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Posted on Sun. Jul. 19, 2009 - 06:00 am EDT

GI’s suicide haunts family

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Sometime after his older brother hanged himself in their grandmother’s home, Ryan Kohlheim began looking for answers.

He and his family sifted through every stitch of his brother’s clothing, Kohlheim said, looking for a letter, a note, anything that could tell them why a decorated Indiana National Guardsman barely home from a recent tour in Iraq would take his own life.

They found nothing, and now Kohlheim has only memories and hindsight to sort for reasons why 38-year-old Spencer Kohlheim, who had seven tours of duty during his long military career, took his life early one December morning in LaGrange.

In January, suicides among soldiers spiked so drastically – six times the rate of January 2008 – that the Army took steps to create a suicide prevention task force and began developing programs to combat post-traumatic stress syndrome for soldiers returning from overseas.

Through June of this year – the latest data available, according to the Department of Defense Web site – there were 88 reported active-duty suicides in 2009, though 34 of those have yet to be confirmed. For the same period in 2008, there were 67 confirmed suicides.

In September, the Indiana National Guard made it a requirement for soldiers returning from overseas to go through three to five days of “decompressing” sessions that emphasize mental health.

Still, Ryan Kohlheim has questions for the military regarding the treatment of his brother.

He said his brother received some counseling at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Fort Wayne before his last deployment, and questions whether his brother was fully ready for such a deployment. He also said his brother, looking for help, was turned away by the same hospital when he came home.

Injuries his brother suffered overseas have led Ryan Kohlheim to wonder whether any red flags should have been raised among military personnel regarding his brother’s mental state upon his return. He has written to the hospital and local politicians, but has received letters saying only they’ve received his requests.

“I know first and foremost, I can’t bring him back,” Kohlheim said. “But this may happen to someone else, and maybe there’s a better process.”

A changed man

Spencer Kohlheim’s family members described him as the life of every party, a man who did everything at full speed.

“He had his foot on the gas all the time,” Ryan Kohlheim said.

He joined the Army upon graduating Prairie Heights High School in 1989 and served in the first Gulf War. Ryan said his brother was made to be a soldier and did anything he could to better his military prowess, such as studying books and practicing whatever he could.

In his military career, he served stints in Panama, Kosovo, Bosnia and eventually Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Ryan. Along the way, he earned multiple medals.

During his last, yearlong tour in Iraq, a truck Spencer was riding in was hit by an improvised explosive device. He suffered a concussion and earned his first Purple Heart and a Bronze Star as a result. Ryan said Spencer told him afterward, “I got my brain scrambled a bit.”

Later, he suffered another injury and earned another Purple Heart in an incident that Ryan Kohlheim said he has no details on, save that it probably involved another IED. The Spencer that returned to LaGrange that December wasn’t the same, some family members said.

“You could tell in pictures,” said Brooklyn Kohlheim, Spencer’s 26-year-old sister who teaches in Florida. “He lost a twinkle in his eye.”

Spencer at times would begin to stare off into space, Ryan said, and the man who used to be a firm decision maker had trouble committing to things. Ryan even had trouble getting Spencer to make plans for a trip to North Carolina where they would meet Brook and their other sister, Michaela White, bringing the siblings all together for the first time in 20 years.

“Looking back, he knew he wasn’t going on that trip,” Ryan said.

The VA

Spencer Kohlheim’s problems, though, apparently began before going to Iraq, according to his brother.

He suffered headaches and could not sleep or eat before his final tour, Ryan Kohlheim said. Eventually, Spencer was given counseling at the VA hospital in Fort Wayne to deal with some issues, according to Ryan. Now, he wonders whether that counseling should have kept Spencer home from his last deployment.

“My take on that is they deployed him without fully evaluating his situation,” Ryan said.

Some of his family members feel the concussion Spencer suffered during the ensuing tour might have exacerbated whatever he was going through mentally.

At some point after his return, Ryan said Spencer went back to the VA hospital in Fort Wayne twice looking for help but was turned away. The reason he was given, Ryan said, was because he had 60 days of leave left, making him an active-duty soldier.

Officials with the hospital cannot discuss a specific patient’s history. Tim Twiss, spokesman for the hospital, did say if an active-duty soldier comes to the hospital in need of urgent care, the hospital will provide it.

If that patient needs further care, the hospital will contact that patient’s command. If that patient’s command authorizes further care, the hospital will provide it at the command’s expense, according to Twiss.

If a newly returning soldier comes home from deployment with 60 or 90 days of leave – which Twiss called typical – the hospital will enroll that soldier and provide care for what he or she needs, according to Twiss.

“If they still have active-duty orders, but only for a short time, we will enroll them,” Twiss said. “Someone that is going to be ours anyway, we don’t want to lose them.”

But he said if an active-duty person is not in need of urgent care, the hospital will refer that person to a TRICARE provider, which provides care for active military personnel.

It’s unclear, according to Ryan Kohlheim, whether his brother was planning to re-up or had re-upped with the National Guard. He said that after the last three or four tours, his brother always came home and said that was it, he was done with the military. Each time he went back.

Still searching

Ryan Kohlheim last saw his brother Dec. 18, the night before he died, drinking at a bar with another soldier.

The following morning he received a call from his grandmother, who could not find Spencer at her home, where he was living. Ryan sent a text message to Spencer around noon that read: “Hey buddy. Your grandma is looking for you. Are you alive?”

By that time, he had died in his grandmother’s home, leaving behind four children from two previous marriages.

On the Fourth of July, Spencer was posthumously promoted from sergeant first class to master sergeant during a ceremony among his family and friends. The ceremony was designed to help bring closure, which is something that might never happen.

“Closure? That’s not easy. It’s not easy to say we’re done,” Ryan said.

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