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10th Mountain veteran shares his story of near-suicide

Julia Botero
Former Fort Drum soldier Stephen Carlson in his home in Washington, D.C.


Since 2001, more active-duty American soldiers have killed themselves than were killed in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama acknowledged the soaring suicide rate in the United States military in a speech in North Carolina last summer. Obama said, "We have to end this tragedy of suicide among our troops and veterans. As a country, we can't stand idly by on such tragedy, so we're doing even more.”

The Pentagon responded with new tools to reach troubled servicemen and women, things like more mental health counselors, and regular screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.

But a powerful stigma persists among the rank and file that getting help for having suicidal thoughts is a sign of weakness. Many soldiers simply don’t trust the military’s medical system.

This is the story of one former Fort Drum soldier who never asked for help and almost pulled the trigger.

In August of 2009, Stephen Carlson was at his mother's house in Texas. He was on leave from his second deployment in Afghanistan, but he never felt like he had left the combat zone. 

“I had a handgun that I was carrying with me everywhere. No particular reason. I didn't think I really needed it. I just felt better with having it nearby," said Carlson.

Carlson is tall and thin with broad shoulders. He has been out of the Army for years, but still wears his hair in a crew cut. His voice shook as he thought back to what he called a wretched time in his life.

"I took that and a bottle of whiskey out to my mom's garage and I'm walking around in circles."

Carlson was drunk. He says he had been drunk nearly the entire two weeks he was home. He knew he had to go back to Afghanistan in a few days. His unit had already lost nine men in the first five months they were there.

"I felt damned. I felt terrible. I felt hopeless. I felt like there was nothing to look forward to. What was I going to do — go back over there and die myself or put up with much more misery? So I put the gun in my mouth and I’m reaching for the safety," he said.

Carlson said he could taste the Rem Oil from the gun. He thought of his friends who were gone. But then, Carlson thought of his mother. She was home-in the next room. He imagined the pain she would go through when she found him. And he felt ashamed.

"I put the gun down. I finished off the bottle and I passed out. I woke up later and I really didn't think about it at all," he remembered.

A few days later, Carlson was back in one of the most violent places in Afghanistan at that time in the war.

"We spent so much time patrolling and it’s just IED's, and IED's, and IED's and it’s just a constant tension."

That feeling of being on edge has fueled a generation of soldiers with traumatic experiences from the war, which is partly to blame for the steady increase in military suicides. Suicides hit a record high of 350 in 2012, and the Army remains baffled. Many of these soldiers who kill themselves have never fought overseas. The Pentagon has spent tens of millions of dollars in prevention programs. There is now a national hotline and peer counseling. Fort Drum held a series of training sessions last September to teach soldiers how to deal with stress.

There is still a stigma about getting help, however, especially with young soldiers and veterans like Stephen Carlson. 

"I never had the slightest interest in talking to a V.A. psychologist even if I should. I have very little faith in bureaucrats and when I look at the VA it’s all I see," said Carlson.

Dr. Stephen Xanakis said this feeling is common. Xanakis is a private psychologist based in Virginia. His clients are soldiers and veterans who feel they do not get the kind of attention they need at the VA. He considers things like chronic pain or concussions in the overall picture of his patients' mental health.

"I'm going to look at everything I think that is bothering this individual. It's really very patient-focused. It’s very individualized," said Xanakis.

Xanakis pays especially close attention to young soldiers who are transitioning out of the Army. According to the Department of Defense, male soldiers under the age of 30 who have just left the Army are three times more likely to commit suicide then active-duty soldiers.

"They don't know where their life is going. They may or may not have supports. They don't see the light at the end of the tunnel for their lives, and they’re more likely to be impulsive. I think they are a real risk," said Xanakis.

These soldiers who are the real risks don't ask for help.

"It's not something that anyone talked about," said Carlson. "We had the stupid workshops and the PowerPoint presentations and ‘keep an eye on your buddy.’ But if no one is talking about it...suicide was something that no one ever discussed," he said.

Carlson buried his own suicide attempt deep within for years. Half-way through his tour in Afghanistan, he became close with a journalist embedded with his brigade. They hit it off and got married. His wife helped him through his depression for years.

Carlson said if he felt more comfortable talking about his dark thoughts — with V.A. psychologists, or his army buddies — he may have gotten better sooner. He lives in Washington, D.C. now and writes for a veteran news website called “Task & Purpose,” where he wrote about his experience. It was the first time he shared the story with anyone but his wife.

"I just realized it, that it was something that I pushed aside for years. I didn't talk about it, didn't think about it. Bu then I started thinking about it more. And I decided to confront it," he said.

Carlson said he used to think suicide was a coward's way out. He said even brave men and women struggle. He hopes by sharing his story, others will summon their courage and speak up too.