Local veterans talk suicide and the difficult transition from military to civilian life
Gideon Pendergraft served in the U.S. Navy Special Operations Forces during the 1990s in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were 30 members in his unit, six of whom died in combat. Today, 20 years later, only two survive. Pendergraft, 41, says he is deeply affected by this and stays in touch with the other survivor, who lives in Oakland.
“We talk to each other and wonder, ‘How is it that we are the well-adjusted ones?'” he said during a recent interview, which was laced with a sense of self-deprecating humor.
While he can't account for the reasons 22 of his comrades have died since coming home, there is a good chance a number of them took their own lives.
Statistics from a Veterans Administration report reveal an average of 22 vets take their own lives every day. That’s about 30 deaths per 100,000 vets. The suicide rate among the general population is 12.6 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The VA report says the suicide rate is highest among those who served in the Navy.
The overall statistic may be low because not all suicides are documented.
“It’s not just suicide,” Pendergraft said. “We’ll find creative ways to die. We’ll drink ourselves to death. We’ll take drugs. We’ll chase that adrenalin until it kills us. And those aren’t counted as suicide.”
In February, President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law. Hunt, the Texas Marine sergeant for whom the law is named, served as a sniper in Afghanistan, left active duty in 2008 and came back home, where he lobbied for veterans on Capitol Hill and later did humanitarian work in Haiti and Chile.
On March 31, 2011, Hunt, the recipient of the Purple Heart, shot himself in his Houston apartment.
The suicide prevention law calls for annual evaluations by an independent party of the VA’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs as well as creation of a website to provide vets with information regarding mental health care services that will be updated every 90 days. It also will launch a three-year pilot program to help vets transition from active duty and improve access to mental health services.
At the signing ceremony, Obama gave an emotional speech that included a message to civilians: “Every community, every American, can reach out and do more with and for our veterans. This has to be a national mission. As a nation, we should not be satisfied, will not be satisfied, until every man and woman in uniform, every veteran, gets the help that they need to stay strong and healthy.”
For many veterans, adjusting to civilian life is difficult and something those who haven’t served—even loved ones—can never fully understand. Soldiers who fought in decades-old wars continue to struggle. While doing research for this story, the CN&R attempted to interview two Vietnam vets to get their stories. One mentioned that a fellow veteran of that war had committed suicide almost exactly one year earlier. As he talked, his voice began to crack. Eventually, speechless, he held up his hand to say he couldn’t go on.
The other Vietnam vet agreed to an interview with some enthusiasm. But two days later, he called to apologize and say he couldn’t talk about the war. It was just too tough to go back to those days.
Pendergraft, who recently landed a job with local online retailer Build.com, is friends with Colton Campitelli, another local Navy veteran. Though there is a 20-year gap between their times served, they say they are friends because of the camaraderie that is shared among vets. Pendergraft served in combat conditions; Campitelli, 24, was a helicopter crew chief stationed just off the coast of Iran.
“There really is no age gap,” Campitelli said with a nod toward Pendergraft. “Even though you’re almost twice my age.”
Pendergraft responded with a straight face: “Yeah, I turn 42 at the end of the month. But in my defense, I’m very immature for my age.”
Today, Campitelli works at a couple of local bars. He’s been out of the service only since last July.
“When I first got out and moved here, I really didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I had my best friend with me and he knew what I was going through, but one guy isn’t always enough.”
Returning to civilian life has been rough for Campitelli in the 10 months since his service ended. Looking back, he said he enjoyed the job but actually hated being in the Navy. Now his life is very different.
“I work at The Banshee and Duffy’s and they are two great organizations,” he said. “I really enjoy it. But I’m checking IDs. I went from operating all this high-tech equipment, flying in helicopters, risking my life every day, and now I’m like, ‘Hey, thanks very much for coming in,’ and that has been hard for me to swallow.”
Three weeks before Campitelli was interviewed for this story, a veteran friend of his went off his medication and said he was breaking up with his girlfriend. Then, a few days passed without word.
“We started getting worried and didn’t know what to do,” Campitelli said. “We decided to give him space and not bombard him. Then I get a phone call that there’d been an accident, a fire at his house.”
