On a dusty afternoon in a squalid U.S. Army base in eastern Baghdad, the world seemed to cave in on Spec. Joe Sanders. On daily patrols, soldiers around him were being killed and grievously wounded by improvised roadside bombs. The sweltering August heat and stink of Baghdad were oppressive. He was thousands of miles from home. And he had just learned that his wife -- his lifeline to the sane, normal world -- wanted a divorce.
Alone in his barracks room at Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, Sanders, a soft-spoken young man with a pleasant demeanor, seized his M-4 carbine, put the barrel under his chin, squeezed his eyes shut and pulled the trigger. It was August, 2008. Sanders was 26 years old.
released by the Army this week show what seems to be a steadily increasing number of suicides among soldiers, from 128 in 2008 to 160 last year, an average of about 13 suicides each month.
Last month, despite a strenuous effort by the Army
and the other military services, 14 active-duty soldiers took their own lives. The Army cites "relationship difficulties'' as a key factor in causing soldiers to consider suicide.
A powerful factor in preventing suicides, officers say, is the active intervention of a close friend who sees the warning signs and steps in to help.
When Sanders pulled the trigger of his loaded carbine, there was only a light click. Horrified both at what he had done and what he had failed to do, Sanders tore open his weapon, searching frantically to find why it hadn't fired. He quickly identified the reason: no firing pin.
At that moment his roommate, Spec. Albert Godding, walked in. "Where's my firing pin -- I don't have a firing pin!'' Sanders yelled, terrified that he'd misplaced that critical piece and would get in trouble for losing it.
"And how,'' Godding asked gently, "did you discover it was missing?''
When Sanders realized what had happened -- that Godding was worried enough that he'd removed the firing pin -- Sanders broke down in great, wracking sobs. "Okay, let's go get you some help,'' his buddy told him, putting a hand on Sanders' heaving shoulder.
The signs, in retrospect, were obvious. After his wife had called demanding a divorce, Sanders knew he had fallen into a very dark place. He felt alone, with no one to talk to. The Army had provided combat stress counselors at FOB Rustamiyah, but Sanders didn't feel he had combat stress.
"I'd been through break-ups before, no big deal,'' he told me last week. "I'd seen a lot of bad (combat) stuff in Iraq, no big deal.'' Sanders and his wife were newlyweds, unprepared for the intense stress of a 14-month combat deployment. "When she told me she couldn't take it and was leaving me it was ... she was really all I had to ... my therapy. She left, the woman I loved. Everything we had planned for, just -- gone. I was stuck in Iraq, everybody was trying to kill me, and I had no one to talk to.''
"I just didn't think it qualified me'' to see the combat stress counselor, he said.
But he confided to Godding that he was thinking of killing himself, pondering how it might be done most cleanly, in a place where the blood could be washed away.
"I noticed he wasn't talking to anybody,'' Godding told me in a phone conversation from Fort Carson, Colo. "He said it had been a real bad week, that he was thinking of bad things like killing himself. I'd heard other guys talking about killing themselves, but when he (Sanders) said it, I knew he was serious about the whole situation. When he went off to check his e-mail, I took the firing pin out and hid it in my locker.''
Sanders went to see the combat stress counselor at Rustamiyah. "She was excellent; every time I talked with her it lifted a weight off my chest,'' Sanders said. They gave him some ideas on how to stave off depression -- by taking up a hobby, for example. Sanders bought a guitar and "played my a-- off. Also writing, just writing down your thoughts, working out the aggression, that helped,'' he said.
"The thing I learned is, don't be afraid to seek help. A lot of guys are scared of what their leaders will think, that they're weak.''
Sanders, now 28, had always wanted to be a soldier. Growing up in the Atlantic coastal town of Sebastian, Fla., he saw honor and glory in military service. His grandfather had served in Korea, but would never talk about his experiences, until Sanders enlisted and they shared the common bond of soldiering.
Today, Sanders is an artillery gunner. He serves with the 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery based at Fort Polk, La., and is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan this fall. His sergeants think highly of him as a soldier. But when his four-year enlistment is up in the middle of what is scheduled to be a 12-month combat tour, Sanders is going home -- despite the Army's efforts to convince him to stay.
He has found a new love and is engaged to be married, looking forward to a calm, civilian life.
"I chose to get out because this is a very, very hard life for your family,'' Sanders said. "I want a family and I don't want to be away from them. A lot of guys in the Army miss what goes on in their families at home.
"I am about to get married, and she understands I have to go to Afghanistan. But we just want to have a family, settle down. We just want to have a normal, nine-to-five existence.''