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Diary of a Suicide

For two years Jason Ermer fought to make it home from Iraq. Last New Year’s Eve, he gave up.

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It was just after midnight on Dec. 31, 2007, and bitterly cold outside, when two Ogden police officers knocked on the door of Jason Ermer’s home. n

Earlier that night, Danny Murchie, an addictions counselor at the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Salt Lake City office, had called Ogden police and asked for a courtesy check on Ermer, his 28-year-old client, a recent Iraq war veteran. Murchie had talked with Ermer and feared he might harm himself.

When no one answered at the Ermer home, police followed footprints in the snow a few blocks into the Ogden Canyon foothills. Near a large boulder, a man’s body lay in the snow, blood pooling near his head. His breathing was slow and gargly.

Ermer was dressed in a black leather jacket and a baseball hat with the logo “Airborne.” When paramedics moved Ermer, barely breathing, to a stretcher, they found his black Ruger .45 pistol beneath him. Hours later, Ermer died at McKay-Dee Hospital Center.

A native of Roy, Utah, Jason Ermer served his country for a year in the northern Iraq city of Mosul in 2003. He was a soldier in the 37th Engineering Battalion of the 82nd Airborne division, later of the 101st Airborne. He was redeployed to Fort Bragg, N.C., in March 2005 and discharged from the Army seven months later. On Nov. 11, 2005, he returned to Utah with his wife Brandi and their newborn daughter Marley.

But Jason was scarcely the same man who had enlisted three and a half years earlier. He brought back to Utah constant pain from a parachuting injury to his neck and lower back, a growing addiction to painkillers and Iraq-fueled nightmares that wouldn’t let him sleep at night. One particularly graphic flashback plagued him—the last terrified look of an Iraqi child, who fell beneath the wheels of a Humvee Jason was driving near Mosul.

When he could hardly function anymore, Jason’s family says, he voluntarily entered the VA system for treatment. But the VA, after helping him with counseling, ultimately added insult to his injuries. In the early hours of Thanksgiving Day 2007, staff members suspected the confused veteran was high. In the emergency room, Jason later told his parents, he was held down and forcibly catheterized by several nurses and security personnel to obtain a urine sample for a drug test. His parents later obtained medical records from the VA that confirmed Jason’s story. The test, his parents add, came back negative. “Now I know what a woman feels like being raped,” he told his wife afterwards in tears. One month later, Jason was dead.

On a recent rainy night, 28-year-old Brandi Ermer stands beside the boulder where her husband shot himself. She looks toward her former home and says of Jason’s two-block journey to his suicide site: “It’s the longest walk anyone ever does.”

Jason’s suicide is a bitter symbol, a summation of issues that many Iraq veterans reportedly struggle with—marital and financial difficulties, health problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. His is also a journey that many other Iraq veterans in Utah are all too familiar with. Since the end of 2007, 130 Utah veterans have attempted suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the seven Utah veterans who succeeded in taking their own lives since Jason’s death—down from 13 in 2007—six were from the Korean or Vietnam War era. Only Jason served in Iraq. Of the 130 attempts, however, almost a third were by veterans young enough to have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mike Koplin, suicide-prevention coordinator for the Salt Lake City VA office, is one of 150 such specialists appointed nationwide in April 2007. “The problem is increasing as vets come home and try to make the transition,” from soldier to civilian, Koplin says. For Iraq veteran and Salt Lake City antiwar activist Andy Figorski, Jason’s life and death offer a painful mirror of what might have been, indeed what still might be for other soldiers returning from the Middle East. “I could see myself in that kid, looking for a warm place, for acceptance in society,” he says. “He went to war thinking he was doing right in the world, promoting human rights, peaceĀ­—then he ran over a kid in a Humvee and the downward spiral began.”

When Jason returned to Utah after his discharge in November 2005, he drove from Fort Bragg with his older brother, David, a captain at Riverdale City Fire Department. They planned on driving straight from North Carolina to Ogden, stopping only for dinner. As David later told the crowd at Jason’s funeral, “That didn’t work out too well.” When they reached Tennessee, they encountered rain “like we had never seen.” Tornadoes forced them to hole up in a small truck stop where they waited out the storm, “laughing at our luck.” They made it to their parents’ yellow-ribbon festooned home in three days.

