Father Blames Military for Son's Suicide
When Chris Scheuerman found out his son had died in Iraq, he says, he knew something was amiss.
"I believe we found out on Aug. 1, which is the worst day of my life," he says. "I was coming home from dinner and a minivan pulled up to the house and from the minivan came an officer and a chaplain and I knew, right then, why they were there. I knew that my son was dead."
Scheuerman is no stranger to military operations. He's a retired master sergeant and trains soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
"Eventually, that evening, they said it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At that point I asked them, 'How could that be?'" Scheuerman says.
Because the Army was reluctant to provide details, it would take Scheuerman the good part of two years to answer that question. Only after filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and appealing to a local member of Congress for help, was he able to fit the puzzle pieces together, he says.
The resulting image would haunt him and leave him revving to change the military's mental health system.
Putting the Pieces Together
Scheuerman says he wondered, every day, what documents would arrive in the mailbox and what they would say about the days and hours leading up to his son's death.
His son, Pvt. 1st Class Jason Scheuerman, had deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division in January 2005. He died six months later.
The documents revealed a troubled soldier kept in Iraq despite repeated signs he was going to kill himself.
"They told us there was no suicide note and that they really didn't know what happened," Chris Scheuerman says slowly, his words threatening to give way to tears. "Months later I received one of my FOIA requests in the mail, and inside the report that I received was Jason's suicide note. It broke my heart because it was obvious that my son was ill and that he needed help."
Scheuerman knew that his son was having trouble coping with combat. In March 2005, while Jason, 19, was on leave, he told his father he was scared.
The elder Scheuerman told him this was natural, and before leaving him at the airport for his return to Iraq, he reminded his son to seek help if he was feeling depressed.
A month later — after putting a rifle in his mouth, but not pulling the trigger — Jason visited an Army chaplain. A few weeks after that, Jason was evaluated by an Army psychologist.
"He told me that the psychologist had given him a standardized test and talked to him for about 10 minutes — and after that evaluation he sent a note back to command stating that Jason was capable of feigning his illness in order to manipulate his command," he says.
He suspected that this assessment would bring hardship on his son, but just how much became clear only later, once he had read the documents about his son's death.
"This unit had seen Jason with a muzzle of his weapon in his mouth and did nothing. This is a unit in which a chaplain writes he believes my son to be possessed by demons and obsessed with suicide and did nothing," he says.
The Day of the Suicide
On the day of Jason's death, he was issued an Article 15, a form of nonjudicial punishment.
"They gave him that for being out of uniform. During those proceedings, his first sergeant told him that if he was faking his illness he would go to jail and become someone's 'butt buddy,'" Scheuerman says.
Jason refers to this directly in his suicide note, writing (including misspellings):
"This I leave as my last message to those who I leave behind. I know you think Im a coward for this but in the face of existing as I am now I have no other choice. As the 1st Sgt said all I have to look forward to is a butt-buddy in jail, not much of a future."
Later that day, Jason took his life.
"The day he killed himself he was an absolute suicidal time bomb. What did they think was going to happen when they sent this soldier to his room by himself with his weapon?" Scheuerman says.
"The worst thing about this whole situation is that I know in my heart he shouldn't be dead. It's horrible that we lose the soldiers that we have to. It's a tragedy when we lose a soldier that we shouldn't have," he says.
Improving the System
Jason was one of 87 soldiers who committed suicide in 2005. Since then, the Army's suicide rate has increased each year. The military could decrease this number, Scheuerman says, by making changes to its mental health system.
"There are things we can do to protect our soldiers," he says. "If a military psychologist sees one of our soldiers there and thinks there is nothing wrong, we should have a system in place in which that soldier can request a second opinion from a nonpartisan civilian provider."
"Military psychologists work for the employer. Their career is inherent on the decisions they make to ensure that soldiers go back to the front. That is an inherent conflict of interest, and I believe that conflict of interest prevents the provider from being a true advocate for the patient because the psychologist who saw my son was not an advocate for his safety," Scheuerman says.
A Reaction from Within the System
"I cannot speak to this case, but what I can say is that we are committed to improving access to care, wherever we find deficits," says Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist with the Army Surgeon General's office. "Every year for the last five we have sent over a mental health advisory team. And each one has come back with recommendations on how to better improve care quality and access to care and to decrease suicide, and we've acted on those recommendations."
Responding to Scheuerman's suggestions, she says, "We are looking at how we can bring in civilian psychologists and psychiatrists over to theatre to help us with taking care of soldiers."
One of the biggest challenges, she says, is the fact that soldiers are surrounded by loaded weapons.
"Unfortunately, access to a loaded weapon is a high risk factor to completing a suicide, and another factor is distance away from home and time away from home and the effect that has on relationships," she says.
A principal part of the military's approach right now, she says, it to teach soldiers to look for warning signs.
"If your buddy gets a Dear John e-mail, if they get in trouble, watch out for him, her. Don't send them away alone. If you are concerned they are suicidal — escort them to help. Make sure they stay safe," she says.
The Official Response
The United States Army responded to a request for comment on Jason Scheuerman's case with the following statement:
"The loss of any member of the Army family is a tragedy and suicide prevention is a top priority for the U.S. Army. The 2005 death of Private First Class Jason Scheuerman was investigated thoroughly by his unit and the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. In fact, the Associated Press story about his 2005 death is based on the Army's comprehensive investigations. We continue to work with and assist his family. We are continuously improving and adapting our training, intervention and support programs. The Army recognizes the importance of suicide prevention and is taking many steps to decrease those risks that may contribute to suicidal behavior. Our prevention efforts do help soldiers and their families deal with the war-time challenges they face every day."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.