National Guard Grapples With Suicide Rate, Resilience

FILE -- Soldiers from 151st Regional Support Group, Massachusetts National Guard board an aircraft destined for Fort Hood, Texas here Jan. 23, 2018. The citizen-soldiers are scheduled to deploy to Kuwait in support of Operation Spartan Shield. (US Army photo by Spc. Samuel D. Keenan)
FILE -- Soldiers from 151st Regional Support Group, Massachusetts National Guard board an aircraft destined for Fort Hood, Texas here Jan. 23, 2018. The citizen-soldiers are scheduled to deploy to Kuwait in support of Operation Spartan Shield. (US Army photo by Spc. Samuel D. Keenan)

Key Takeaways

As of Jan. 17, veterans thinking about hurting themselves can get free crisis care, including inpatient, for up to 90 days at Veterans Affairs. They do not need to be enrolled in VA care. For immediate help, dial 988, then press 1.

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a multipart series.

Col. Tom Stewart saw Staff Sgt. Chris DeLano for the last time at a brewery in Brookfield, Massachusetts. DeLano had texted Stewart sometime in November 2020 and asked to meet up—he had something important to tell him.

“Sir, I need to see you,” the text read.

Stewart had retired from the Massachusetts Army National Guard more than a year earlier.

At the brewery, DeLano, 36, skipped the beer. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer, he told Stewart.

“What are the doctors telling you?” Stewart asked, concerned about an enlisted soldier who had come to rely on him.

“They said I’m going to make it through,” DeLano said.

DeLano still worked for the Guard full time at an armory nearly two hours away from his Middleborough home. But because of the pandemic, DeLano spent most of the year working from home. When he told his chain of command about his cancer treatment, he moved to an armory closer to where he lived.

While the treatment kept him from drinking at the brewery, the food truck selling tacos wasn’t off limits, and neither were a few late-night episodes of Cobra Kai back at Stewart’s home just a town away.

DeLano had driven more than an hour to reach Stewart—and with a clear purpose, Stewart thought. He had no reason not to believe what DeLano shared.

But it wasn’t true. None of it was true.

Stewart often helped his soldiers through adversity. And DeLano, as an enlisted soldier, sometimes worked more intimately with soldiers in pain than a field-grade officer could. He and Stewart had served together when they deployed with the 182nd Infantry Regiment to Afghanistan in 2011: Stewart as battalion commander, DeLano as a private. Loss had bound together Stewart and DeLano in the years after they returned home.

Stewart’s first soldier, a member of DeLano’s platoon, died from cancer during the unit’s 12-month deployment. Then Staff Sgt. Jorge Oliveira—a New Jersey guardsman attached to their unit—died in combat. The command system, out of Stewart’s control, left many of the men feeling as if their leadership didn’t care about them even as they fought for their lives in Afghanistan.

They completed their mission abroad, and Stewart brought 684 of them home. But within 12 months, at least four soldiers had taken their own lives.

In the months and years that followed, Stewart and DeLano continued to see loss after loss of soldiers they’d deployed with to suicide. They both knew soldiers who had attempted to kill themselves, and still more who had thought about it. As they worked to keep their fellow fighters alive, they both fought to do the things that they hoped would keep them strong and resilient long after they left the battlefield.

I met DeLano because my husband had worked with him as a civilian and later as a soldier. From a distance, I saw pieces of the unit’s story from beginning to end. As a journalist, I talked to dozens of soldiers as the losses continued after the unit returned home.

The mission started out rough for the 182nd’s four companies, which were spread out across Afghanistan. Some soldiers saw combat from the moment they arrived in country. One platoon spent its first day in theater helping with the aftermath of a battle that left dozens wounded and dead.

Leadership problems followed that stark entry to war: The unit worked with provincial reconstruction teams, which meant a constant rotation of new faces—faces of people who seemed to care little about a National Guard unit from Massachusetts, even though, by that point, reservists and Guard members had more than proven themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The soldiers were trained to survive, but always while looking out for the next person. Always in the service of someone else. Always as part of a unit.

“There’s nothing romantic in war,” says Sgt. 1st Class Hercules Lobo, who had been a young sergeant when he deployed with the unit in 2011. “But that’s how those kids felt. They felt belonging to a group of guys that were for each other. We were covering each other’s asses. We would do anything for each other.”

