more conversations, he said.

“We feel that we owe it to all Danny's brothers-in-arms to do our best to try and identify the key signs of enabling someone to think of suicide or enabling someone to have the opportunity to complete suicide,” Andy Weiss said. “Because one mistake like that is all it takes to cause irreparable damage to all the people in the wake."