Diary of a Suicide | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

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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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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.”

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