This is a soldier's story that has been told many times, by many soldiers. It is a tragedy that our military has been dealing with since before Iraq and Afghanistan. Let us pray for all soldiers at home or abroad. They all need our prayers. theblogmeister
James Weigl had two disqualifying medical conditions and never should have been in the Army. He fell apart after coming home from Iraq and killed himself last March - one of a rising number of vets to commit suicide. His family wonders if his death could have been avoided. A look at his life and what happened.
A soldier's story
As suicides in the military hit peak, James Weigl's tragedy hits home
Nov. 23, 2009
By the numbers
140: Active-duty Army soldiers took their own lives in 2008.
20.2: Suicide rate per 100,000 for active-duty-Army soldiers, the highest ever.
22.9: Suicide rate among veterans age 20 to 24 per 100,000 in 2007 - four times higher than non-veterans in the same age bracket.
70%: Percentage of veterans who seek psychological help who do so someplace other than the Veterans Administration.
85,000: Number of calls received by a suicide hotline for veterans since mid-2007.
Source: Veterans Administration, U.S. Army
Here are some resources for veterans and others when it comes to suicide, as well as warning signs and what to do to help.
Where to turn if you are feeling suicidal or if someone you know is:
Suicide hotline: (800) 784-2433
Veterans in an emotional crisis, can also call (800) 273-TALK
Or veterans can go to the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline Web site
Signs to look for if you are afraid someone might be suicidal:
The person appears depressed, sad, tearful, has poor sleep habits, poor appetite, is sounding hopeless.
The person threatens suicide or talks about wanting to die.
Changes in behavior, appearance, mood.
Abuses drugs or alcohol.
Has experienced significant loss in their lives.
Deliberately injures self.
Starts giving away possessions.
What to do: These suggestions from the Veterans Administration spell out the acronym AIDLIFE:
Ask: Are you thinking of hurting yourself today?
Don't keep it a secret.
Inform someone else.
Find someone to stay with the person. Don't leave the person alone.
Expedite: Get help immediately.
Kathy and Mike Weigl's hearts were pounding as they drove furiously from Chicago to Cedarburg to check on their son that night late last winter.
James Weigl, a sweet, goofy guy who surprised his friends by joining the Army in 2003, had tried to kill himself shortly after his tour in Iraq ended, and now - his service over - he was talking again of wanting to die.
His family began to worry about him in 2006, when he came home on leave, agitated and angry, scared and unable to focus.
Over the next three years, the Weigls tried everything they could think of to get help for their son. They lined up doctors' appointments, met with his Army commanders, called politicians. Kathy Weigl even took a class in suicide prevention.
Now, on the night of March 17, they were racing to Cedarburg.
"I knew the minute we turned onto his block that James was dead," Kathy Weigl said.
They found him dangling from the garage rafters, an electrical cord around his neck. He was 25.
Weigl's death is part an alarming epidemic of suicides among those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year, the official number of suicides by active-duty Army soldiers hit an all-time high at 140. In the first half of this year, the Army reported 129 confirmed or suspected suicides - more than the number of soldiers who died from hostile action during that time.
Suicide by veterans is tougher to pin down, largely because more than 70% of them get their psychiatric care through providers other than the Veterans Administration. But VA officials say suicide is a growing problem.
The Nov. 5 shootings by an Army psychiatrist that killed 13 at Fort Hood in Texas have raised even more concern about the psychological toll of the wars, now over eight years running.
Weigl's case shows how the military needs to do a better job at every step - from questions recruiters ask those enlisting to the kind of psychological care offered to active soldiers to record-keeping for veterans.
The Army has declined to comment on Weigl's death. But a review of his military and medical files - painstakingly gathered by his mother and provided to the Journal Sentinel - shows mistakes were made and several warning signs were missed.
Weigl never should have been in the military in the first place.
He had at least two conditions that would have disqualified him - an anaphylactic reaction to vaccines that caused his throat to close and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Both are spelled out as disqualifying conditions in the Army's Standards of Medical Fitness.
Weigl was discouraged from getting psychiatric care while in the Army, even after he attempted to kill himself in 2007. His medical records at the VA's Zablocki Medical Center were incomplete and consistently inaccurate. They are riddled with wrong birth dates, a wrong address and incorrect phone numbers. A VA psychologist confused Weigl with a veteran who had been incarcerated.
However, Weigl was getting more psychiatric treatment than ever at the time of his death. In fact, he was at the VA for two appointments the day he died, including a class run by a psychiatric nurse trained in suicide prevention.