It turns out his friend had stopped eating, and even getting out of bed in the mornings. And when he finally did, he took everything he owned, doused it with lighter fluid and set it and his home ablaze. Campitelli said the man survived and has since moved to South Carolina, where he is apparently doing better.
Campitelli recalled attending a Lucero concert last fall in San Francisco, and how he was suddenly overcome with emotion while watching the band.
“Two songs came on that I remember listening to during deployment, and I lost it,” he said. “I started balling my eyes out. I couldn’t handle it, and I had to leave.”
Campitelli said he has no idea what will trigger such an outburst and is surprised by his emotions because the conditions under which he served were not like those Pendergraft experienced.
“I had some tense moments and sometimes I thought that this was it,” he said. “But I never shot at anybody, never got shot at, never killed anybody and nobody tried to kill me. I don’t know what it was. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m so much more emotional than I’ve ever been before. I’ll watch Forrest Gump and lose it.”
The ship he served on had three or four fatal helicopter accidents a year, he said, which was extremely hard emotionally for those who worked with the helicopter crews.
“The last year I was in, we had a guy who got out, went home and decided to hang himself in his parents’ barn in Kentucky,” he said. “It happens and I think the biggest thing is feeling alone.”
Pendergraft also deals with the occasional emotional breakdown.
“I’ve got PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and still have anger issues,” he said. “The hardest thing about PTSD is anyone who’s been through a traumatic experience can get it. The problem with combat soldiers is they’re not trained to deal with it because they can’t show weakness, because that is something that will get you killed. So you have to suppress that.”
He has sought help since leaving the military and received counseling and even worked at the Chico Vet Center while attending Chico State through a work-study program.
“They are amazing, but they are understaffed,” he said. “There are not enough counselors for the demand, but they do their best and I have nothing but respect for those who work there.”
Pendergraft recently got married, which, combined with landing a good job, he said, has helped him immensely.
“I think the main reason they hired me was my military background,” he said. “Before this, I’ve done security work, I’ve been crab fishing, I’ve done sales, I’ve done a little bit of everything. But this job saved me.”
Vietnam vet Phil Elkins was happy to talk about his military experiences and said doing so is a form of therapy. Elkins is a former manager of the Chico Natural Foods Co-op, maker of Señor Felipe’s Organic Salsa and also host of KZFR’s L.A. Sounds with Sr. Felipe.
He was drafted by the Army in 1966 while living in East Los Angeles, where he was raised. Elkins said many of his friends were drafted at the same time while others dropped out of school and joined the military. His mother told him at the time that he could escape the draft by going to Canada, but as a kid who’d spent most of his life in Los Angeles, he said his reaction to that suggestion was: “What’s Canada?”
Within six months of getting drafted, Elkins was sent to Vietnam at the age of 20.
“Basically, what we wanted to do was survive for the year we were there,” he explained. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta win this war and we have a duty’ and all that.”
Elkins, who served as a medic during his tour, said what he recalls the most about his war experiences were the people in charge, whom he referred to as “sadistic.”
“When I was assigned to be a medic, they told us, ‘90 percent of you are going to go to Vietnam and 50 percent of you will be dead within three months.’ Then you start thinking, ‘Well, maybe Canada don’t sound so bad.’”
Elkins served with the 1st Cavalry Division in the central highlands of Vietnam, which was the target of mortars from the North Vietnamese Army and Agent Orange spray from U.S. helicopters.
“It was the longest year of my life,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself, my life and about people in general. A lot of it was ugly, but in some ways I realized, ‘OK, I survived Vietnam. All the other shit that comes after that ain’t so bad.’”
Returning to the States was surprisingly difficult, he said.
“You think you’ll come home and life will be a cakewalk,” Elkins said. “But what they called ‘the war after the war’ was almost worse than Vietnam for me.”
That secondary war was the effort to try to fit back into civilian life among people who didn’t appreciate and, in some cases, resented his time served. He had a bumper sticker on his car that read “Vietnam Veteran,” and was often greeted with shouts of “Loser!” from other motorists and pedestrians.
He said he suffered from anger, depression, anxiety, headaches and exhaustion.
