By: Brett Kelman and Drew Schmenner
The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun
As the sun rose over the sleepy desert town of Yucca Valley, Sgt. Martin Francis Scahill stood in his backyard, a black 12-gauge shotgun pressed against his chin, a single shell in the chamber.
After contemplating suicide for months, Scahill pulled the trigger. His body fell backwards onto the ground, the shotgun landing between his legs.
It was 6:30 a.m., April 5, 2010, the day after Easter Sunday. Blood seeped into the sand.
Forty-five minutes later, two deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department rang the doorbell at the Scahill home, waking his wife, who was asleep on the couch. Together, they found the body in the backyard. Scahill’s belongings were scattered around his bedroom.
A laptop was left open, lingering on an image of his infant daughter, Emma. A gun box was open with a revolver inside, unloaded. A box of shotgun shells sat on a nightstand, one shell missing. A notepad rested on the bed, covered with messages his wife scribbled during an argument the night before.
“I loved you.”
“I want to separate.”
Scahill, 25, was a man desperate for help he could not find. Alcohol abuse had strained his marriage and threatened his job, but he continued to drink, bragging about downing 18 beers or a half-gallon of whiskey every night. Scahill’s family had a history of suicide, but when he threatened to take his own life he was never taken seriously.
Five weeks after Scahill shot himself, a military investigation of his suicide would contradict itself, reporting that the Marine’s death was both unsurprising and yet impossible to foresee.
The investigation report, which was partially redacted by the military, said Scahill did not demonstrate any suicidal warning signs before his death, and that any indications of his intentions were either “too subtle” or “masked by his morose sense of humor.”
However, the same report said that Scahill’s suicide did not come as a shock to his immediate family. To them, suicide was “not a matter of if, but when,” the report said.
Scahill is one of at least 16 service members — 15 Marines, and one sailor — who committed suicide from 2007 to 2012 while at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. That tally does not include one Marine from the Combat Center who killed himself while deployed to Iraq in 2008.
The military has not yet released base-specific suicide data from 2013. A Combat Center spokesman said he could not confirm how many Marines had killed themselves at the base last year because he could not speak for the multiple battalions that operate at the base.
Even with incomplete statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Marines in this desert, with a death toll surpassed only by vehicle deaths, according to a yearlong investigation by The Desert Sun. The dual crises of crashes and suicide are compounded by alcohol abuse, and together, speed, depression and booze make the peaceful deserts of Southern California as dangerous as a war zone.
Since 2007, there have been 60 combat deaths of Twentynine Palms service members. During the same time period, at least 64 Marines and sailors have died non-hostile deaths while either stationed or training at the Twentynine Palms base.
The Desert Sun investigation found that, although Marines at Twentynine Palms are no more likely to take their own lives than Marines at other bases, they are twice as likely to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of their suicide. About half of the Marines who killed themselves while at the Twentynine Palms Combat Center had used alcohol, according to a review of reports from police, coroners and the military. Throughout the entire Marine Corps, only about one-quarter of suicides are confirmed to be alcohol-related.
From 2007 to 2012, both the Twentynine Palms Combat Center and the Marine Corps as a whole averaged an annual suicide rate of 19 deaths per 100,000 troops. According to the American Association of Suicidology, the overall U.S. suicide rate is about 12 deaths per 100,000 people. This rate doesn’t statistically compare to the Marine Corps because 95 percent of Marines are men, who are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. The Marine Corps argues that if the civilian suicide rate is adjusted for Marine demographics, it would equal 22 deaths per 100,000.
A growing crisis
The military first recognized its suicide crisis in the mid- to late 1990s, when each military branch launched its own prevention programs. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Defense created the Suicide Prevention and Risk Reduction Committee, which formalized how suicides and suicide attempts were reported.
Despite the creation of prevention programs, the rate of military suicide rose over the next decade, climbing from 10.3 suicides per 100,000 military members in 2001 to 18.03 suicides per 100,000 military members in 2011.
In 2010, suicide supplanted transportation accidents as the leading cause of non-combat death in the military, according to a 2012 Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center report.
In 2012, military suicides reached a record 351, surpassing the number of troops who died in Afghanistan that year. Forty-eight of those deaths were Marines.
Another 45 Marines killed themselves in 2013.
Both former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have said that military suicides are among the most frustrating problems they’ve encountered. Panetta said in 2012 that military suicides were on the rise “despite increased efforts and attention” from both the defense department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Last year, Hagel stressed that suicide prevention programs are so critical that they should be immune to wide-sweeping military budget cuts.
