It's been five years since Jacob Sexton, a soldier with the Indiana National Guard, came home with nightmares after two combat deployments, and on a Monday evening in a movie theater with family and friends, killed himself with a pistol shot. He was 21-years-old.
The story is horrifying, and sadly familiar. On this day, we pause to honor the 21.9 million living Americans who have served in uniform. We might also remember the estimated 8,000 veterans and 475 active duty, reserve and National Guard men and women who took their own lives last year in the ongoing tragedy of military and veteran suicide.
Jacob's death, like the others, could have been prevented. That's the view from Farmland, a hamlet in Indiana's corn and soybean belt where Jacob's parents, Jeff and Barbara Sexton, raised Jacob. Jeff is a short-haul truck driver who's turned his grief into a personal crusade to save others from suicide. This year he helped draft suicide prevention legislation, but the bill, named after his son, remains stalled in Congress. Without a hard push, it is likely that the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2014 will remain stalled.
But I am coming to believe that suicide prevention should not be left only to government. Sure, the military services and the VA have dramatically improved prevention awareness and mental health services. The Veterans Crisis Line is a marvel of caring and efficient support. Yes, the government still needs to be pushed harder by Congress.
But the best suicide prevention is a friend. Someone who will see the signs of distress and have the gumption to ask: Are you feeling suicidal? And to stay with that person until help comes.
That didn't happen for Jacob Sexton -- Jake, as Jeff and Barbara called him. He enlisted in the Guard at the age of 17 and inside of two years was already home from combat. It was 18 months before he could tell his dad what happened: He'd been a turret gunner on a gun truck, parked at a checkpoint when a car came rocketing along at him, and Jake, minding warnings about vehicle suicide bombers, reacted appropriately.
"He opened fire and when they went to investigate it ended up being a family of four. No weapons. Just a miscommunication," said Jeff. "And that really tore into him, the -- you know, he was the only one who fired so there was no doubt he was the one that caused the ... you know, caused it."
Jake soon deployed again, and came home on leave that fall of 2009. On the Friday before Jake's suicide, he and Jeff were out in the garage talking and another incident came to light. On a heavily trafficked Kabul road, an Afghan driver had rammed Jake's Humvee, and the two got into an altercation. The Afghan punched Jake in the face. Jake told his dad that he shot the guy in the chest with his M-4 carbine. Jake said his superiors wrote it off as self-defense, but his dad could see it bothered him.
"That's not something you come home and brag about," Jeff told me. "That's deep. Deep! That's something that would really bother you ... but then the next couple of days he was fine, back to his cheerful self again."
Three days later, Jake shot himself to death.
Eventually, Jeff spoke with some of Jake's fellow soldiers, and he found something that made him furious. Jake had been struggling quietly with PTSD, anxious and depressed and unable to sleep. But the soldiers didn't notice, or they did notice and didn't know what to do, or they mentioned it to somebody and nothing was done.
A year ago last winter, Jeff heard Joe Donnelly, his new senator, talking about the need for better suicide prevention in the military. Out from Farmland went an email. "Dear Senator Donnelly," Jeff wrote in March 2013, "I'm willing to help in any way I can." The next day, Jeff's phone rang. "This is Joe," a voice said. Eventually, they crafted the legislation encouraging troops to be trained to intervene when someone's in distress.
Meantime, the pain of loss goes on. "They say it gets better," Jeff mused one evening, after he'd run a load of Honda parts down to Columbus, Ohio. "It doesn't."
"My wife and I were both doing therapy, she ended up losing her job over it, she had to take so much time off. Just couldn't deal with it," he said. "Quite honestly, still to this day I've had to have her on a personal suicide watch because she'll turn around and say, 'I just want to see Jacob,' and when she says that I know what she means."
He continues to push the idea that friends are the best prevention. One time recently he talked to a group of National Guard soldiers. "I told 'em flat out, 'If you got a problem or know somebody who does, don't be afraid to speak up.' Well, the first sergeant thanked me, and he told me later he had three guys step up and say they're having problems."
"I said, 'well, that's three less to worry about.'"
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.