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The Gallagher family’s last full family photo, taken in October 2005. Courtesy of the Gallagher family
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Rise in Military Suicides: The War on Post Traumatic Stress

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

By Malini Wilkes 

Before Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jim Gallagher fought in Ramadi, Iraq, before he hung himself from the rafters of the garage, before Mary Gallagher got swallowed by an ocean of grief and guilt and long before either of them had ever heard of post traumatic stress (PTS), they were high school sweethearts who met on her mother’s front stairs in Rockaway Island, N. Y.

Mary was barely 17 when she and Jim fell in love in 1982. Within a few years they got married, had children and Jim joined the Marines, something he had wanted to do his whole life.

“Jim loved being a Marine,” Mary said. “He definitely earned that title, every bruise, every bit of pain.”

A Silent Killer

In 2005, Jim deployed to Ramadi, at a time when insurgents were battling U.S. forces in the streets. Mary believes two incidents deeply affected him that summer. His commanding officer was killed within weeks of arriving in Iraq and Jim later saw a young soldier burning during an attack but couldn’t save him.

When he returned home to Camp Pendleton, Calif., that fall, Mary noticed her husband seemed quiet, even sad. She also knew he was under stress at work. But she didn’t for a moment suspect that he was suffering from PTS and he was never diagnosed with it.

“As a Marine wife, I was looking for signs that were more erratic,” Mary said. “They teach you that if they start drinking or snapping or behaving violently or don’t sleep. … You’re looking for these signs.”

What Mary didn’t know then was PTS can be silent, almost invisible. Looking back now, she remembers he seemed to break his routine in the last weeks.

“Never in a million years would I have thought Jim was in danger from himself, that this illness was really affecting him,” she said. “That’s what hurts every day. That’s my own battle. My own guilt.”

‘Daddy, this isn’t funny’

On May 23, 2006, Mary and her two daughters, then 12 and 17, spent the day at Disney. She called her husband that afternoon and he made a point of telling her how much he loved her.

When they got home that evening, the front door was locked, unusual for the Gallagher clan. Mary sent her daughters through the garage to open the door and that’s when their nightmare began.

“All I could hear was the girls going, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! Daddy, this isn’t funny. Daddy!’ And then I go around,” she said. “And there Jim was, hanging from the rafters.”

Mary can’t help but sob as she remembers that horrible night.

“My kids are outside crying, crying so loud. The neighbors come out. It was just panic.”

Sobering Statistics

The Gallaghers, tragically, are not alone. Suicide numbers are rising among the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty troops. As of the end of July, the Army alone was on pace to reach 200 suicides this year.

Despite the military’s efforts to encourage troops to seek help, many troops refuse to consider it because they don’t want to appear weak. They think it might hurt their careers.

“Stigma is the biggest battle our troops are facing today,” says Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Major John Ruocco, who hanged himself in 2005. “Members of the armed services have got to understand and accept that PTS and depression are a wound and an illness, not a weakness.”

Ruocco is now Director of Suicide Education and Outreach at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a USO best-in-class partner that provides support and counseling to anyone who has lost a military member.

Support for the Family

Mary Gallagher turned to TAPS in the months after her husband’s death and recalls meeting Ruocco for the first time in an airport.

“She walks right up to me … and we start to hug and cry, never even seeing each other before,” Gallagher says. “And I asked, ‘How did you know?’ And she goes, ‘I know that face. I know the face of grief.’”

Gallagher had left Camp Pendleton and moved home to New York, but was still grappling with her own shock and guilt.

TAPS became a lifeline for both Mary and her younger daughter Erin, now 17. At first they weren’t sure they would be accepted by other families in TAPS who lost loved ones in combat, but they were surprised to find an outpouring of support.

“Many people in the military … suicide is looked down upon,” Erin said. “In TAPS, they don’t have that. It’s no judgment. Everyone deserves to have their memory held onto.”

The USO is supporting several events this September – which is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – to help bring the problem of self-inflicted deaths in the military into focus. USO Fort Campbell in Kentucky will be a big part of the Fort Campbell Wellness Walk on Sept. 29, which aims to raise awareness of the issue. USO of Metropolitan Washington has put its staff through behavioral health training so they can spot early warning signs. And USO Centers across the country are providing logistics and meals at command and community events that address this growing problem.

Moving Forward

The military officially concluded that Jim Gallagher died in the line of duty. Six years later, Erin is heading to college, considering a career in psychology, art therapy, maybe even the military.

Mary, however, is still struggling to find peace. About a year ago, she quit her full-time job to focus on therapy and her own healing. She now works part time as a waitress while she tries to find a way to move forward without letting go of her memories.

“I was very blessed because I had someone who loved me unconditionally,” she said. “Most people don’t get that, even in a lifetime.”

* * *

Photo caption: The Gallagher family’s last full family photo, taken in October 2005. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Gallagher family) 

Federal employees can help the USO fulfill its mission to support troops and their families through the 2012 Combined Federal Campaign. Please designate #11381. 

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