The Marine Corps operates a host of initiatives as part of its suicide prevention program, and base services include counselors, medical personnel and a 24-hour suicide helpline. In 2009, the Marines started annual suicide prevention training for non-commissioned officers, called “Never Leave a Marine Behind.” In 2011, the training expanded to include all Marines. In 2012, a new order required every battalion and squadron to appoint a suicide prevention officer.
But the existing efforts aren’t enough, according to the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Task Force, a group of experts that spent two years studying suicide in the military. In 2010, a task force report found suicide prevention efforts were hampered by a troubling lack of communication on military bases. Commanders, clinicians and counselors weren’t talking about Marines who were at risk of suicide, and when they did talk, their conversations were stymied by medical privacy laws, which were often “misunderstood and over-interpreted,” the report said.
A year after the task force report was released, the Marine Corps launched its Force Preservation Council program on every base, encouraging battalion leaders and social support officials to share information about Marines who may be suicidal. In Twentynine Palms, the councils meet monthly.
“If there are Marines who are facing challenges in their lives, there are people that may have pockets of information,” said Lt. Col. Michael A. Bowers, commanding officer of the base’s headquarters battalion. “We want to make sure that everyone does have that information … and there are no gaps in what we know.”
One year after the council formed, the Marine Corps expanded its reach, launching a mandatory mentoring program at all bases, including in Twentynine Palms. Under this program, each Marine is required to meet monthly with a mentor — like a platoon commander or sergeant — to discuss life in the Marine Corps. Mentors use these meetings to look for six signs of trouble: disciplinary problems, relationship turmoil, substance abuse, money problems, mental health and social withdrawal.
If a mentor decides that one of his Marines is struggling, he can send the case up the chain of command, where battalion commanders use the council to connect with support services. Bowers believes the program is effective if Marines know the aim of the council and mentors is preventive, not punitive.
“They know they’re not going to the principal’s office to get scolded,” he said. “They actually know there are a lot of professional people caring about them and trying to get them back on track.”
The Marine Corps launched an in-depth study of suicide victims after the task force in 2010 said the military makes an admirable effort to record deaths, but not enough to understand suicide. Currently, suicide data is compiled into the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER), but the report offers only a superficial understanding of the suicide crisis.
“It’s inadequate on a whole bunch of levels,” said Dr. Alan Berman, a member of the suicide prevention task force. “Most profoundly, methodologically, (the DoDSER) relies on a single interview, oftentimes with somebody who didn’t observe the decedent in the days prior to death.”
Berman is executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, the organization hired to examine how Marines who committed suicide acted during their final days and weeks. They hope to discover a common “trajectory toward death” and early warning signs that could save others, Berman said.
The organization has begun psychological autopsies of Marines who died of suicide from 2010 to 2012. The results of the study should be out in May or June, Berman said.
Tragic end to the spiral
One of the Marines in the study is Pvt. Kythe K. Yund, a Twentynine Palms Marine who shot himself in Joshua Tree on June 17, 2011, the day before his 22nd birthday. Researchers from the American Association of Suicidology interviewed Yund’s mother, Karin Varner, for 90 minutes, starting the examination with Yund’s childhood.
“If it helps save another parent from losing their child,” Varner said, “I will do whatever it takes to even just help one family not have to go through it.”
Yund was a quiet child whose parents divorced when he was 3. There was a history of suicide on his father’s side of the family, and when Yund was in high school, he attempted to kill himself by overdosing on painkillers at his father’s home in Washington, his mother said.
This suicide attempt should have disqualified Yund from military enlistment, so it is unclear how he managed to join the Marines. A recent Harvard University study suggests that recruitment screening is far from perfect. About half of Army soldiers who attempt suicide while in the service admit to prior attempts before they enlisted, the study said.
Yund enlisted in the Marines Corps in November 2007, then was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Twentynine Palms as a rifleman. While deployed to Iraq in 2009, Yund witnessed one of his friends die from a gunshot to the head. He returned home early from Iraq because his wife, Stephanie, almost died after giving birth to their daughter, Kyndel.
Stephanie lapsed into a coma and suffered short-term memory loss after gaining consciousness.
Back home, Yund drank heavily and abused drugs. He was punished for using cocaine, demoted from lance corporal to private. Unnerved by Yund’s behavior, his wife returned to her home in Illinois with Kyndel. The couple eventually started divorce proceedings.