Jason seemed safe at last. But in so many tragic ways, he never left that storm behind.

BOOT CAMP
Allen and Rosa Ermer raised their five children in a Latter-day Saint household. No alcohol, no stimulants, as the Word of Wisdom dictates. Fourth child Jason entered a rebellion phase—tobacco, beer drinking with friends, a little weed now and then. “He got in a rough crowd,” younger brother Joey recalls.

His parents laugh good-naturedly about his teenage antics. He was a risk taker; he loved bull riding. They prefer to remember Jason’s loving nature. “He was very soft-hearted,” Rosa says. Allen says his fourth son was the emotional core of the family. “Since he’s been gone, there’s something missing in our lives.”

The Ermer family boasts a long record of military service. Allen did four years in the U.S. Navy and now helps keep F-16s flying through his job at Hill Air Force base as a software engineer. When youngest son Joey enlisted in the Army after 9/11, it was no surprise. A week later, Jason also enlisted. He told Brandi he wanted to protect his little brother. Two of the other three Ermer siblings have also served in the military.

Jason did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Joey was there at the same time with his unit, prior to shipping out to Germany. Army regulations kept the brothers from fraternizing. They got around the rule by attending a nearby local LDS ward together. Jason confided in Joey how much he disliked army life—it was much more than simple homesickness or general malaise.

Joey was gung-ho. “I told my mom I’m not coming back,” he says today. “I wanted combat bad.” Yet Joey didn’t make it to Iraq. The hatch door of an armored vehicle hit him on the head while his unit was in Germany, damaging nerves at the back of his eyes. Overnight, he went from being the hero of his unit for his boxing prowess to an object of ridicule. Joey says his superiors bullied him with accusations of cowardice and malingering. He quit when he had the chance, forfeiting medical benefits. “I felt ashamed I’d gotten hurt,” he says. His unit went to Iraq without him.

Jason went to jump school. Parachuting from a plane meant an extra $150 each month. He also spent several months learning how to operate heavy machinery, with a goal of making that his trade in civilian life. Jason learned his brother wasn’t going to Iraq shortly before leaving for Kuwait with his own unit on April 1, 2003. Brandi Ermer says the news depressed her husband. “His brother gets to go home and away from this shit, and he’s stuck in it.”

THE BODY IN THE ROAD
Twelve days after Jason landed in Kuwait, 20 miles from the Iraq border, he wrote to Brandi, complaining about guard duty “with all our shit on (full battle rattle).” The infernal 130-degree heat left him beyond exhaustion.

Mosul, where Jason was stationed for much of his year in Iraq, is a desolate place, veteran Andy Figorski says, with “gray cloud sky, dingy asphalt and gray-khaki buildings.” Jason told his parents how desperately poor the Iraqis were. Whenever the soldiers distributed water among raggedy villagers, they were all but mugged.

After Jason’s unit finished repairing Mosul airport’s bomb-cratered runway and building baseball and football fields for the troops, his unit became infantry. In a letter to his parents, Jason foreshadowed his growing sense of despair. “We have no real mission here,” he wrote.

His father says his son bought Valium from Iraqi children on the street for his nerves. He wanted the medication to get him through guard duty at night in the tower of a former Iraqi army base. Once darkness fell, insurgents would fire mortars into the camp, he told Rosa. He and his battle buddies would sit there, wondering who was next to die.

Jason told his brother David about things he did or saw in the war that Allen’s oldest son refuses to share with his father. “I don’t know why,” Allen says. “It’s seems strange, especially now that Jason’s dead. Things must have happened, I don’t know.”

What Jason’s parents did learn shortly before his suicide was of his part in the death of an Iraqi child. Jason was driving the lead Humvee in a convoy when, he told his parents, Iraqi insurgents threw a boy at the vehicle to slow it down so they could attack. The boy grabbed hold of the side-view mirror and shouted at Jason in Arabic through the window. Jason couldn’t stop, otherwise he would have endangered the whole convoy. The boy fell under the wheels.