When they returned home, they felt as if they were on their own. Back home, the unit dissipated as members returned to their day jobs—the jobs where nobody understood, where camaraderie didn’t exist in quite the same way in cubicles, warehouses, or college classrooms. Where calling in sick didn’t mean someone else died in your place.

For some, like DeLano, it became easier to call in sick than to add to an already full cup with everyday problems: a drop from an irritated boss, a drop from a virus that forced isolation, a drop from a spouse who needed to connect. One more seemingly small push—another drop—and the cup overflows. In the unit, someone always understood. Outside?

They didn’t understand.

The guardsmen faced all of the issues of active-duty service members returning from deployment, but their squad leaders didn’t see them at each morning formation. Their platoon sergeants couldn’t recommend military services specific to each individual because they couldn’t determine the needs. And their brothers-in-arms weren’t there daily to put things in perspective.

Civilian life felt deeply individualistic, Lobo says, and was a stark contrast to the days of military consistency they came to expect.

“They don’t have that squad leader, that team leader to tell them, ‘No, that’s not the way,’” he says. “Or in the morning, tell them to get up, like, ‘Get up, let’s go for a run.’”

Some who seemed OK, who Stewart and others had watched and lifted, didn’t make it. Others who seemed strong, who had worked to help others, also fell. The suicides and attempts became a constant.

Just as the Guard members seemed to regroup, to recite the lines every veteran learns to recite—I’m here for you. Call me. I’ll answer at 2 a.m.—someone else would take their own life. The unit spiraled, flowing in and out of thoughts of what they’d seen as they lost yet another friend, several soldiers told The War Horse.

Four service members in the Massachusetts National Guard have died in combat since the start of the post-9/11 wars. As many as three dozen of its soldiers and airmen have died by suicide in that same span. One of its largest spikes came because of the suicide deaths of soldiers who had deployed between 2010 and 2012 within the state’s infantry battalions, the 181st and 182nd.

As things got worse, death itself became a means of intervention: Funerals reunited buddies, and they quietly identified who could be next.

The military pushed care. Friends pushed resources. Families begged their loved ones to seek help. But the stigma—the feeling of weakness—lingers, even after 20 years of war and acknowledgment. Combat veterans, particularly those with civilian day jobs or who want to move up the Guard ranks, fear their employers will see psychiatric care in their history and wonder if they’re a risk. Besides, counselors who didn’t serve in war couldn’t possibly understand their experiences, several soldiers told The War Horse.

The guardsmen have also discovered solutions—ideas that could help any unit build and maintain resilience. They all start from the same place: deeper, sustained, organic connections.

But for the thousands of service members already lost, including both DeLano and the soldier he considered a hero, those solutions will come too late. Even as DeLano worked to help other soldiers, his own story had already begun to unravel.

‘It Was a Big Shock to Them’

The first day Delta Company’s second platoon—DeLano’s platoon—landed at Camp Wright in northeast Afghanistan’s Kunar province in June 2011, they saw medical helicopters carrying soldiers from a series of attacks that left as many as 38 people wounded or dead.

“They basically had to drop their bags and help bring stretchers to the field surgical team,” says Maj. Joel Simpson, Delta’s company commander. The newly arrived soldiers lined up to donate blood.

“That first experience the minute they got there—it was a big shock to them,” Simpson says. “A realization.”

He pauses.

“I think a lot of guys still talk about it,” he says.

It wasn’t that the unit had never seen combat before. The Massachusetts National Guard’s 182nd Infantry Regiment, to which Stewart, DeLano, Simpson, and Lobo belonged, is the oldest combat regiment in the U.S. Army. The 182nd is one of the three original regiments of the National Guard, which organized on Dec. 13, 1636.

Like the nation it fought to bear and preserve, the 182nd is soaked in stories of success and scars. Their battle streamers reflect participation in nearly every American-fought war since 1775. It, along with its sister regiment, the 181st Infantry, comprised the Massachusetts militia and are the only infantry units to have fought in the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Arlington, leading up to the Revolutionary War. The 182nd was also one of the first U.S. Army regiments to enter combat in World War II.

Reenactment of the First Muster, Salem, Massachusetts
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, attends the reenactment marking the 385th anniversary of the First Muster, Salem, Massachusetts, April 9, 2022. The history of the National Guard began on December 13, 1636, when the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered the organization of the Colony’s militia companies into three regiments. The first muster of the East Regiment took place in Salem. (Jim Greenhill/U.S. Army National Guard)

Before 9/11, the National Guard mainly responded to state-level emergencies. After 9/11, its commitment to the federal fight accelerated with multiple and prolonged deployments. More than a third of soldiers deployed after 2001 came from reserve components: Throughout the majority of the post-9/11 wars, the National Guard deployed more people than the Marine Corps.

