Josh Barber wasn't expected to pick up a gun.
Shortly after joining the Army in 1999, he was assigned to cook school. His job was cooking for his fellow soldiers, and he excelled.
Cooking became his forte, and his fellow soldiers at Fort Lewis, WA were impressed by his skills in the kitchen.
Fast forward to October 2004, the U.S. had been in Iraq for over a year, and Barber was just arriving.
Since the cooking jobs had been delegated to outside contractors this left Barber on the front line. He became a Humvee gunner, base security along the Syrian border, and manned an observation tower near Fallujah, according to an USATODAY profile of Barber.
Fast forward again to August 2008, Barber equipped with 7 loaded guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and several knives parked his truck outside of Madigan Army Medical Center where he worked as a cook.
What happened next would spark media frenzy, and would make Barber another statistic.
Angered by the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that embedded itself into every aspect of his life to the little help the military provided him, Josh Barber, 31, shot himself in the head.
Barber's story is one of a growing number of veterans taking their own lives. Statistics released earlier this month reveal startling evidence that has military officials and personnel scrambling for answers.
Suicide rates in 2008 for armed services members were at the highest level since data collection began; with 138 cases confirmed and 5 still being investigated.
The numbers collected for 2009 are spelling a similar fate with 12 confirmed and 12 still under investigation for January 2009.
Why it's on the Rise
According to an NPR interview with Jose Cole, Director of the Military Social Work and Veterans program at USC, economic difficulties are playing a significant role in the increase in suicides in January of 2009.
" Many of the soldiers are realizing that [jobs] they had when they left for Iraq or Afghanistan no longer exists; this is especially true for the reserve and National Guard members", Cole said.
Several experts are attributing the increase in attempted and actual suicides to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder exasperated by marital stress, multiple deployments, and inability to adjust.
"Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI] is a hallmark of this war", noted Nina Shapiro, editor for Seattle Weekly. Shapiro profiled a former soldier in October 2008 who had been dismissed for testing positive for drugs. Drugs he says he started using to deal with the pain of PTSD.
Complications with drug and alcohol abuse can mean punishment instead of help for soldiers in mental distress.
At Ft. Lewis alone, over 200 soldiers in 2008 were released because of drug use, a number nearly double that of pre-Iraq reports.
According to a RAND corporation study issued in 2007, Twenty percent of troops, about 300,000, returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD, depression, or severe traumatic brain injury.
A steady increase in numbers since the start of the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict has translated to a five hundred percent increase in suicide attempts in five years.
What can easily become the perfect storm of exhausted troops, extended length of tours, and a lack of information is forcing the military to take a closer look at what is keeping soldiers from getting help.
Veteran Affairs were not able to comment on my story, but military documents conclude that the U.S. army is shifting its resources to address the stigma that comes with seeking help for mental issues.
"It appears that one barrier to seeking treatment for PTSD within a Veterans Affairs or Department of Defense setting is fear that documentation in the medical record of PTSD-related problems might have an adverse effect on advancement in a military career," according to a story published in the Psychiatry Journal of Medicine about PTSD.
When it comes to getting help for any mental distress, experts point to a mental paradigm shift that prevents many soldiers from reaching out.
" They aren't comfortable with reaching out to the military mental health sector… We are trained to fight and trained to be tough", Cole explains.
Frank Lawler, Director of Chiropractic Medicine at Madigan Army Medical Center says that of the soldiers that he treats many don't know they have anything wrong with them.
Lawler explains, " It's hard to identify because you can't go out and say that everyone has TBI… it requires testing, and testing like that is secondary to more obvious life saving measures [in the field]."
A Second Call of Duty
A series of investigations done by Salon.com exposed otherwise preventable suicides, drug overdoses, and murders at Fort Carson, Colorado that suggests that more can be done.
From not diagnosing some soldiers properly to over medicating others, all over the country soldiers are suffering from blatant neglect.
Implications from stories like these have shaken the Department of Defense and VA into action. The recurring question however is " Is it too little too late"?
National military training institutions like the United States Military Academy at West Point is addressing this question after the suicides of two cadets in the December and January.
Expert opinion on the subject varies, but Lawler believes it is a result of "the stress of being stressed for so long".
Paralleled in the field, there is constant pressure and scrutiny when training at an institution like West Point. Not only is there a stigma, but also soldiers feel like they are a failure [if they get help].
The military recently released an Army Medical Command Traumatic Brain Injury Action Plan that would designate army hospitals across the country a specific level of
TBI services provided.
The Army's TBI action plan includes making Ft. Lewis medical into a Category I facility. This would provide both inpatient and outpatient care for any variation of TBI as well as increased screening for all redeploying personnel.
With a significant troop withdrawal scheduled in 2011, the reverberation of this war and its many victims won't be felt for decades to come.
But for Josh Barber, who sat undisturbed in his truck days after taking his own life, the message was clear.
His war was finally over, but ours had just begun.