Farewell to a friend
Wes Shockley’s death sends ripples through military, wider community
Wes Shockley was one of those guys you could just talk to. It didn’t matter if you were in a good mood or bad, depressed, withdrawn, or feeling out of place. His positivity was infectious, and he took genuine pleasure in helping others.
“He was one of the sweetest, kindest men I’ve ever known. And at the same time, he wasn’t afraid to face challenges,” said James Smith, a colleague of Shockley’s at the Chico State Student Veteran Organization.
“No one expected to lose Wes,” he added. “He was a young man, very enthusiastic about working with people, helping people. When we heard the news, a lot of people were just shocked—almost paralyzed with shock.”
Shockley, 40, died unexpectedly on Nov. 2 in Rocklin, where he was living with his wife, Carolyn, and their two children. To say that his death has sent waves of grief through both communities and beyond would be an understatement.
“Overall, our VA family is pretty heartbroken,” said Tara Ricks, public affairs officer with the Veterans Administration in Northern California. Shockley was working at the Citrus Heights Vet Center when he died; he’d previously headed the center in Chico. His passion was counseling, a skill he took up while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
“Going to Iraq, I got to see what they go through, which galvanized my desire to help vets,” Shockley told the CN&R in May 2015. One thing that motivated him was the high suicide rate among veterans. This past summer, the VA released a new study that showed the number of vet suicides had decreased from 22 per day to 20. That’s a direct consequence of increased counseling services like those Shockley helped administer, says Trent Lear, a suicide prevention coordinator for the VA.
“I believe [the lower rate] is because the VA got on the stick with it and has taken it seriously,” he said. “They put people into positions like my own, where this is what you do.”
Shockley, too, took his counseling role to heart—and the results were tangible, according to Smith, a graduate student who served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I have no doubt that Wes saved hundreds of lives,” he said. “It may not have been from suicide, but might have just been making their lives better, saving them from being lost. That’s part of why Wes was so highly regarded.”
Ricks sent the CN&R an official statement from the VA about Shockley’s death: “Wes spent his life serving others in the military and our veterans as he helped people in need work through very difficult challenges. Our Vet Centers continue the proud tradition of veterans serving veterans, and Wes was a devoted leader in carrying out that mission. He will be deeply missed.”
As a counselor himself, Lear understands the gravity and fragility of working with veterans struggling to get by, particularly those contemplating suicide. “You have to understand how people come to be able to take their own lives,” he said by phone. “That’s not something people are born to be able to do.”
He and Ricks emphasized that their organization is willing to help. Anyone who wants to talk is encouraged to call the veterans crisis line at 800-273-8255.