In March 2011, the 182nd, commanded by Stewart, headed to its first full battalion deployment since World War II—this time to Afghanistan to replace its sister unit, the 181st Infantry Regiment.

After arriving at Camp Phoenix in Bagram, the battalion’s four companies divided into 12 platoons to provide security for the provincial reconstruction teams. The teams, made up of service members from NATO nations, including the United States, spread out across Afghanistan. Each team, led by civil affairs officers outside the 182nd, would work to build relationships with local citizens through humanitarian and reconstruction projects. The 182nd would assist in the work while providing security.

In each team, the platoon leader and first sergeant fell under the command of an American colonel-level officer from any branch. For the 182nd’s deployment, none of the reconstruction team commanders happened to be from the Army. That structure caused frustrations for some of the platoons.

“Sgt. Maj. [Greg] Widberg and Colonel Stewart would take trips out to the platoons to try to smooth out any issues,” says Kenneth Pitts, the 182nd’s deployment operations sergeant major. “Sometimes, it was trying to teach a submarine commander from the Navy how to fight a land war.”

‘We Just Knew Who He Was and Who He Would Be”

DeLano enlisted in 2010 into the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 1-182 Infantry Regiment after he learned that my husband, who was his supervisor at a security company at the time, would soon deploy to Afghanistan. A medical issue kept my husband from the deployment, but DeLano would go.

DeLano never said much, but he did a lot for those he cared about. One time, a light fixture, original to our 1926 home, caught fire. While we were out of the house, DeLano, a skilled electrician, spent a whole day rewiring our lights to bring them up to code.

But sometimes, we couldn’t understand where the winds of thought took him. He had been demoted shortly before leaving for Afghanistan because he missed a few training events. DeLano had lived with us shortly before he enlisted, then briefly kept us as his emergency contact. The first time we got a call because he was AWOL, or absent without leave, we tracked him down to Cobbetts Pond in New Hampshire—to the ashes of his father, who had died early in DeLano’s teenage years. The lead-up to deployment sent DeLano, already reserved, into deeper moments of thoughtful reflection, and—though he never said it to us—even hesitation, my husband and I realized.

One of DeLano’s squad leaders, Staff Sgt. Kevin O'Boyle noticed it too. O’Boyle, who had already deployed to Afghanistan in 2003, had some tools in place from that operation. He understood that situations at home could distract soldiers from their mission, so he worked to take care of his troops. O’Boyle served as the “go-to leader,” Lobo says.

When the government threatened to shut down in April 2011, potentially delaying paychecks for service members, O’Boyle pulled together his platoon, which was already at the mobilization station at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.

“[He] told them, ‘Listen, if you have any debt to pay, any money you still owe somebody, hit me up right now because I have some savings—I can help you guys out,’” Lobo recalls.

“A lot of soldiers had bills to pay,” Lobo says. “O’Boyle paid bills for the entire platoon.”

O’Boyle’s mother, Maureen O’Boyle, says that while her son was deployed, she would find money from him deposited into her bank account.

The platoon would come to rely on O’Boyle. At Camp Atterbury, when platoon members first introduced themselves to the reconstruction teams they’d work with, O’Boyle’s soldiers “hooah-ed” the loudest when his name was called.

“We just knew who he was and who he would be to the rest of the guys then,” says Navy Yeoman 1st Class Darlene Croston, who served with the reconstruction team.

Lobo respected O’Boyle.

DeLano idolized him.

‘You Never, Ever Leave Your Guys Hanging’

The battalion anticipated the problems the reconstruction team model would create because they saw some of it play out during the 181st’s deployment, many soldiers told The War Horse. But internal conflicts still consumed the platoons that did not get along with their reconstruction team commanders.

“Some of the friction on the decisions being made by noninfantry or even non-Army officers would really run against what the senior NCOs—the career infantry soldiers—would think would be a good idea of security,” says Pitts, the operations sergeant major.

