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A band of brothers fights a common enemy: suicide

By Karissa Neely daily Herald - | Aug 23, 2015
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Ted Taylor, of Lehi, calls out to other service members during Devil Dog Honor Ruck, a march to raise awareness for veteran suicide and PTSD on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015 in Herriman. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Ted Taylor, right, high-fives another participant as active duty, reserve and veteran service members carry flags for the Devil Dog Honor Ruck, a march to raise awareness for veteran suicide and PTSD on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015 in Herriman. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

Provo resident Ted Taylor has a band of brothers. None of them served with him when he was in the military, but they are still tied together in a uniquely military way.

Taylor’s band of brothers is bound by loss and sorrow, but also hope. Taylor, Richie Carpenter, Jeff Hiatt and David Kozlowski are connected by a desire to fight a common enemy: veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and the too common result of those conditions — suicide.

“We lost more than 6,000 soldiers in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the 14 years since we entered those conflicts, we’ve lost more soldiers than that once they come home,” Taylor said two weeks ago during a dinner meeting with the men at Big Island Sam’s in Lindon.

According to the American Centers for Disease Control, approximately 105 Americans die by suicide each day. Of those, roughly 22 are military veterans.

Taylor is a veteran himself, and knows first-hand what those numbers mean.

“I have been there. I have felt that shame. I was almost one of those 22,” he said. “As I rocked back and forth there in that dark corner, I was saved when one of my battle buddies connected with me.”

For military personnel, when they are on active duty, they must be brave, strong and willing to do what needs to be done, no matter how hard. Showing weakness makes them vulnerable to the enemy.

But the attitude that keeps them alive in combat does not help them upon their return to civilian life. That stoic toughness is hard on their souls, and actually detrimental to their mental health, as their minds and hearts process what they did and saw, Taylor said.

When a vet with PTSD has an uncommon reaction to a car backfiring or fireworks, in addition to sending them mentally back into war situations, their reaction causes them shame, because it is not needed for the civilian situation. That embarrassment and confusion of emotions causes veterans often to react in anger or by turning to addictions to cover both feelings.

The stigma attached to vets and PTSD is one that frustrates Carpenter the most. He is a former Marine who was part of the initial Iraqi push in 2003, and has experienced plenty of struggles the past 10 years — losing jobs, friends and his marriage. He’ll now unashamedly admit he has PTSD and struggles with depression, and he too was almost one of those 22 — three different times.

Carpenter spoke passionately about his frustration with the difficulty of assimilating back into civilian life himself, and seeing so many of his “brothers” struggle and falter.

“It’s a disgusting stigma, PTSD. We’re these jacked-up human beings that people are afraid of,” said Carpenter in his broad New England accent. “But we’re just regular people who were put in extraordinary situations. And this is how our brains reacted to it.”

He and Taylor connected via Facebook in the past year, and have checked in with each other online during rough spots, but had never met face-to-face until that dinner two weeks ago. Their first in-person greeting was one of long-missed friends who’d grown up together.

But for many veterans who once were surrounded by a platoon who supported them, who lived and died for them, and had seen the same horrors, coming home means loneliness, even among loving family members.

Cedar Hills resident Jeff Hiatt is in this band of brothers for this reason — he and Taylor connected at the funeral of Hiatt’s son, Spencer Hiatt.

The younger Hiatt joined the Army at age 19, and served six years with tours in Kuwait and Iraq. Within the first two weeks of his first tour, he lost his best friend to an improvised explosive device (IED). He was honorably discharged in April 2014, and by January of this year, he was dead by his own hand.

“That’s a call you shouldn’t ever have to have,” said Jeff Hiatt, with unfallen tears resting in his eyes. “We knew he had PTSD, but we didn’t know how bad it was.

“To lose a son who willingly sacrificed his time for his country …”

He trailed off in remembering what a “kick” Spencer Hiatt was, and how so many friends he didn’t know his son had got up at the funeral and told fun stories Jeff Hiatt had never heard before.

Spencer Hiatt left behind a girlfriend and an unborn son, and the elder Hiatt is grateful to have them in his life, to see his son in his grandson — but it’s still hard.

“I just know he must have felt like there’s no better tomorrows,” Jeff Hiatt said. “How much pain he must have been going through to do that.

“I knew he had his demons, but like most vets, he didn’t talk about it.”

That very thing — not reaching out, not sharing the pain and hurt, the struggle and the darkness — is what Taylor’s nephew, Kozlowski, works to change every day.

Kozlowski is a licensed therapist who founded the nonprofit, Quit Trip’n, an organization that aims to create small communities to support young adults struggling with depression, PTSD, addictive behaviors, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

“We realized that the Kryptonite to depression is connection. Everything we do in our program is relationship based,” Kozlowski said. “Hurt and pain is the same across people. It doesn’t matter how they got there, at that point it’s the same.

“And we found that the more you connect with people, the more you can relate to and share experiences.”

All four men, though brought together by loss and pain, have hope because they are banding together to fight suicide. With their own unique stories and experiences, they are reaching out in their communities to help others.

Jeff Hiatt is now dedicated to raising awareness for families of servicemen and servicewomen about the higher suicide risk for veterans.

“We are so lucky that so few here in America have to serve to protect our freedom,” he said. “But we need to help them and their families. We need these people and their perspectives.”

Inspired by Spencer Hiatt, Taylor has been doing “rucks” all spring and summer — road and trail runs where he carries a fully loaded military pack and a picture of Spencer Hiatt or another veteran. He “carries” these comrades to honor them and raise awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide.

For many years, Carpenter wasn’t in a place to help others, but he is now, and is vocal about reaching out to his many military “brothers.” He was one of the driving forces behind the success of Saturday’s Devil Dog Ruck in Herriman (see accompanying story). And he applies the focus learned as a Marine to this new war.

“Then our goal was to locate and destroy the enemy. Well, that enemy now is suicide,” Carpenter said.

And Taylor, even though he’s back in session as a teacher at Lehi High School, keeps forming those connections that are crucial to defeating that enemy.

“Connection is the only thing that ends the stigma. We know you have to connect — that’s the solution,” Kozlowski said.

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