July 2, 2014 in City
Shawn Vestal: Army veteran survived battle, but not its aftermath
Pictures cover the refrigerator in the kitchen at Todd and Renee Watson’s North Side home.
In one of them, their son, Cody, smiles out at a camera in 2009. “This is before he deployed,” Todd Watson said. “He looks like he’s 14 years old. And then you look at him here” – Watson points to another photo of Cody, bearded and looking hard, and his voice breaks – “he looks 15 years older.”
Cody came back from Iraq in 2010, struggling with the demons so many veterans do. Depression. Anger. All the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Alcoholism and addiction – efforts to erase the pain.
He returned to Spokane in February 2012 after his separation from the Army. He was treated at the VA for behavioral health and substance abuse problems.
In late March of this year, he walked away from a voluntary residential treatment housing downtown. On March 25, he jumped to his death from the Monroe Street Bridge. Like every one of the epidemic number of suicides among veterans returning from war, he left a wake of pain and questions behind.
“You see this kind of stuff,” Todd Watson said. “You read about it. You think, ‘That could never be my child. We were good parents. He was a happy kid. How did my son, who was so happy, how did he get so sick with depression?’ ”
Suicides among veterans and active-duty servicemen and women are tragically common. A VA analysis of suicides between 1999 and 2011 concluded that 22 veterans a day take their own lives. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have wound down, suicide has overtaken combat as the leading cause of death for active-duty soldiers.
Officials with the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane said they could not release the latest figures for suicides among local veterans, which would have to come from the national office in Washington, D.C. The center had been cited for underreporting veterans suicides in 2009, and its staff psychiatrists refused to accept new patients in that year due to caseloads that were well over agency standards – 70 percent greater in some cases.
The hospital has expanded its staff and added more outreach to veterans to ensure they’re aware of services to help with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other behavioral health problems, said Dr. Quinn Bastian, chief of behavioral health services. He said it is crucial for veterans to seek help if they need it. Among veterans being treated by the VA, suicide rates are improving, he said, while they are worsening among those who aren’t being treated.
“We have not been able to prevent every suicide, but we have seen, throughout the VA and regionally, the number of suicides decrease,” Bastian said. “We do have help at the VA. We have some of the best help in the world at the VA.”
Todd Watson, who’s been treated by some of the same people as his son, wasn’t critical of the hospital in connection with his son’s death.
“My agenda is not to beat up the VA or bash the VA,” he said.
Cody grew up in Ephrata and Spokane, graduating from Shadle Park High School in 2007. He was a junior hockey player for years with the now defunct Spokane Flyers.
He enlisted in the Army in 2008 and was stationed in Fort Lewis before deploying to Iraq in September 2009 as a paratrooper in an elite Long Range Surveillance unit, a team that gathered intelligence deep in enemy territory. His brother also served in combat, as a field medic. Neither of them talked much about their war experiences, Todd Watson said, but both were on the front lines, where people killed and died, and not “in the rear with the gear.”
“Cody never spoke to me about anything he did over there,” Watson said. “The only person he ever talked about it with was his brother.”
The brothers were following in a long family tradition. Todd Watson served in the Army for almost 24 years and is now retired. An uncle served in the Army. Renee Watson’s father served in Vietnam. Two grandfathers served. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, Todd Watson said, the men in his family have served in the military.
“It’s a family history,” he said. “In hindsight, I wish my kids would have gone off to some kind of university. Gone to college. “
When Cody returned, his parents said, his experiences weighed on him clearly.
“You could see the change,” Todd Watson said. “He wasn’t smiling anymore. He wasn’t happy. He was obviously depressed. I remember telling my wife, this isn’t going to end well.”
Cody was drinking heavily, and he also was taking pain medication. Todd – a recovering alcoholic himself – saw the signs and was deeply concerned. Cody got a DUI and was admitted twice for treatment at the VA because he was considered a threat to himself, Watson said. In early March, he turned up in the VA emergency room with potential alcohol poisoning. He was admitted again for treatment and stayed in housing downtown provided for VA patients in the intensive outpatient program.
“I remember my wife and I thinking we could sleep at night again,” he said. “We didn’t have to worry about our child.”
On March 25, Todd was at the VA, where he sometimes stopped to visit Cody around his lunch break, and asked where he was. Another vet said, “Isn’t he with you? It turned out that Cody had left sometime earlier, telling people he was going to the library. Watson and VA workers began trying to find him; Cody and his dad talked on the phone at around 4 that afternoon, ending the call by saying he was going to take the bus to his dad’s house. Instead, a few hours later, he went to the bridge.
Ten weeks later, his friends and family are mourning and wondering and suffering – still asking themselves the questions that have no answers, still staggered by grief that springs up fresh again and again. An American flag hangs outside the family’s home. Inside, Cody’s flag, folded into a triangle, sits on a table near the front door, and pictures and tributes hang on the wall. Cody is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, which is very near the Watsons’ home. They visit every day, and they had put up a temporary memorial while waiting for the gravestone: Cody’s hockey jersey from his days as a Spokane Flyer, No. 8, with his infantry cord and other patches from his Army uniform sewn on the arm. Flags, flowers, pinwheels, a dream catcher and other mementoes from friends and family decorated the spot, as well.
Someone knocked it all down on June 15, and stole the jersey.
Before he died, Cody left his parents a note, “telling us not to be sad because his pain and suffering was going to be over,” Todd said.
The note also quoted Chief Joseph, whose portrait now hangs in the Watsons’ living room: “I will fight no more forever.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.