In one instance, a soldier tried to harm himself while on tower duty in a “cry for help,” someone with firsthand knowledge of the incident tells The War Horse. The unit also sent home early a platoon sergeant who repeatedly challenged his reconstruction team commander, soldiers tell The War Horse. Another platoon sergeant, known for his intense arguments with his reconstruction team commander, asked to leave the deployment early—only to return weeks later as a civilian contractor. Battalion leadership learned about his return when they saw him at a dining facility in Kabul.

“When leadership started to leave—the right people, where the right leaders didn’t have the influence anymore—those platoons had so much [sic] issues compared to the other platoons,” says one service member who asked to remain anonymous because they feared reprisal for speaking without permission.

The leadership challenges ultimately endangered soldiers’ lives, some soldiers say.

In Kunar, Delta Company sent squads to Outpost Nevada, which overlooked the Ganjgal Valley, to deter Taliban fighters who had been firing from the mountains into U.S. bases below. The Ganjgal had seen battle before: Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer earned his Medal of Honor there in 2009 when he risked his life to save others after an ambush by some 50 enemy fighters.

The area remained dangerous when Delta Company arrived.

At one point, squad members captured a Taliban fighter who came to their hilltop. The squad learned he was the uncle of a local Taliban leader—and they knew the Taliban wouldn’t give up one of their own easily. Taliban fighters outnumbered the 10 Delta Company squad members by about eight to one when they launched an offensive to free the man.

“The problem was the battle went on over eight hours, so they were running out of ammo,” Stewart says of the soldiers.

But their reconnaissance team commander, a Navy officer, didn’t respond quickly to resupply the squad.

“Our guys are up there thinking, No resupply’s coming, no ammo,” Stewart says. “Thinking, This is it.”

Outpost Nevada sat in FOB Wright’s line of sight, so the rest of the platoon could see the flashes of light at night and hear the explosions and gunfire. But their leadership didn’t authorize them to do anything about it. And a heavier fight was underway north of Kunar, leeching resources, including air support, away from the platoon.

The 25th Infantry Division, at Forward Operating Base Joyce on the other side of the valley, could also see the battle, but didn’t realize American soldiers needed help.

The reconstruction team commander faced pressure from Delta’s platoon sergeant and others, who gathered in the tactical operations center at FOB Wright. They urged the Navy commander to send a Delta squad as a quick reaction force and to resupply the team on the ground.

The reconstruction team commander, Navy Col. Scott Murdock, says he had requested a reaction force from another base, but it took a while to hear back. Meanwhile, jets dropped bombs in the area, causing some Taliban fighters to scatter.

“To throw those guys up there without trying to first eliminate [Taliban fighters] from the air” wasn’t the proper way to address the situation, Murdock says. “We weren’t sitting on our hands.”

For the soldiers waiting at Nevada and at Wright waiting to get called up, the minutes and seconds felt like hours—and the hours stretched too long. Soldiers at Outpost Nevada communicated through an internal radio frequency with their platoon sergeant, who came up with unrealistic ways to try to help, like climbing the mountain to the outpost, one soldier says.

The platoon sergeant was “the kind of person who would poke the devil, just to see how he’d react,” the soldier says.

Decades before, the Taliban overran Russian soldiers who patrolled the same outpost. Aware of this, the soldiers trapped at Nevada with little ammunition began to make their peace.

O’Boyle, at the base camp waiting to serve on the quick reaction force, called his mother.

“I remember him calling me and being angry about it,” Maureen O’Boyle says. “He said, ‘The commander won’t let us go.’”

Stewart, who was at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, says he called the Navy commander as the battle raged at Nevada: Stewart was headed to the base camp in Kunar, he told him, to give the Navy commander a coin for “taking care of our guys,” Stewart says, adding that he relayed the message on advice from his own leadership. Because Stewart couldn’t order the commander to act, he needed a tactful way to get him to think about the consequences of inaction.

He heard silence on the other end of the line.

Minutes after he hung up the phone, Stewart learned the soldiers at the base camp were greenlighted to commandeer a helicopter of supplies and soldiers to deliver to Outpost Nevada.

“When you’re up on a mountain like that and you think you’ve got no ammo coming in …” Stewart pauses. “You spend all these years in the military and there’s one commonality: You never, ever leave your guys hanging, ever—no matter what.

“And I saw too much of that over there.”

‘My Marriage Was Falling Apart’

As soldiers found their resilience—their ability to stay strong and focused and recover quickly—tested on the battlefield, some also faced challenges back home. But it wasn’t just the lower-enlisted or midcareer soldiers who struggled.