"He got a lot of care in a short amount of time," said Jon Lehrmann, a VA psychiatrist who reviewed Weigl's case to see if mistakes were made at the center.
Suicide is excruciatingly unpredictable. So, it is impossible to say if Weigl's death was preventable.
His story offers a rare, intimate and intense look at how even little errors can lead to tragic consequences.
"We need to look at cases like this so that we can do a better job," said Michael McBride, a psychiatrist who joined the Army in 2001 and served in Iraq last year. "The military doesn't encourage you to get help or recognize your problems."
McBride is the post-traumatic stress disorder leader at Milwaukee's VA.
"We train soldiers how to go to war," he said, "but we don't train them how to come home from it."
Good kid, great soldier
Growing up in Cedarburg, Weigl was a prankster, a fun-loving kid who used to write different names on his nametag and speak in foreign accents to confuse customers at the Piggly Wiggly in Cedarburg where he worked. He sang and played the guitar with his big brother, Mike.
His friends still laugh at the time he mooned a bowling alley full of people. Weigl used to tell people his middle name was "Danger." His friends called him "Pickle."
Weigl wanted to be a special education teacher. But when reports came out declaring that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq - reports that would later prove to be false - Weigl told his friends and family he felt compelled to fight. He enlisted in October 2003.
Afraid that his potentially deadly reactions to vaccines would keep him out of the military, Weigl forged his mother's signature on a note, claiming that he was allergic to penicillin but nothing else.
"They put him up in a hotel in Milwaukee for the 24 hours after he signed up," Mike Weigl said. "We didn't even know he'd signed up before it was too late to back out."
Recruiters did not note Weigl had been diagnosed at the age of 4 as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that was so pronounced he had attended special classes in school. Nor did they ask Weigl about a family history of mental illness. His mother and other close family members suffer from treatment-resistant depression. Studies show family history of depression is a strong indicator of vulnerability for the disease.
Though they worried about their son, the Weigls were proud of his decision to serve.
"We're a military family," said Mike Weigl Sr., who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, as did two of his brothers.
James Weigl was trained at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., as a technical inspector of unmanned aerial vehicles and given special intelligence clearance reserved for more elite soldiers.
In August, 2005, Weigl was sent to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division. They were stationed in Taji, 12 miles northwest of Baghdad.
E-mails Weigl sent home at the time show how dangerous that place could be.
"Sorry I kept everyone at the house waiting for me," he wrote on Dec. 12, 2005. "I couldn't call because the base was on (a communication) blackout. We have that whenever a Taji soldier is killed. We go on blackout until the family is notified."
About a month later, ABC-TV anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman were badly injured by a roadside bomb near Taji.
McBride, the Milwaukee VA psychiatrist, said soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan face a special, unrelenting stress because of the random nature of bombs there.
"It's not like conventional warfare," he said. "Over there, soldiers know that a bomb can go off anywhere at any time from any place."
By all accounts, Weigl was a great soldier. He received four medals, including one commendation that read, "Weigl's can-do attitude positively affected the entire site."
"J.W. was awesome," said Shern Smith, who served as Weigl's sergeant in Iraq. "When no one else wanted to volunteer, he was a go."
During the quiet times, Weigl would entertain his fellow soldiers by playing his guitar. He built a deck out of driftwood and wrote a mock newspaper for the base, called the Taji Tribune.
"He took off on the politicians," Smith said. "It was in good fun, but there was some bite to it."
About a month after Weigl arrived in Iraq, things quickly deteriorated.
A plane that he was in charge of inspecting crashed. No one was injured, but the aircraft are very expensive - some cost $1 million or more.
"It was a big embarrassment," said Nathan Feinstein, Weigl's assigned partner, or "battle buddy."
"It really got to him," he said. "He started smoking again, quite heavily. James became kind of withdrawn. He spent less time hanging around the rest of us."
If they were worried about Weigl, no one said anything, Feinstein recalled.
"That's not the way we were," he said.
Home in 2006
Weigl came home for a two-week leave in April 2006. His parents could see right away that their son had changed.
"He was real quiet, and that just wasn't James," Kathy Weigl said.
On the second night of his visit, the family went out to dinner. Weigl got up in the middle of the meal and went to sit at the bar. A few minutes later, he took off and was gone - without a word - for the next three days.
Kathy and Mike Weigl begged their son to get help. But he refused, saying he was afraid that any record of psychiatric trouble would jeopardize his military standing.