“I went through a lot of breakups, a lot of jobs and lost a lot of friends,” he said. “It was really hard to come back and was almost worse than being in Vietnam. You felt abandoned.”
This was at a time before PTSD was recognized. Elkins said he began seeing a psychiatrist in 1968 and has continued to do so on an occasional basis ever since.
“The way I try to deal with it is by living up in the mountains in Forest Ranch and trying to be with somebody who loves me enough to be understanding and supportive,” he said. “It’s a struggle, but I’m lucky I live in this area and have people who love me.”
Brenda Vettel is from Orland and joined the Army in 2008, serving as a medic in Iraq in 2009 and 2010. Her military service ended in 2012 and she now has plans to enroll in the nursing program at Chico State. Like the others, her return to civilian life has not been easy.
She did her basic training in South Carolina and went to school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to become an emergency medical technician. From there she went to North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, where she was deployed to Iraq for a year’s tour serving at a clinic in Baghdad.
“People asked me if I was scared,” she said. “I figured I was in just as much danger driving my car every day and thought, ‘Why not try something new?’ The odds of me dying on the plane ride over there were higher than me actually dying while there. I figured if I was meant to die, I’ll die. If I don’t, I’ll see you guys in a year. The fear was there, but I didn’t cater to it.”
She said at one point her crew was told to make “battle buddies,” friends or bunkmates who would act to protect each other, not from an enemy but rather from their fellow soldiers.
“They didn’t want us going to the bathrooms by ourselves anymore,” she said. “It wasn’t about terrorism; it was about our own brothers and sisters in arms—our brothers were raping our sisters.”
In August 2010, Vettel came back to Fort Bragg, where she finished her four years of service. She said she knows of two soldiers who committed suicide and another stationed at Fort Bragg in a different unit, who most likely took his own life.
That soldier was found dead in his room after not showing up for duty one day. He reportedly had overdosed on pills.
“He was miserable and he had voiced this to all of his superiors,” she said. “He had stated numerous times that he wanted out of the Army, but instead of helping him, his chain of command decided to make his life harder by giving him all kinds of extra duty and working him harder.”
Vettel had spent his last Thanksgiving with him.
“It sucks getting close to people and then boom and they’re gone,” she said.
Another soldier in her unit killed himself just before he was discharged.
“I didn’t know him very well as he was kind of new to our unit,” she said, “but it was still shocking nonetheless. Shocking in the sense that you see these people every day and have no clue what kind of demons they are battling until it’s too late.”
The other suicide she was aware of took place while she was working in a clinic in Iraq. She didn’t know the soldier, but was aware of what happened because the doctor on her shift went to his room to pronounce him dead.
“It’s just crazy to think that for whatever their reasons were, these people saw ending their lives as the only option,” she said. “I think it’s crazy because no matter how bad things get for me, and they have been pretty bad at times, I can always see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In 2012, Vettel came home to Chico, where she “relaxed and partied and became a girl again.”
“Three years later, I’m still adjusting and wondering why I’m not feeling like I used to feel,” she said.
She’s had counseling at the Chico Vet Center, where she was diagnosed with depression, though not to the point where she could collect disability. On the other hand, back injuries she suffered while in training have qualified her for a monthly stipend. She also took a class at Chico State that allowed her to vent about how stressed out she was.
“Other than that, I don’t feel bad as long as I stay busy. It’s when I have nothing else to think about that I start thinking I don’t fit in here, I don’t connect with anyone,” she said.
Vettel’s emotional struggles are common among veterans readjusting to civilian life and a part of what the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act aims to address. For years the federal government—both the administration and Congress—has been criticized for not adequately helping veterans and their transitions back to civilian life. The Clay Hunt law, which has bipartisan support, appears to be a small step in the right direction. That responsibility falls to the citizens as well, Obama said in his speech honoring Hunt.
Speaking on behalf of the 99 percent-plus of Americans who have never served in the military, and challenging them with a call to action, the president said: “So today we say again, to every person in uniform, to every veteran who has ever served, we thank you for your service. We honor your sacrifice. But sometimes talk is cheap. And sometimes, particularly at a time when we’ve got an all-volunteer force and so often we can celebrate them at a ball game, but too many are insulated from the impacts, we’ve got to also act. We can’t just talk.”