Fewer than six months into the deployment, Pitts asked to return home to spend some time with his wife and two young children.

“I normally would’ve been the last to take leave, but I asked if I could go home to see what we could do,” Pitts says. “My marriage was falling apart.”

Going home did not offer the resolution he expected. Pitts returned to Afghanistan detached from the realities of his environment and consumed by events back in the States that he couldn’t control from Camp Phoenix. When the opportunity came to be among the first groups to leave Afghanistan in December 2011, he took it.

“It did feel like I was quitting,” Pitts says. “My career had never really taken that turn. I was confronting it for the first time.”

The 2011 deployment was his third since 9/11. But this one marked the end of both his marriage and military career.

Military and Family Program Office sign
Logo sign is hung at the Military Family Program Office in the foyer of the Wellesley Armory. (Kevin Nunes/Massachusetts National Guard)

Other soldiers also faced abrupt and unforeseen exits. This was the first deployment for Jacob Stiles, 21, a specialist in Delta Company. When he returned to Massachusetts for his two-week R&R—rest and relaxation—in December 2011, he fully expected to return to Afghanistan, to the unit.

But the teams decided to send some service members home early, says Murdock, the reconstruction team commander. They asked for volunteers—and they decided not to bring back the soldiers who were home on leave.

Stiles’ belongings and equipment remained in Afghanistan, as did his friends. Stiles felt the separation.

“For Stiles, I knew that we should’ve looked at, ‘OK, we’re leaving these guys home. How does this affect them, what’s the next step for them?’” Murdock says. “I didn’t ask those questions.”

“I should’ve gotten ahold of [Tom] Stewart and said, ‘OK, what are we doing for these guys?’” Murdock says. “‘We’re either sending them back early or we’re not having them come back. Do they have the resources? When do their checks stop? Are they going to be OK? Are they going to have jobs?’”

One morning at Camp Wright, Murdock stepped outside and into a pile of shit on his doormat. He knew someone from Delta’s second platoon had left the pile of human feces: an end-of-tour message, with only weeks remaining in their deployment. Murdock suspected O’Boyle might have been behind a team effort, but he couldn’t know for sure.

On the day the platoon left Kunar, Murdock hugged each soldier and shook his hand—even the ones he suspected of leaving shit outside his door. Every hand.

Except O’Boyle’s.

“I had much more respect for O’Boyle,” he says. “Maybe my disappointment was greater with him.”

More than a decade later, Murdock describes processing the deployment with the 182nd as a “slow burn.” He grapples with survivor’s guilt—for the servicemembers and Afghans killed who had worked with the reconstruction team, and for those in Delta’s second platoon who died by suicide at home. He replays so many instances in his mind; among them, he wonders if the decision not to bring those on leave back to Afghanistan denied them the support some soldiers—like Stiles—needed after their experiences in theater.

“As their [commanding officer], I take full responsibility for every one of those guys,” Murdock says.

‘The Day It Ends Is The Day You’re Forgotten’

In February 2012, a week before the unit left for home, violent protests erupted after Afghans working at Bagram Air Base found NATO forces had improperly burned copies of the Quran. U.S. troops suspected prisoners had written notes to each other in library books, including the Qurans, which an interpreter mistook for extremist literature.

Thousands of angry demonstrators enveloped Camp Phoenix, burning tires, hurling rocks, and firing shots into the air. Some tried to push through the gates. At one point, a 182nd soldier fatally shot a protester who had approached a convoy as it left Camp Phoenix. That incident led to an internal investigation that briefly seeped into the unit’s return home.

But they faced much greater difficulties as they worked to reintegrate.

The soldiers themselves often didn’t realize how rough the transition would be: They dreamed of home-cooked meals, their families, a Dunkin’ coffee run, and clothes that didn’t smell like dust.

Despite a return to loved ones—and even with the Guard’s reintegration check-ins—something lacked after the deployment, many soldiers with the 182nd told The War Horse.

“We create this family aspect where we all rely on one another, we’re all so close,” says a soldier who still serves in the military. “And then when we come back, it dissolves. It’s gone. The day it ends is the day you’re forgotten.”

Soldiers patrol near Camp Phoenix, Kabul, Afghanistan.
Soldiers of the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team patrol near Camp Phoenix, Kabul, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army/Sgt. James Sims)

So it was for Delta’s Kunar platoon, Sgt. 1st Class Lobo says, the “Mad Dogs.” Some members of the platoon had temporarily lived together in Massachusetts as they prepared to deploy. In theater, DeLano, a skilled carpenter, built walls around Outpost Nevada to keep them safe. When shrapnel hit Lobo while the platoon was on patrol, DeLano took over as gunner.