"When we took him to the airport to go back to Iraq, my knees buckled," Kathy Weigl said. "All I could think of was, if he was that sick now, what would he be like when he came back?"
In the months that followed, Weigl's voice sounded flatter when he called home from Iraq, Mike Weigl said.
Around the base, he grew even more reclusive.
"He would be on the computer by himself all the time," said Feinstein. "He really pulled back from the rest of us."
Their tour ended July 27, 2006, and Weigl's company was sent to Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y.
"We felt like we could stop holding our breath and finally breathe again," Kathy Weigl would later write in a letter she gave Army commanders that begged for help.
But Weigl's real problems had only begun.
At the base, Weigl began to have trouble sleeping. He took to nervously driving around in his car for hours, sometimes sleeping on the side of the road.
On a rain-slicked road on Oct. 4, 2006, Weigl was in a car crash about an hour from the base. The car in front of him had spun out of control, and Weigl couldn't stop in time.
The force of the crash knocked him unconscious. He was treated and released at a local hospital.
A few days later, he started to complain of double vision, according to medical records. He had constant neck pain. He lost his sense of taste.
Back home, his parents were frantic with worry. But his commanding officers accused him of faking to get out of duty. The Weigls think Army officers should have seen their son was sinking into a deep depression.
"Instead, they ostracized him," Kathy Weigl said. "They would tell the other soldiers, 'You have to work harder because James isn't doing his job.' "
His fellow soldiers began to resent him.
"His attitude got even worse at that point," said Feinstein. "It seemed to the rest of us like he was trying to get out of work."
Weigl felt betrayed.
"It was like I had leprosy or something," he would later tell his psychiatric caseworker at Fort Drum, who noted the statement in his file.
Another tour looms
In December, soldiers in the unit got word that they would be going back to Iraq the following September, a little more than a year after their return.
"He was freaked," said Mike Auer, Weigl's best friend from high school days. "He did not want to go back to Iraq, no matter what."
He offered to work as a recruiter, and even applied to become a chaplain.
When the chance came for more training in Arizona, Weigl volunteered. He hoped to stay on as an inspector. But physical limitations from the car accident, his bad attitude and poor work record had caught up with him.
He was taken off his assignment as a technical inspector and assigned to night guard duty. Weigl was depressed and wanted to come home. He planned to fly back to Milwaukee for a weekend in February. But a snowstorm hit upstate New York and he ended up driving from Syracuse to Rochester to Buffalo to Detroit, searching in vain for a way to get home.
Alone in his barracks a few weeks later, he took out some ceiling tiles and fashioned a noose from an electrical cord. He was getting ready to put it around his neck when another soldier burst into the room. He had been sent by the captain to find out why Weigl was not at roll call.
When Weigl showed up late, not mentioning that he had come within minutes of killing himself, he was chewed out for his tardiness.
It would be weeks before he would get psychiatric care.
When she learned from her son what had happened, Kathy Weigl flew out on the first flight she could get. She stayed at a hotel near the base for nearly two months.
At first, Weigl refused all offers of help.
"He didn't want to lose his top-secret clearance," Kathy Weigl said.
She insisted on meeting with Maj. Barbara Lockbaum, the base's acting inspector general for medical affairs.
"I told them I would not leave that office until they got some help for my son," she said.
Weigl was involuntarily committed to the local hospital's psychiatric ward. He was diagnosed as bipolar and stayed there for 13 days. Weigl was given Zoloft, an anti-depressant, and Seroquel for psychotic behavior.
The day after he was released from the hospital, Weigl went back to work.
His suicide attempt and diagnosis of bipolar disorder did nothing to sway the Army from keeping Weigl on active duty, anticipating another deployment to Iraq.
At night, Weigl would visit his mother in her hotel room.
"He would just lie there in a fetal position, rocking back and forth," she said. "He was so sick. Sometimes he'd sleep for 16 hours or more. I'd have to wake him up to get him to formation on time."
For the next several weeks, the Weigls begged Army officers to get better psychiatric care for their son. They called his commanding officers and tried to set up meetings. Mike Weigl flew out, and he and Kathy met with the captain of James Weigl's unit.
"He told us that our son was unfit to wear the uniform," Kathy Weigl said. "He kept saying that James was an asset. They had spent all this money on training him and they weren't going to lose that asset."