On the day Yund killed himself, he was scheduled to meet with his superiors about another disciplinary matter, which could have led to another demotion. Varner believes the shame of another punishment, and the embarrassment it may have caused his wife and daughter, triggered her son’s suicide.
On a Friday about 5:42 a.m., Yund shot himself with a 12-gauge shotgun in his bedroom.
His roommates told police that Yund had spent the night before at home, drinking a little, but did not seem upset. At the time of his death, Yund’s blood-alcohol content was .03.
Varner spoke to her son for the last time five days beforehand. He called her on the phone, sounding more relaxed and hopeful. He was leaving the Marine Corps in about a month, and was anxious to move to Illinois to try to reconcile with his wife.
Yund also asked his mother to research counseling options in Illinois. He wanted help, but had avoided counseling in the Marine Corps after his fellow Marines mocked him.
“Some of the other mothers I’ve talked to have gone through the same thing with their child,” Varner said. “They would go ask for help through the Army, Marine Corps, whatever, and their child would be ostracized later because of it, so that’s why a lot of them didn’t go seek help.”
This refrain is common for family members of suicide victims, said Kim Ruocco, manager of suicide outreach for the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors (TAPS), a Virginia group that helps the family members of deceased military members.
If the military truly wants to combat suicide within its ranks, it must destigmatize counseling and prioritize the importance of mental health, Ruocco said.
“If you were sprayed by poisonous gas, you wouldn’t expect to just suck it up,” Ruocco said. “If you broke your leg … you wouldn’t expect to just keep going until it was infected. You’d get immediate, comprehensive care and get back on the battlefield. That’s the way we’ve got to start thinking about behavioral health.”
Ruocco said it is especially hard to reach out to Marines, a proud group tied close to the rough and tough identity of the Marine Corps. She speaks from experience — her husband, Maj. John Ruocco, an accomplished Marine helicopter pilot, killed himself in 2005.
John Ruocco had battled depression since the mid-1990s, when two helicopters collided during a training exercise, killing several of his friends. A memorial service was held for the fallen men, but within Ruocco’s squadron, discussion of the crash was taboo. He suffered in silence for a decade, eventually hanging himself in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in San Diego County.
“When it happened to me, when my husband died by suicide, I remember saying: ‘I didn’t even see it coming,’ ” Ruocco said. “But then as I got over the shock and the grief, and I looked back, I thought ‘Wow there were many times within his life span and his career where he had trauma or loss. … We should have gotten help way back when. I think pretty much every survivor I’ve talked to says that.”
A rattled mind
After five months together, Cpl. Richard McShan and his girlfriend were struggling with trust. It was the evening of March 29, 2009, and they had each had a few drinks at a bowling alley in Twentynine Palms. Sometime after midnight, when they returned to her apartment on Bagley Street, she caught him snooping through her text messages.
McShan apologized, but she demanded he leave. The Marine went outside to load his clothes into his car, prepared to leave, at least for the night.
“You can’t forgive me, can you?” McShan asked.
“Not right now,” his girlfriend said.
Furious, she stormed back inside, leaving the Marine alone in the driveway, standing between their cars.
Seconds later, she heard the gunshots.
McShan had pressed a 40-caliber handgun against the right-rear of his skull, squeezing the trigger twice. He fell backwards, somehow still alive, the gun clattering onto the ground near his feet.
An ambulance rushed McShan to the Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree, where he was hooked to a ventilator. Two hours later, as the sun rose, a helicopter flew the comatose Marine to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. Doctors there said McShan had no hope of recovery.
Two days later, at the request of his family, medical staff turned off McShan’s ventilator, letting him slip away. He was pronounced dead at 2 a.m. on April 1, 2009.
McShan, 23, the son of a 20-year Army veteran, was born in Germany but grew up in Colorado Springs, playing trumpet and football at his high school. He joined the Marine Corps shortly after graduation, Sept. 11, 2005. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, deploying once each to Iraq and Afghanistan.
McShan came back from those deployments haunted by nightmares, his girlfriend told authorities. She also said that McShan had told her he had attempted to shoot himself once before, but was saved when the gun misfired.
But to Paul McShan, the father of yet another dead Marine, this suicide didn’t compute. His son Ricky had been a happy young man, brimming with competitive spirit, who loved being a Marine.
There had to be more to this story, the grieving father thought.
“I started digging and digging and digging, trying to find out why,” Paul McShan said. “We discovered that he had at least four concussions and one where he was blown out the top of a Humvee. His shoulder was dislocated and he was knocked out for three or four minutes. So my conclusion after all that digging was that his brain short-circuited.”