“It was that intensity for nine months, and then all of a sudden, we get back and are told, ‘Thank you, you can go home now,’” Lobo says. “It sent some of the guys into a deep, deep depression.”

And, in a manner that’s often much greater than for active-duty troops, Guard members’ day-to-day lives change in every way after a 12-month deployment. Some service members return without a full-time job in either the Guard or civilian sector. Some don’t return to the unit they deployed with. Some may never see those they deployed with again, and if they do, it’s back to one weekend a month, rather than everyday interactions.

Retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond, who oversaw the 181st and 182nd’s Afghanistan deployment as brigade commander of the 26th Yankee Division, anticipated the mental health risk and resource gap returning Guard members would face.

“It got to the point where we tried to do some things while we were still in Afghanistan to help mitigate that a bit,” Hammond says.

He and Command Sgt. Maj. William Davidson visited platoons in the 181st while still in theater to listen to their soldiers’ raw accounts of their deployment experiences.

“I wasn’t able to do that with the 182nd,” Hammond says, because he returned home while the 182nd was still deployed. “We were trying to get that moving; I just couldn’t get it off the ground with the 182. I think it might have been helpful because we haven’t seen that same thing with the 181.”

Despite identical missions and reportedly similar challenges in theater, the 182nd experienced twice as many suicides within the battalion’s first year home, and higher numbers overall to date, compared to the 181st.

‘There Was No Care in Place to Support Them’

Months after his return, DeLano found himself in the throes of a deployment hangover. The little lies he had told his whole life grew in frequency and enormity, his sister, Tauna Holland, says.

“I think his military experience didn’t help the issues he already had prior to enlisting,” she says. As with some others in his unit, the deployment seemed to exacerbate them.

Little lies, she says. It sounded familiar to me, from when DeLano had stayed with us. Some fibs seemed so small I forget the exact instances, but I remember feeling slighted at the time. Once, before DeLano enlisted, my husband and I came home to find our motorcycle gone. A few hours later, DeLano pulled up to the house on the bike.

He needed a fast way to get to his mom, who was in the hospital, he told us. Later we learned that wasn’t true, but by then it wasn’t worth the talk. One time he mentioned he could trace his lineage back to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He may have been right, and I took him at his word. What’s it worth now to get at that truth?

DeLano wasn’t alone in facing old habits. Some Guard members had to deal with what they tried to escape when they joined the military in the first place.

“We recruit a lot of these guys who are looking for a better life, to feel good about themselves, to escape what they’re leaving behind, to be better, to be men, to be proud—and all of a sudden, they go on something so emotional, like a deployment,” one soldier tells The War Horse. “Then they have to come back, and then they’re instantly hanging on their couch again with the same group they tried to leave behind and be better than—without a job, necessarily.”

We Care Day and National Suicide Prevention and Awareness month.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Tyler Kaido holds up a sign Sept. 16, 2022, in support of We Care Day and National Suicide Prevention and Awareness month, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sarayuth Pinthong)

Many soldiers who join the Guard bring with them social attachments they’ve already made in life through family and friends. But those who feel detached, either from the unit bonds they made or the civilian life they’re returning to, vacillate in an anxious state of “in-between” as they figure out where they belong.

“No one gets it,” the soldier says. “You’re sitting there just like you were a year and a half ago. Nothing’s really changed, but now you have perceived demons.”

Three months after the 182nd returned from deployment, some, like DeLano, who returned to drill with the battalion did not see many of the same people they deployed with. The 182nd had a new commander. Soldiers had been promoted and sent to other units. The squads, platoons, and companies looked and felt nothing like they had during the transformative year they had spent together, soldiers say.

For active-duty troops, the day-to-day still includes people with similar experiences—people who have deployed and understand, as opposed to facing both the civilian job and the changed unit.

DeLano went on the job hunt. A former coworker set him up with a job interview with a civilian security contracting company. He didn’t show up to the interview. He didn’t get the job.

‘This Is a Brain Thing’

During the first few weeks home, Stewart could separate life at home from his year in Afghanistan. His worlds collided the night he dreamed he was trying to protect his wife and mother, but he was back in Afghanistan.