Livid, they wrote a 11-page letter, dated April 23, 2007, and addressed to U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, detailing the lack of psychiatric care for their son. The Weigls handed it to Lockbaum, the top medical affairs officer.
"James needs immediate protection from the systematic bullying, intimidation and abuse from his chain of command," they wrote. "We do not want to have to plan a funeral."
The next day, James Weigl was transferred to a unit for disabled soldiers and was assigned to work as a file clerk.
His psychiatric notes from that time show that military doctors decided to treat him only for the symptoms of depression or mania. They did not give him medication to prevent his bipolar symptoms from flaring up again.
Fort Drum officials did not respond to several requests for comment about Weigl's treatment.
More than a year later, he was honorably discharged from the Army. The official cause was disability from the neck injury he suffered in the car accident. His Army doctors diagnosed Weigl's psychological issues to be a single episode of major depressive illness caused by "discord and difficulty with his chain of command," and they declared him to be in full remission.
Trouble back home
Weigl was looking forward to civilian life, he told the psychiatric social worker at Fort Drum.
He planned to move back to Wisconsin and go back to college. He and his girlfriend found a place in Cedarburg, and Weigl got a job installing wireless networks at hotels.
Before long, his problems resurfaced.
Weigl was more irritable than ever. He would panic and get lost on the way to work. He was starting to get paranoid, fearing he would be arrested for stealing money from his employer because his expense accounts had been called into question.
Because his work took him out of town from Monday through Friday, Weigl had trouble making appointments at the VA. He said he couldn't afford private care.
On Feb. 3 of this year, exhausted and confused, he called his mother.
"I've hit the wall," he told her.
His parents, who had moved near Chicago in 2007, took him to the VA in Milwaukee. Weigl spent the next five days there.
It was the first time he'd been seen at the center, which treats between 9,000 and 10,000 veterans a year.
It's impossible to get everything right, said Lehrmann, the VA psychiatrist who reviewed Weigl's case.
His records show that clerks had written down the wrong telephone number for Weigl and his mother.
On Feb. 23, Weigl failed to show for an appointment with McBride.
VA workers called five times after that trying to find out why he failed to show but reported never getting an answer. Kathy Weigl believes they were calling the wrong phone number.
Weigl did show up for an evaluation two days later. There is no note in the records about why he missed the earlier appointment.
Elsewhere in Weigl's chart, a psychologist confused him with a patient with a similar name who had been incarcerated. That error eventually was corrected.
Other information is consistently wrong, too, such as his birth date, address and details of his hospitalizations.
On the afternoon of March 17, Weigl called his mother. He was at the VA that day for two appointments, a class on how to quit smoking and a test to find out what was causing tingling in his fingers.
He and his girlfriend were fighting. He had quit his job.
"James sounded real calm," Kathy Weigl recalled.
But the Weigls figured James would need a place to stay if he and his girlfriend were breaking up.
They got in their car and started heading up to Wisconsin, a two-hour drive from their home in Schiller Park, Ill.
They called when they got to Kenosha, and Weigl sounded fine.
They arrived in Cedarburg about 9 p.m.
"I could tell right away, something was not right," Kathy Weigl said. "I just knew."
All of the lights in the apartment were on. But they could not find their son.
"I went looking all over the apartment," she said. "Mike headed out to the garage."
That's where he found him.
The Weigls laid their son's body on the floor and whispered in his ear as they waited for the ambulance.
"Follow the light to heaven," Mike Weigl told his son.
"And be at peace."
The Army chaplain at Fort Drum was notified of Weigl's death, but no one from his unit came to the funeral.
Two months later, the Weigls located Feinstein, their son's "battle buddy," through Facebook. They broke the news to him in an e-mail.
"I didn't really see it coming," Feinstein said. "But was I surprised? Not really."
The Army and the Veterans Administration have greatly increased their emphasis on suicide prevention. At the Milwaukee VA, the number of psychiatric care workers has nearly doubled in the past two years. In October, the Army began requiring all its active duty, National Guard and reserve soldiers to take a test to identify potential mental health problems.
Since Weigl's death, his mother has spent hundreds of hours poring over his records. She has arranged them in three-ring binders, underlining errors and highlighting points that show how the military failed her son.
Milwaukee VA officials have reviewed Weigl's case.
"Some mistakes were made," Lehrmann said. "But we don't think that affected his care."
Everyone at the center feels terrible for the family, said VA spokesman Gary Kunich. Officials there have invited the Weigls to come in to discuss their son's case.
Thanks to Meg Kissinger for this story