Many returning soldiers become uncounted casualties of war — (KING 5 News)

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KING 5 News

06:04 PM PDT on Thursday, August 16, 2007

By ERIC WILKINSON, KING 5 News

DARRINGTON, Wash. – As the Army looks at suicides among active duty soldiers, many troubled veterans are finding no comfort even after they leave the service and return home.

No one is exactly sure how big the problem is, but it’s clear that soldiers are taking their lives because they can’t cope with life after war.

Kevin Walsh wasn’t cut out for war. Instead of sending home photos of the battlefield, he would e-mail his mother photos of Iraqi children and stray dogs he had befriended.

“He just was a very gentle soul,” said his mother, Rosann. “He would smuggle prawns and steak out of the mess hall or whatever you call it.”

Kevin enlisted in the Army prior to 9/11 looking for job training. But by the time he got out in 2005, the Iraq war had changed him.

“The day he came home I took pictures of him, and a couple of people said his eyes are blank. There’s no one here,” said Rosann.

Kevin Walsh sent his mother photos of stray dogs he befriended.

The young man described by his family as sensitive and goofy was becoming dangerously detached.

“On more than one occasion he told me he wished he was in Baghdad because he ‘fit in’ there,” said Rosann.

Kevin took a job at a Darrington mill, but after a year had to quit because of persistent panic attacks. He filed for disability benefits from the Veterans Administration, but was denied.

“And pretty soon he’d be sitting forward with his face in his hands and then he’d start hyperventilating, and then you’d hear the beer open,” said Rosann.

Kevin started drinking. The panic attacks and nightmares got worse.

“There were a couple of times where he woke up and thought he was in his tent and couldn’t find his weapon, and he would come downstairs looking for it,” said Rosann.

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Drunk and depressed, Kevin threatened to kill himself one night earlier this year. The Army finally took his situation seriously and admitted him to treatment for 19 days.

“I said, you broke him, you need to fix him,” said Rosann.

But instead of fixing the broken soldier, the Army medicated him – heavily.

In his bedroom were dozens of bottles of powerful pills, mailed directly to him almost weekly.

“I would go to put clothes in his room or something, and I would look and think, ‘He just got one of those. Why do we need two full?” said Rosann.

What’s more, Kevin’s parents say their son could only get in to see a counselor once every two months.

“Here just keep medicated, but they don’t realize that if somebody is thinking about ending his life, there it is right there,” said Kevin’s dad, Paul.

“Right there” one night in June was a hand full of pills.

“I heard Katie screaming… and I gave him CPR until the medics got here, but he was already gone,” said Rosann.

Kevin Walsh never woke up. He died in his bed. He was just 25 years old.

“I think he just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Rosann.

Two years after returning from war, Kevin still hadn’t received a single benefit check, but he was delivered enough medication to take his own life many times over.

“Kind of like they’re just hoping they’ll give up and go on with their lives without the VA’s help,” said Paul.

“I mean you feel like, I’m the one that’s supposed to help him… but I couldn’t,” said Rosann.

Exactly how many Kevin Walshes are out there, we’ll never know. The VA doesn’t keep statistics on suicides after troops return home.

But we do know many vets are being turned away from mental health facilities because they are already full, and with more than 1 in 5 Iraq war veterans coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder, the situation will only grow more desperate.

Sen. Patty Murray is currently working on a bill that would direct the VA to develop a suicide prevention program for veterans suffering from PTSD and other issues.

“Making sure that if they do show up at the VA with any suicidal tendencies, or if they hear from their families, that they are seen immediately,” said Murray.

But that comes too late for Kevin, who was well prepared by his government for war, but not for life after it.

His mother believes soldiers like her son are just as much casualties of war as those killed on the battlefield.

“They’re just wounds you can’t see… I think he was just as broken,” she said.

Sen. Murray has scheduled a special public hearing on the soldier suicide report on Friday at 10:45 a.m. at Bates Technical College in Tacoma.