“I had that dream, and I realized, This is a brain thing,” Stewart says. “I can’t control this whole process, no matter how strong, tough, capable I think I am.”

“There’s an automatic, natural thing that’s about to happen here,” he says.

After that, Stewart’s anger and avoidance made him unrecognizable to his family, he says. The outbursts didn’t make sense to him, either. His thoughts paralyzed him.

His vision would narrow.

He’d come back to the present moment in puddles of sweat.

One afternoon, he spent what felt like hours picking weeds alone outside his house just to escape the good friends his wife had invited over.

Meanwhile, DeLano hinted at efforts to reintegrate. At one point, he wrote a petition as a concerned resident to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health asking them not to increase the licensing fee on the state’s vending machines.

“This proposed increase is exorbitant,” his signed letter reads. “It could result in some job losses and surely will affect the prices of your vending favorites.”

But that summer, he told Holland, his sister, he would bake a cake for her nursing school graduation party. Then he didn’t show.

He got into a crash, he told his sister, and he sent his family pictures of a totaled car. He wore a bandage on one of his arms. Weeks later, alarmed by what she and other family members saw during a visit to his apartment—guns, booze, pills—Holland says she convinced him to check into a VA clinic to receive emergency care.

When a clinician removed the bandage he wore from the car crash, family members saw no cuts or bruises.

No wound, no scar.

‘Too Injured to Get Care’

A service member’s expectations of their combat experience may also play a role in how well they reintegrate. One still-serving soldier says he and others felt more vulnerable because their deployment was much different from what they anticipated.

“There’s so much morale that we’re supposed to create, and this esprit de corps and pride that we’re building, and confidence in these guys, and then, when it doesn’t meet their expectation, it hurts their feelings a little bit,” he says. “Some people have an expectation of what combat is going to look like and what it means for them.

“When you don’t get that mission, and when it doesn’t look like what you have in your head, you struggle,” he says.

The Guard’s responsibilities have not only expanded in perpetual fighting of foreign wars, but its members have also been called on more frequently to handle all sorts of domestic responses—everything from natural and manmade disasters and civil unrest to public health emergency responses and worker shortages—in recent years, all simultaneously.

Guard members have to meet the same requirements as service members in the active Army, but in one-fifth of the structured training time. Given the limited time to fulfill so many requirements, mandatory training in resilience and suicide prevention has been likened to learning how to shoot a weapon by sitting through a PowerPoint presentation.

“They throw the kitchen sink at them—there are so many mandatory requirements,” Hammond says. “It’s just one more requirement.”

“But they also want to get to training infantry soldiers how to be infantry soldiers,” he says.

Airman writes message during a Suicide Prevention Month event.
Airman writes his reason for living during a Suicide Prevention Month event Sept. 8, 2021, from an undisclosed location somewhere in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Karla Parra)

The Guard also endures a stark contrast in available medical services compared to their active counterparts. Unlike the active component, health records of Guard members are not fully captured by military data systems because of their intermittent service.

For complex care, including mental health, the Guard, less funded and with fewer resources than the active component, is more likely to refer service members to private clinics that may not tailor care for veteran-specific trauma, Hammond says.

“We’ve heard that from far too many veterans that have come to us that have suffered for years because they did try and get help, the [clinician] was ill equipped for the task,” says Hammond, who became the executive director of the Massachusetts-based veterans’ clinical program, Home Base, which provides care for veterans and their families, after he returned home.

“And then they thought they were broken. They thought they were too injured to get care and they just had to suck it up and live with that.”

That scenario was more likely to play out among service members in the active Army before 9/11, but it is growing more common in the Guard, Hammond says.

“When you have sustained combat over 20 years, and you have the emergence of unanticipated mental health and brain injuries, which are some of the most complicated injuries you can deal with, how do you suddenly grow those resources?” he says.

‘When Things Got Hard’

Some struggled even as they tried to guide others through reintegration.

After the 2011 deployment, O’Boyle, a town firefighter, helped many other soldiers who contemplated taking their own lives. Many confided in him about their struggles.

But at the time, O’Boyle also struggled to remain resilient himself, though many of his friends and fellow soldiers, especially those who had leaned on him, couldn’t see it.

“Every time I saw him at drill, he was joking around, laughing,” says Simpson, Delta Company’s former commander.

That was just part of who he was, Maureen O’Boyle says.