This theory is backed up by a growing body of evidence. In recent years, scientists have discovered a strong link between concussions and suicide, a possible explanation for the disconcertingly high suicide rate in the military.
In 2013, a study released by the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah said that military personnel were significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts if they had suffered at least one traumatic brain injury. The study surveyed 161 service members, many of whom had been injured in Iraq.
Of the service members who had not suffered brain injuries, zero percent reported suicidal thoughts, the study said. Of those who suffered one, 7 percent reported suicidal thoughts. Of those who suffered more than one brain injury, 22 percent reported suicidal thoughts.
“Up to now, no one has been able to say if multiple (traumatic brain injuries), which are common among combat veterans, are associated with higher suicide risk or not,” said Craig J. Bryan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah, who led the study. “This study suggests they are …”
Researchers believe that concussions and brain injury increase the likelihood of suicide through a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or “CTE.” Symptoms of CTE include irritability, memory loss, dementia and suicidal tendencies.
In 2012, a study from the Boston University found evidence of CTE in the brains of four military veterans, each with a history of traumatic brain disorder. Three of the veterans had been exposed to explosions during deployment. The fourth, a 28-year-old with post traumatic stress disorder, had suffered four concussions caused by a bicycle accident, a football collision, a military incident and a vehicle accident. Two years after his last concussion, the veteran committed suicide by shooting himself.
According to the study, the veterans’ brains were indistinguishable from those of many professional football players, a group that has been studied more extensively, showing a strong link between head injuries, CTE and suicide. The Boston researchers have found CTE in the brains of dozens of football players, both at the college and professional levels, including some that have killed themselves.
Brain injuries also double the odds that military service members will develop post traumatic stress disorder, which further increases the risk of suicide. A new study, published in December, examined 1,648 Marines and sailors that had recently returned from deployment. About half of them were stationed in Twentynine Palms, said Dr. Dewleen Baker, a psychiatrist at a Veterans Affairs center in San Diego who co-authored the study.
Baker said the study has established a strong link between brain injuries and PTSD, but researchers still don’t understand how one causes the other. It is possible that both brain injuries and PTSD spring from similar traumatic events, like bomb blasts, but also possible that concussive injuries make it more difficult for the brain to recover from emotional hardship, Baker said.
Either way, links to PTSD and CTE have uncovered the true long-term danger of brain injuries, a field of study that was once ignored. High-tech imaging can be used to visualize brain injuries better than ever before, and with the right tools, researchers can even “see” PTSD, a once-hidden condition now revealed as over-activity of the amygdala, a portion of the brain that deals with excitement and fear.
Today, brain injuries stand on a precipice where other conditions have stood before, ready and waiting to be better understood, Baker said.
“My analogy is that in the ’40s and ’50s, we didn’t really understand heart attacks,” Baker said. “Nobody understood the details, and so there was a lot of treatment that didn’t happen when someone had a heart attack. They would put people in a room and have them rest and hope they got better. But when we began to research and image the heart, and find ways to test the heart, we found many ways to fix and prevent the damage. And now we are in the early stage of this kind of understanding in regard to head injuries.”
Alcohol abuse in the ranks
Of the 15 Marines who killed themselves while at Twentynine Palms from 2007 to 2012, seven, or 46 percent, had alcohol in their system. That’s nearly double the percentage reported throughout the Marine Corps, according to a four-year average compiled from DoDSER statistics.
As suicide rates have climbed in the military, so has drinking. From 1998 to 2008, the share of service members who were binge drinkers increased from 35 to 47 percent, and the number of heavy drinkers rose from 15 to 20 percent, according to a 2012 report from the Institute of Medicine, a nongovernmental agency under the National Academy of Sciences. Binge drinking and heavy drinking were more prevalent in the Marine Corps than other military branches.
In December 2012, the Marine Corps launched a random alcohol screening program, becoming the first military branch to do so. The rules were also the strictest: Twice a year, Marines must be given Breathalyzer tests while on duty, and they can be referred to substance abuse counseling at even the slightest hint of alcohol. Commanders can send a Marine to counseling if they have a blood-alcohol content of .01 — which could be triggered by a single beer. If the Marine has a blood alcohol content of .04, their fitness for duty can be challenged.
Since October, more than 1,000 Marines from the Twentynine Palms Combat Center’s headquarters battalion have been screened for alcohol while on duty. Only one was sent to substance abuse counseling after testing positive, said Capt. Justin Smith, a base spokesman. Smith said he could not release results for the other battalions at the base.
