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Military Unit, Ravaged by War, Regroups Back Home to Survive the Peace

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Nearly a year ago, the combat-hardened paratroopers of Bravo Company realized things were getting too dangerous. They weren’t working as a team. Too many men were dying. Nobody seemed to know how to stop the bloodletting.

And that was a decade after they got home from war.

During an 11-month tour of Afghanistan’s notorious Arghandab Valley, three soldiers from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment were killed in action and a dozen more lost at least one leg or arm. In the 10 years since they returned to the U.S., two B Company soldiers—isolated from their buddies, struggling with their demons—have killed themselves, more than a dozen have tried and others admit they have considered it.

“Derek, Grant, Timmy—all those guys died at their own hands,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Musil, listing close friends from Bravo Company and other units he served in who had killed themselves. “All those men were warriors. If they can do it, what’s stopping me?”

Bravo Company’s traumatic tour and high suicide rate have drawn the attention of the Department of Veterans Affairs and an advocacy group called the Independence Fund. The agencies declared men from the unit—including Sgt. Musil—to be at what the fund calls “extraordinary risk” of succumbing to addiction, isolation and suicide. They decided to use Bravo Company as a testing ground for a new approach to suicide prevention among veterans.

Sgt. Musil leads a toast at a golf driving range during the weekend retreat.


Photo:

Travis Dove for The Wall Street Journal

VA mental-health services have often focused on the individual veteran and clinical care, such as therapy sessions with professionals and mood-stabilizing drugs. Innovations in alternative therapy have included yoga sessions, acupuncture and service animals. But even in group sessions, veterans don’t usually connect with those they served beside in combat.

On a weekend this past spring, the VA and the Independence Fund brought 98 remaining Bravo Company veterans together to test a theory: Just as they relied on each other to survive in combat, they could again rely on each other to survive the lingering effects of war.

They laughed. They cried. They talked about their fears. They whitewater-rafted. They took a few shots of Jameson Irish whiskey. They met with VA counselors. And they tried to rebuild the fraternity that had frayed since they returned home.

“You are your brother’s keeper,” said Sgt. Musil, a core member of the company.

When Sgt. Musil came back from Afghanistan he unplugged from the others who had seen what he had seen in combat. He didn’t talk much to anyone about that year in southern Afghanistan. He deleted his social-media accounts. But the memories festered. His marriage fell apart.

Sgt. Musil stayed in the Army, deploying again and again, spending as much time as possible working, he said, to prove to himself he hadn’t been affected.

Veterans at the reunion talk about their experiences since returning from deployment to Afghanistan.


Photo:

Travis Dove for The Wall Street Journal

Then the suicides began, including the sergeant’s best friend, Alan, who during what seemed to be a flashback shot two neighbors before apparently realizing what he had done and turning the gun on himself.

Over the past decade, the men rarely got together, and when they did, it was likely for a funeral. In September, there was another one when a Bravo Company veteran, Derek Hill, shot himself after returning from a job as a contractor in Iraq.

That suicide prompted company leaders, the Independence Fund and the VA to take action.

“We have the mantra that we’re the strongest on the planet, that we’re indestructible,” Sgt. Musil said of the paratroopers. But, he admitted, “we’re scared.”

The meetings, group activities and VA-led counseling sessions can provide the most effective suicide prevention possible, health experts say. Boozy evenings remembering comrades aren’t necessarily approved by mental-health experts, but they provide their own therapy and consolation. One other unit has held a resiliency reunion since the Bravo Company pilot; a third unit plans an event in a few weeks.

The Bravo Company reunion included a whitewater-rafting trip.


Photo:

Travis Dove for The Wall Street Journal

The VA budgeted nearly $18 million for suicide prevention last year, mostly for counselors and hotlines.

But the most recent VA statistics show suicide rates are rising for the youngest veterans, and that among all adults, former troops are 50% more at risk than civilians. This year, President Trump ordered the creation of a suicide-prevention task force for veterans to shore up poor performance of existing efforts.

Early one morning on that spring weekend, at a hotel in Charlotte, N.C., the men of Bravo Company assembled into formation as they would have years earlier, though now a good number of the formerly elite soldiers sported shaggy hairstyles and post-military bellies.

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A dozen had a prosthetic leg, a result of time in Arghandab or on subsequent combat tours, which complicated the rafting trip.

“We don’t want them to lose a leg for the second time,” said one exasperated tour leader. “Tell them to tie it to a life vest,” said another. A third examined paddles to find the best one for a veteran missing an arm.

The Independence Fund paid for the men’s travel, hotels, housing and activities, which they estimate came to $1,500 per person, while the VA sent support personnel.

Dark humor defined much of the reunion. In Afghanistan, the men played rock-paper-scissors and joked that the loser would be the next one wounded. At the reunion, they laughed about lost legs and the juvenile things they had done on deployment—all the while learning to talk to each other again.

Lyle Pressley, a machine-gunner in Afghanistan, watched the rafting from the shore and talked about the back injury he suffered falling from a wall crumpled by a Taliban bomb. He remembered digging out a friend buried in debris during a different bomb attack. “We knew he was in there somewhere,” he recalled. “We had to dig rocks and mud out of his mouth so he could breathe.”

Brian Errickson wears the crest of his regiment on his arm.


Photo:

Travis Dove for The Wall Street Journal

VA mental-health experts guided group counseling sessions as soldiers took turns talking about their postwar struggles.

“I didn’t think I deserved to get help,” Jason Horton confessed to the group over a microphone in a conference room. It’s hard to find help in a system as large as the VA, he said. He found it helpful to talk one-on-one with someone who experienced the same trauma he did. “It’s a big sea, and it’s hard to swim in that sea,” he said.

Much as they would have done while in uniform, company officers and senior sergeants took the lead, assembling phone lists so—this time—the men could actually stay in touch.

Sgt. Musil began to attend counseling when he returned home from the reunion, something he said he never would have done before the retreat. “There were guys at that event that I wasn’t good friends with, but it was amazing to see them again,” he said. “Being reunited made me realize how much I missed out on.”

The Independence Fund continues to plan retreats in the future and—while it’s too early to gather comprehensive data on the results of the program—there haven’t been any more funerals for suicides from Bravo Company.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Roya Rahmani, poses for a picture with veterans of Bravo Company.


Photo:

Travis Dove for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

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