“Kevin would introduce levity when things got hard,” she says.

O’Boyle visited VA once after his first deployment in 2003, but didn’t follow up after his provider recommended medication. The post-combat stress from his first deployment likely worsened during his second, his mother says.

The scene as he arrived at Kunar province also stuck with him. He couldn’t get the faces of the wounded and dead soldiers out of his mind. While there, he watched as a helicopter blade struck and killed his comrade—a medic who had tried to evacuate an injured soldier. It stayed with O’Boyle.

He also faced memories from his first deployment to Afghanistan a decade before going over with the 182nd. But he didn’t speak about what he saw to family—it was something service members only discuss among themselves, Maureen O’Boyle says.

She recalled her son’s return from his 2011 deployment as “too sudden, too extreme.”

He, like others in the unit, seemed to be on constant alert, and he had bursts of anger.

“Knowing my child, this young man, as I did, I felt it best to give him some space, that he’ll come around,” she says. But instead, she says, he shut down.

By 2012, the military’s suicide rate had surpassed its combat death rate—349 service members killed themselves, while 295 died in Afghanistan—and the military and veterans communities were on edge. The surge came after a spike in 2009, followed by Congressional hearings and programs from both VA and the Defense Department designed to lower the suicide rate.

Stewart, who by then had left command and become the Guard’s assistant chief of staff, had seen the rates, but he’d also seen the reports about his soldiers as they returned home. About a year after they got back, he saw yet another report of a 182nd soldier with a mental health crisis appear in his inbox. He drove to the clinic nearly an hour away.

“I’m here to see Chris DeLano,” Stewart told one of the clinicians.

“Sorry, Chris doesn’t want to see anybody,” the clinician said.

“Well, you’re going to have to tell him he doesn’t have a choice, because I’m his battalion commander,” Stewart says he replied. Stewart knew that wasn’t true anymore, and his statement didn’t hold weight at VA, but the clinician told him to wait while he returned to consult DeLano. He returned soon after.

“Follow me,” the clinician told Stewart. Stewart followed the clinician to the cafeteria where he saw DeLano seated at an indoor picnic table.

“You don’t have to say a word to me,” Stewart says he told DeLano. “But I came here to tell you a couple things: Number one, you’re not any different than the rest of us because we are all going through what you are going through right now.

“And number two, you’re the smart one because you’re here at the VA, and we’re not,” Stewart says. “That’s all I’m going to tell you.”

Stewart knew more than he said. Events from the deployment also weighed heavily on his mind.

O’Boyle also visited DeLano, but as he did, he continued to hide his own unraveling.

“I look back and the signs were there, I just didn’t see them,” Maureen O’Boyle says. “And I didn’t hear him the way I needed to hear him.”

O’Boyle had been adopted into his family as an infant, and his mother says his increased introspection about who he was kept him focused on his goals and wanting to achieve more in his life. He wanted to get married; he wanted to go to Ranger school.

“He was content in so many ways,” she says. “At the same time, he couldn’t seem to find a place to settle.

“He was always searching.”

O’Boyle gave his guns away to a fellow soldier and firefighter after he returned home.

“He must’ve been afraid that he’d use them,” she says.

He gave more of his money to the Wounded Warrior Project.

He also grew isolated from his family. Maureen O’Boyle recalls speaking to him regularly by phone, but he wouldn’t allow her to see him for several months, she says.

“There was a pride factor there,” she says. “He was dealing with his own frustration that he couldn’t get a handle on it.”

O’Boyle, 31, killed himself on Aug. 22, 2013.

“He was the first one [in Delta company],” Simpson says. “That was a tough one.”

His was the first funeral for the battalion after they got back, but it wasn’t their first suicide death. Another 182nd soldier had died by suicide just days before O’Boyle. Their funerals were held a day apart. Within the year, two more soldiers within Delta company took their own lives—including Jacob Stiles, the soldier who had come home on leave only to find he wouldn’t return to Afghanistan.

More than a year after her son’s death, Maureen O’Boyle stood in the bridal party for DeLano’s wedding. It was Kevin O’Boyle who had introduced DeLano to the woman he would marry.

Maureen offered one of her son’s dog tags as a “something borrowed,” but she would never get it back.

Three service members in the Massachusetts Army National Guard died by suicide while this story was written.

This War Horse investigation was reported by Lara Salahi as part of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. It was edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett. Maria Wilson contributed to this report.

Story Continues