On Friday, Sept. 24th the Pentagon Channel wraps up its special Restoring Hope programming on This Week in the Pentagon. Throughout the month, we have introduced you to families impacted by the loss of a loved one due to suicide as well the warning signs and what actions the military is taking in suicide prevention.
In this blog post, Pentagon Channel producer Terese Schlachter shares her experience working on this special project. You can hear more of her thoughts, along with This Week in the Pentagon producer Candace Hewitt, by clicking here. For comprehensive Restoring Hope coverage please visit http://www.defense.gov/restoringhope.
When Danelle Hackett drives to the Walmart to do her grocery shopping, she puts a cooler in her trunk. That’s because she lives so far from the frozen food section, stuff will thaw before she gets it home. She agreed to move to Carpenter, Wyoming because her husband, a 26 year Marine Corps veteran, wanted to retire to a wide open space. He bought the house after sending his wife of more than 20 years just a picture. She wanted so much for him to be happy. So they lived there- occasionally defending their garden from wandering horses- watching snow drift easily over their four foot fence.
On June 5, Jeff Hackett drove the distance to the American Legion hall in Cheyenne, where he shot himself.
Danelle is one of the widows I spent an afternoon with, as part of the Pentagon Channel’s special coverage of suicide in the military. Her grief was raw. She sobbed as she told me how her husband’s PTSD had worsened and how he wouldn’t ask for help. But she wanted to be part of the series “Restoring Hope”, so others might learn from her story. I still look at her Facebook page occasionally, to see what she’s thinking about. Comments people write to her are warm and supportive, but as I read them I imagine all their voices throwing echoes because they’re coming from so far away.
Maggie Mammarelli lives in Wyoming too, but she can see her neighbors. She’s a small woman, with a long name: Mary Margaret Mammarelli, but I was forbidden from calling her that. It’s reserved for her mother, she joked. She knew her husband had an antique collector’s pistol, but he said he’d given it to a friend for safekeeping. She found it near his body. Maggie works. She goes to school. And she grieves with tears bigger than she is. She cried as she asked me how she was supposed to live without her best friend. I shook my head because I didn’t know. And I didn’t feel qualified to answer.
Monica Velez told me straight out – “I’m not a crier” – before she explained how the combat death of one of her brothers eventually led to the suicide of the other. She didn’t cry. But her sadness enveloped her. She is a beautiful young girl with a glistening smile and thick curly black hair. I wished that Leonardo da Vinci were around to paint her.
Suicide survivors’ stories are full of unfinished sentences. There’s the occasional weary shoulder shrug. And there’s lots of head shaking. Behind the obvious grief over the death, there’s a sort of bewilderment. Many seem, aside from their deep sadness, simply very puzzled. Kim Ruocco, an outreach and education specialist at TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) said it best.
“It’s like getting dumped,” she told me. Her husband hung himself back in 2005. He was a pilot, having flown many missions in Iraq. Now she spends hours on the phone and traveling around the country giving people hope. I sat in on the first few minutes of what TAPS calls a “sharing circle” – a gathering of folks who lost military loved ones to suicide. She was getting it underway when someone made a quiet, tentative joke. Then someone else belly laughed. I looked up to see Kim, head back, mouth wide open, laughing like hell. Kim Ruocco is hope.
Maybe it was that moment that led me to ask Gen. and Mrs. Mark Graham, if they could recall the first time they laughed, following the deaths of their two sons. One died in combat. The other committed suicide. The deaths were just seven months apart. They both said it was a very long time before they could laugh, and when they did, they felt guilty. The Grahams are unbridled in their candidness. I listened to their story, and when Gen. Graham announced the engagement of their daughter, Melanie, to her long time boyfriend, there was genuine glee in his voice. He’d lost two sons, but he was now gaining one.
“We waited six years!” Mrs. Graham told me later, about the extended courtship. It’s a different sort of happiness, they say. But there is joy.
Photographer, Sgt. John Mann and I spent a little over two months gathering stories for the series. We traveled, we talked, we reviewed tape. I came home one Friday and found myself sitting dumbly on my couch. The phone rang and my friend asked if I’d had dinner. I said I was too tired to eat. He said, “What if I brought you some dinner. Would you be too tired to eat it?” As it turns out I am a crier. All the sadness had caught up with me. I started bawling like a four year old.
The next day was sunny and beautiful and I went for a bike ride. I was coming down a spectacular hill and I caught the wind and the brightness and the countryside all at once and suddenly the life thing was much stronger than the death part. The next day I went sailing and there’s this moment when the engine goes off and the air takes over. It’s quiet. And it’s strong. It moves you forward. And it’s full of life.
My sadness was temporary. Theirs may last their lifetimes.
Still, Danelle Hackett chortles when she talks about her husband’s prank calls to their children. Maggie giggles when she recalls how she and her teen aged love reconnected thirty years later, then married. Monica jokes about her CEO style management of her grief, in the form of pictures and memorials to her brothers.
One of the important lessons the TAPS people teach those who grieve is this: Yes, they died, but we must never forget how they LIVED. Indeed, those memories and moments of sheer life, make the deaths, eventually, bearable.