Jason told Brandi a different version. While the convoy was routinely slowing down, the boy jumped onto the vehicle. Children in filthy rags always swarmed around the soldiers, he told her, begging for food or money. The convoy picked up speed. The boy did not jump off.

Jason kept looking at his sergeant while the boy was shouting. “What do I do, what do I do?” Jason screamed.

“He might have a bomb,” the sergeant shouted. “Push him off.”

Jason pushed the boy away. The child fell beneath the vehicle. “He felt the whole Humvee run this kid over,” Brandi says. In the mirror, Jason saw the vehicles behind him swerve. The boy lay still in the middle of the road.

DRAGON STAMPED
Jason’s military record has its blemishes. His parents say he was busted down from a specialist E4 to a private El after he shoved a sergeant. At a hearing on the incident, his comrades and superiors spoke up for him. The Army told him if he went to Afghanistan with his unit, his rank would be reinstated—or he could quit. Jason told Brandi he was done. He got his dragon stamp, which marks the end of service. Because of his otherwise exemplary service, his parents add, he was honorably discharged. A press officer at Fort Bragg, N.C., did not respond to a request for comment. Jason’s sudden departure from the military still angers his mother. “A good soldier doesn’t turn bad overnight,” she insists. Rosa and Allen believe Jason’s superiors were trying to provoke him into quitting because he was showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the VA report on his death, Jason received no psychiatric treatment from the Army. Yet an Army service report referred to by the VA noted he’d “seen civilian injuries and deaths” and also suffered from “sleep disturbance” at Fort Bragg after his return, signaling perhaps, knowledge of Jason’s challenges.

Brandi first noticed something awry with Jason shortly after they moved back to Utah. At a friend’s barbecue, Brandi was in the kitchen when someone told her Jason was crying by the garage. “That’s not my husband,” she said. “He’s the guy kicking someone’s ass.” She found Jason in tears. He showed her a piece of paper from his wallet written in Arabic. It was the address of his “Iraqi friend,” he told her. One day while Jason was on guard duty, his friend came up to greet him, only to be blown apart by a mortar. “I had to pick pieces off of me,” he told Brandi.

In Roy, Jason found work with a company cutting trees away from power lines. He was in constant pain from a neck injury he received on a parachute jump in March 2005. A VA report notes Jason “became addicted to pain medications by time of discharge [from the Army], and for the last 18 months prior to admission [at the VA] was abusing opioids to feel better and deal with stress.”

All her son wanted, Rosa says, was to play with his two daughters, one by a relationship prior to Brandi. In video footage of Jason in his last year of life, he lifts then 2-year-old Marley into the air while they play in a pool. Even for something so simple, he needed painkillers. Jason’s consumption of Percocet and other narcotics mushroomed. He ate very little and the drugs damaged his stomach. His mother made him a cornstarch-based soup to help keep the food down.

Jason’s drug addiction isolated him from his wife. Brandi says she became frustrated with his lying and what she saw as his self-obsession. She didn’t want to leave him and their daughter alone for fear Marley might hurt herself while Jason was in a pain-medication stupor.

For Jason, there weren’t enough pills to feed his need. Rosa woke up one morning to find her son rifling through her husband’s drawer looking for painkillers. Both Allen and Brandi were taking prescription pain medications for their own back problems. Jason also bought drugs on the street.

Brandi gave him an ultimatum: Either he get help or move in with his parents. Jason agreed to seek help. His mother drove him to Salt Lake City for an appointment with VA addiction counselor Danny Murchie. Both his parents and widow praise Murchie for the sensitivity and commitment he showed Jason. Murchie did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

According to Rosa, who sat in on Jason’s first session, Murchie told her son his problems with drugs were typical of veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The only surprise, he added, was that Jason had steered clear of trouble with the law. That well might have changed had he lived. Brandi says Jason was planning to rob a pharmacy with a friend, go to the mountains east of Ogden to consume their haul and then face their wives afterwards. “What kind of logic is that?” Brandi says.