If an alcohol screening program like this had existed just two years earlier, it might have saved Sgt. Scahill, the Marine who shot himself in his backyard in Yucca Valley.
At the time of his death, Scahill had a blood alcohol content of .08. It is unclear if he drank that morning or was still drunk from the night before, but neither would have been out of character for Scahill, whose long battle with alcohol predated his job and his marriage.
Back in 2007, after returning from his second deployment to Iraq, Scahill confessed to drinking 18 beers a night during a post-deployment health assessment. Scahill repeated this admission to medical personnel at least four more times over the next year, according to a military investigation.
Although Scahill had reported “excessive drinking,” he was never required to go to substance abuse counseling. Because he had not been involved in an “alcohol-related incident” during his service, he was never obligated to get help for his problem, according to the investigation.
Scahill’s drinking continued after he married his wife in November 2008, immediately after returning from his third deployment to Iraq. In 2009, Scahill joined the tank battalion at Twentynine Palms, where his alcohol abuse was no secret. According to interviews with fellow Marines, included in the military investigation, Scahill would drink excessively during his off-duty hours, drinking exclusively for the purpose of getting blackout drunk. He frequently came to work hung over or smelling of alcohol, and showed up for work drunk at least twice, according to the report. His fellow Marines hid his abuse from his superiors, trying to protect his career while ultimately enabling his addiction.
Scahill’s drinking was a problem at home, too. On the day before his suicide, Scahill got in a drunken argument with his wife, Genevieve, who accused him of texting an ex-girlfriend. By the evening, Scahill was so drunk that his wife refused to allow him to hold their 11-month old daughter. Furious, Genevieve slept on the couch.
Early the following morning, she woke up her husband, sending him to physical training at the Marine base. Before he left, she told him she was tired of his drinking and wanted to go to her mother’s house in Los Angeles. It was an empty threat.
Scahill left for training but returned soon after, insisting that physical training had been canceled. As he walked into their daughter’s room, Genevieve fell back asleep.
The gunshot didn’t wake her.
“I still blame myself a little bit. I wish I had seen the signs,” Genevieve said during an interview with The Desert Sun. “I wish I would have gotten off of that couch and followed him.”
Although Scahill didn’t leave a suicide note, he did send a text message to some of his fellow Marines, perhaps a final cry for help.
“Hey man, I’m not coming to work today,” the text said, according to a military investigation report. “I’m going to blow my f—ing brains out.”
Another Marine, who assumed Scahill was joking, wrote back: “GTG,” military slang for “good to go.”
The message prompted a commanding officer to call police, sending the deputies to Scahill’s door.
Genevieve said her husband’s suicide first came as a shock, but in hindsight, the clues of his looming death were everywhere.
Both Scahill’s father and grandmother had killed themselves. Scahill had once told his wife that his father told him the only good way to commit suicide was to shoot yourself in the head.
One night, when Genevieve was pregnant, a drunken Scahill said he sometimes heard a voice that told him he was no good and that people would be better off without him. He denied it the following morning.
Later, only a few weeks before he died, Scahill showed off two guns to some of his friends. Upset at their rowdy behavior, Genevieve confronted them, telling her husband to put the guns away. He responded by pulling the trigger on an unloaded shotgun, saying, “You don’t care what I do?”
Scahill bought that shotgun — which he would later use to kill himself — about two months before his death. According to the military investigation report, Scahill would joke to his fellow Marines that he might accidentally shoot himself while cleaning the gun.
In January 2010, while attending a suicide prevention course at the Marine base, Scahill protested, insisting that “if someone is going to do it, they’re going to do it.”
Scahill had the numbers “5150” tattooed on his right forearm — a reference to the section of California law that deals with people with mental health issues who are a threat to themselves or others. Scahill had confirmed the meaning of the tattoo during chats with other Marines.
Finally, the most terrifying clue was also the most cryptic. After Scahill was gone, his wife found one of his books, arrows drawn in the corners of the pages. At first, the scribbling seemed undecipherable. However, when she flipped through the pages with her thumb, she discovered the drawings were a flip book, a rudimentary cartoon where stick figures played out a gruesome suicide scene.
Genevieve had seen this before. It was the same scene she and deputies had found in the backyard.
“The stick figure man was him waving goodbye to everybody. He took a gun, he put it under his chin,” Genevieve said. “The cartoon was everything exactly what I saw. He followed the cartoon.”