Officers avert Iraq War veteran’s suicide
The man had been to the Overlook Restaurant in Leavenworth in the past and remembered how beautiful it was ‘ how miles of the Ohio River could be seen from the restaurant’s decks and parking lot and how the whole area was so alluring and peaceful.
Last Tuesday evening, the 34-year-old from Evansville returned to the Overlook, this time to find the peace that he remembered and needed. He came back to die.
The man, who we’ll call Jim, had it all planned out. He called a friend in Evansville, a state police trooper, and gave him all of his bank account and PIN numbers. He instructed the friend to draw all of the money out of his accounts and give it to his four children. Then, he drove to the Overlook, pulled his car up to the edge of the bluff and prepared to drive over it.
Jim, a veteran, had returned home from Iraq a few months ago and had been stationed at Fort Knox. The strain of the war had taken a toll on him, like it has on many soldiers. Then, his marriage and personal life began falling apart, and it was just all too much at one time.
The number of cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among soldiers returning from Iraq is much higher than those who came back from other conflicts, such as Afghanistan. Twice as many Iraq veterans sought mental-health treatment than Afghanistan veterans. Psychiatrists say PTSD is much more likely if the soldier is exposed to a lot of combat.
CBS News did a study last year by contacting all 50 states and asking for their suicide data. Forty-five states responded with what turned out to be a mountain of information. What it revealed was stunning.
In 2005, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each week during just one year.
Dr. Steve Rathbun, head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Dept. at the University of Georgia, found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. And one group stood out: veterans between the ages of 20 through 24, who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age.
‘These statistics tell me we’ve really failed people that served our country,’ said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, in a CBS interview. ‘If these numbers don’t wake up this country, nothing will. We each have a responsibility to the men and women who serve us, a responsibility to assure they aren’t lost when they come home.’
Jim was one of the lucky ones. He chose Crawford County as the place to end his problems. He had no idea that he would encounter such people as Sheriff Tim Wilkerson, Conservation Officer Dennis Talley and police officers Jeff Howell, Shawn Scott and Brian Berkenmeyer.
After Jim called his friend and gave him the bank information, the friend notified Crawford County Dispatch. Crawford County Officer Shawn Scott located the vehicle Jim was driving parked at the Overlook with the engine running about 5 p.m. Within minutes, Talley arrived, followed by Wilkerson and the other officers.
‘The vehicle had tinted windows, and we couldn’t see what was going on inside,’ Talley said. ‘When I got there, I nosed my vehicle toward his, but he rolled his window down a little and waved me back. We could see a little of his face and could tell he was visibly shaken. There was something about him that was a little different. We could tell there was a lot going on with him. You could look at him and do a quick assumption of how serious he was. We’re not psychiatrists, but I believe he would have driven off that bluff.
‘He wasn’t talking much, but indicated that he didn’t want us to get too close or to rush him,’ he said. ‘He kept letting the vehicle roll forward a little at a time.’
Jim finally began talking to Wilkerson and Scott about the military and the war. He was seemingly confused about what he was doing, but just wanted to make some phone calls then drive over the cliff. He told the officers that he had no weapons and had no intention of harming anyone except himself.
‘His thinking was somewhat rational,’ Talley said. ‘He was just wanting to do something that was irreversible. It makes you wonder what could be so bad that it deserves such drastic measures. He showed us a picture of his kids, and his military dog tags were hanging from the rear-view mirror. You could just tell he was a good person, a productive individual.’
Talley, hoping to gain trust, told Jim, ‘Why don’t you shut the engine off and we’ll go have a drink.’
Jim then asked Talley, ‘What kind of drink?’
‘How about a beer?’ Talley responded.
‘You can’t do that; you’re on duty,’ one of the other officers told Talley, with a laugh, hoping to lighten the situation.
‘I’ll take myself off duty,’ Talley responded. ‘Or let’s go have a cup of coffee. I’ll buy.’
But the man wasn’t sold on the idea. Talley then began talking about being a Christian.
‘Do you know what will happen to you if you drive over that bluff and kill yourself?’ Talley asked.
‘I’ll go to hell where I belong,’ Jim responded.
Talley edged a little closer, realizing he wasn’t getting anywhere with the man.
‘There’s houses under that bluff,’ Talley told him. ‘I know you’ve been overseas fighting for the people here; I know you don’t want to hurt anyone. But if you drive over this bluff, you won’t hit the river. There’s houses down there.’
‘No there isn’t,’ the man argued. ‘You’re lying.’
‘I haven’t told you a lie yet, have I?’ Talley responded. ‘I want you to trust me. You want to see it on a map?’
When Jim said that he wanted to see the map, Scott found one in his patrol car and showed the man what was under the bluff.
‘You’re not lying,’ Jim said. He sat there a moment, then threw the vehicle in park and pulled on the emergency brake. ‘I can’t do anything right, even this.’
Jim burst into tears, opened the door, hugged Talley, and laid his head on Talley’s shoulder, crying uncontrollably.
After a few minutes, Talley asked the man, ‘Would you mind if I patted you down?’
‘No, sir,’ Jim answered.
The officers found nothing, but Jim then asked them to get his medication from his duffel bag.
‘I think one of those pills would be good right now,’ he said.
‘The medication was prescribed to him for depression,’ Talley said. ‘We handed him just one pill and put the rest away. He then asked, ‘What about that cup of coffee now?’ He didn’t want to get into the sheriff’s car because he was afraid he would be arrested, but was willing to ride in my vehicle. We then went to Carefree, and he had a soft drink and then ordered biscuits and gravy.’
The officers asked Jim why he had chosen Crawford County as the place he wanted to die.
‘I think this is a pretty area,’ he answered. ‘Have you ever been hiking in the mountains? That’s when I feel closest to God. This place is kind of like that.’
After the officers were sure that Jim was doing better, Talley gave him a ride back to his vehicle.
‘When we got back to the Overlook, he wanted me to take him down to old Leavenworth, to see the houses under the bluff,’ Talley said. ‘He just wanted to see for himself. Then, I made him promise that he wouldn’t do anything to hurt himself, and I gave him one of my cards. He wanted to go to his brother’s in Evansville, and I volunteered to drive him there. But he wanted to be alone. He promised to call Sheriff Wilkerson when he got to Evansville.
‘We sat there a while and talked about marriage, kids and life. He talked about us getting together and going fishing at Salina Lake. Maybe we will someday.
‘And even though I was reluctant to let him leave, I think I’ve made a friend.’
Jim made that call to the sheriff that evening after getting to Evansville, and Jim’s father said he’s doing much better as of press time on Monday.