At the VA Medical Center, Rosa listened with Murchie as Jason described for the first time in her presence the child he killed while driving the Humvee. Every time he went to sleep, he said, his voice drenched with pain, he saw the child’s face, then his hand, as the boy desperately tried to pull himself up on the mirror.

HOLD HIM DOWN
On Nov. 16, 2007, Jason checked himself into the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medican Center in Salt Lake City. He told the admitting nurse he had taken 21 Lyrica tablets, a painkiller. Not that he wanted to commit suicide. He was just nervous, he said. Jason was admitted to the psychiatric unit. He got to know several Vietnam veterans who told him, his little brother Joey recalls, that he had to stop bottling up the war and tell people what happened. “‘You have to let it out,’ the vets told him, ‘or it’s going to destroy you,’” Joey says.

Widow Brandi and Jason’s parents have vastly different views on visiting him at the VA. Brandi felt he needed time alone to sort himself out. Jason’s parents visited whenever they could. On Thanksgiving Eve 2007, Jason phoned his mother and asked her to pick him up the next day at 8 a.m. The VA releases patients who have families to go home to on Thanksgiving. Jason was excited for the holiday. The treatment was going well, and his voice was clear and upbeat.

Sometime in the early morning before his mother arrived, Jason took more of his medication than was prescribed. He became confused. Convinced he was high, a doctor took him to the VA’s emergency room. Jason told his family a nurse put him in a room and gave him a cup for a urine specimen to test for drugs. Confused, he went out into the hallway to look for the restroom. The nurse ordered him back into the room. He came out again. A second nurse told him to return to the room. Two VA security guards abruptly entered the room with the nurses. They pinned Jason down on the bed and pulled down his pajama bottoms. One of the nurses forced a catheter into his penis to obtain the sample.

When Rosa got to her son’s room that Thanksgiving morning, his bed was stripped. An orderly told her Jason became confused and was taken to the emergency room. “We thought he was on meth,” Rosa says the orderly told her.

She went to the emergency room with Joey. An orderly brought Jason to her in a wheelchair. For the first time ever, Rosa says, Jason cursed in front of her. “Help me get the fuck out of here,” he said. “They hurt me.” While they waited for the psychiatrist, Rosa says, she got her son to lie down on his bed and covered him with her coat. A nurse brought him a blanket. Jason started to fall asleep, then jumped up. “Don’t leave me,” he begged.

Later, he turned to Joey, dazed. “Do we have enough ammunition?” he blurted out. Soon after, the family took him home.

“All he wanted was the bathroom but he couldn’t tell them,” Rosa now says in tears. “He was so confused. And that’s when they hurt him. He felt like he was raped.”

Jill Atwood, a former KSL-TV reporter turned VA public affairs director, says she cannot comment on the specifics of Jason’s case due to federal patient-privacy regulations. As to policy on forcible catheterization, she says Jason’s “patient plan ran according to practiced guidelines,” where tests are done to rule out or confirm a diagnosis.

Allen Ermer says he was told his son’s case led to a hearing, staff reassignments and subsequent changes in hospital procedure. Forcible catheterization only occurs now, he believes, when a veteran’s life is in immediate danger.

Rosa suspects that decades of dealing with homeless Vietnam veterans who, while not willing to relinquish their drug habits, come to the VA in the winter for a warm bed and food, shaped how some nurses in the emergency room deal with veterans in general. Otherwise, she is at a loss to explain VA personnel’s harsh treatment of her son when he was there of his own free will. Drug addict or not, Rosa says, any veteran “needs to be treated with respect.”

MY BABY’S GONE
Jason refused to return to the hospital. Allen was concerned enough about his son’s depression to ask him for his handgun. Jason handed over the .45 pistol. Brandi was furious; she wanted a gun in the house for protection. “Are you suicidal?” she remembers asking Jason. He told her that “was the pussy way out.” The only reason he gave the gun to his father, he told her, was to stop him “freaking out.” He telephoned his father to get the gun back. Allen returned the weapon.

By Christmas 2007, Jason seemed to improve. He hadn’t stolen Brandi’s pain medication for a while. Then, once again, her pills disappeared. Compared to the muscular man who returned from Iraq, Jason had grown emaciated. Brandi bought him a pair of jeans, 29-inches at the waist, for Christmas because his older pair kept slipping down.

Rosa looks at photographs of her gaunt son during his last weeks of life, a tissue clutched in her fist. He was unbearably sad, she says. He went to his parents’ home for his last Christmas. Passing each other in the hallway, Jason hugged his mom tighter and longer than usual. “You know what?” she said, “It doesn’t matter how old you are. You’re always going to be my baby.”

THAT MY EYES MIGHT SEE
On Dec. 30, 2007, Brandi left the house at 6.30 p.m. to party with friends. Jason had blanked on her birthday the day before, she says, and she wanted a break. She left him and Marley playing with Play-Doh. The next time she saw him was seven hours later at Ogden’s McKay-Dee Hospital Center, surrounded by his family. Calls to Brandi from Jason, drug counselor Murchie, the police and Jason’s family in the first hours of that morning went unanswered, and she finally called back Jason’s older brother, David. She screamed when he told her Jason was badly hurt.

When Brandi reached the hospital, Jason was on life support. Blood-soaked towels shielded the family from the sight of the exit wound on the left side of his head. The doctor told Rosa there was nothing he could do.

“Oh, honey, what did you do?” Brandi said when she entered the room. She gave permission to turn off the machines. “I couldn’t get mad at him any more,” she says, “because he was gone.” Brandi asked the family to leave for a moment. She lay on Jason’s chest and told him, “Don’t fight.” She heard the blood gurgling down through his body.

The doctor switched off life support. Jason took several breaths and died three minutes later at 2:18 a.m. He was 28 years old. Brandi donated his kidneys, skin and corneas. She later received a letter of thanks from a woman, once blind, who now sees with Jason’s corneas.

Jason left a suicide note for Brandi. He tore in half a birthday card envelope with her name on it and wrote on the back: “I’ll never hurt you again. I love you too much to stay here and keep hurting you. Please sober up and keep taking care of our daughter. I know you can do it your stronger then me. Love, Jason.’’

In a postscript, he asked her to give his father his commendation medal and the certificate signed by Gen. David Petraeus, the former U.S. Commander in Iraq.

It’s a tiny, fragile piece of paper to mark the end of a life. Says Brandi: “It’s just not long enough.”

Jason was buried in frozen ground in Roy City Cemetery on Jan. 5, 2008. A military honor guard attended. As the last notes of Taps faded away under an overcast sky, two soldiers picked up the corners of the American flag draped over the casket and folded it into a triangle. A third pressed it to his chest, tucking in the edges. He knelt down before Brandi, then gave her the flag. She broke down in tears as Jason’s parents looked on. [Graveside service video below, provided by family]

Ten months later, standing under a slate-gray sky by the grave, Allen and Rosa mourn all they have lost. “I want to feel about the war like Jason told me,” Allen says. “He said we did some good there, there were people that needed us there.” So all they can do, he adds, is live with it. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Brandi prefers to do her mourning at the boulder where Jason shot himself. Sometimes she takes Marley up there to play, although their 3-year-old daughter doesn’t know it was where her father gave up on life. A VA examiner concluded that Jason’s death was “related to military-acquired mental and physical disorders.” Brandi and Marley, who live in a new home Brandi is buying with a VA loan, will both receive a free college education courtesy of the U.S. government.

Two months after Jason’s death, Marley let go of a balloon in the kitchen and it flew out to the garden and up into the sky. Brandi told her Daddy would catch it for her. Marley ran out back to look for him. The despair on her daughter’s face when she returned empty-handed devastated Brandi, who gave her little girl the simplest explanation she could. Now, when Marley lets go of a balloon, she and her mother watch as it races up and up until it disappears. Then Brandi says, “Daddy caught it.”

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