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A soldier’s suicide and his mother’s grief are tragic part of nation’s larger mental health issues among veterans

III Corps and Fort Hood honor the National Colors every day (US Army/Released)

John King served his country, but when he came home, his family says the system failed him like it has too many other veterans.

After just two years and four months in the Army, King returned home to Staten Island with severe physical and mental injuries. He spent years trying to get help, but on Oct. 7, 2017 he took his own life.

His death is part of an upward trend in suicide that many in America have been working to reverse.

“These guys are brothers,” John’s mom Sandra King said. “They went through something none of us will ever understand. They went — they gave up their lives for us.”

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The Oakwood resident signed up for the Army in 2007 at the age of 17, and quickly found himself in the middle of Iraq during that year’s troop surge. John was honorably discharged in 2009 following his injuries.

For the bulk of his time in the Army, John — a member of Task Force 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry dubbed the “Black Lions” — sat in a Humvee gunner seat driving along the Baghdad Airport Road designated “Route Irish.”

The road served as the main thoroughfare that connected the Baghdad Green Zone and the Iraqi city’s airport. Littered with roadside bombs and lurking suicide attackers, Route Irish became known as one of the most dangerous roads on Earth.

John repeatedly faced that danger. Sandra said Humvees he rode in suffered IED attacks on at least seven occasions, and a sniper’s bullet once penetrated his helmet.

Spc. James “Boomer” Lamonde met John in Iraq during their service and developed a close friendship when they returned to Fort Riley. He remembers John like a little brother.

“He was young,” Lamonde said. “He was a baby. Still a goofy 18, 19-year-old kid that wasn’t broken yet fully. But John was a good dude. Anything you needed, if you needed him, he’d help you out.”

In 2008, John was separated from the rest of his company for four days facing enemy fire following orders that would allow the rest of his team to advance. According to the certificate of commendation awarded with his Army Achievement Medal, John’s actions allowed his company to safely move forward and set up position.

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INFLUENCED BY 9/11

Like many of the soldiers around John’s age, the events of 9/11 greatly influenced him to serve the country. Sandra said he also wanted to avoid the trouble he saw his friends getting in.

His mom remembers John having a lot of friends growing up, and his time spent playing hockey — his favorite sport.

“He was an amazing hockey player,” Sandra said. “He was on skates at 1 and a half.”

Sandra talks about trips to the Poconos she and her ex-husband — John’s stepfather — Bill Rodenburg, would take John on with his sisters Brittney and Christina, and step-brother Bill Jr.

Even though his parents were separated, John’s father, John King Sr,. was very much in his life. Sandra said they would go to Jets games together, and that John Sr. helped his son develop as a hockey player.

“He had a great childhood, you know, very good childhood,” Sandra said. “My children were very fortunate.”

However, Sandra said when John came home from war the physical and mental tolls had changed him.

Some of John’s most serious injuries came after he got back to the U.S., when a troop vehicle rolled over, and he wound up at the bottom of a pile of his fellow soldiers.

Sandra said that by the end of John’s service he needed surgery on both hips and one of his knees, experienced severe head trauma, had herniated disks, tinnitus, and suffered from severe PTSD.

“Driving was really bad,” Sandra said. “He wouldn’t drive, and if we went somewhere he would yell at me, you know, ‘stay in the middle of the road.'”

STRUGGLES WITH DRUG ABUSE

Due to his severe physical injuries John received a pain-killer prescription that Sandra said put him on the road to an opioid addiction.

In the years following his return, John repeatedly tried to get help. Sandra said he had five acute detox visits, and sought counseling. She believes his substance abuse was part of an effort to self-medicate.

His struggles with substance abuse culminated in a 2016 pickup truck crash on Richmond Terrace. Police charged him with criminal possession of a controlled substance, and operating a vehicle while impaired by drugs.

As part of his sentencing, John was diverted from the prison system and mandated to attend a drug treatment facility. He found a rehab facility in upstate New York and was excited to get his life back on track.

Journals John kept around that time illustrate his hope.

“I wanna be the person I know I can be — clean from drugs,” John wrote. “I want to get my life back in order … I want my family to be proud of me again.”

Sandra said John submitted his application to attend the rehab while he was in detox.

He received the reply in May, but it wasn’t what he was expecting. Sandra said the rehab facility denied John because of his bad knee, but a letter from his orthopedic doctor sent to the rehab said he was not at risk of falling.

Despite that, John needed to reapply. He never made it upstate.

Instead, John entered a facility in Queens that referred him to a psychiatric hospital on Sept. 12, 2017 after John had a conflict with the facility’s staff and threatened to commit suicide.

Instead of going to the psychiatric hospital, John went home. Sandra said he felt more comfortable visiting with a psychiatrist he knew at the Brooklyn Campus of the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System.

In a letter dated Sept. 25, 2017, that doctor said John was not a danger to himself or others and that he expressed no homicidal or suicidal ideation. The letter gave the opinion that John would be able to return to rehab with the aid of an antipsychotic.

John’s prescription was filled Oct. 2, Sandra said he didn’t receive it in the mail until Oct. 5, and he was dead two days later. He was found in the family’s basement after hanging himself.

ANGER DIRECTED AT THE VA

Like the families of many veterans who have committed suicide, a lot of Sandra’s anger is directed toward the Department of Veterans Affairs. She said long wait times at the Brooklyn facility, and a lack of understanding on the needs of combat veterans made it difficult for John to get the help he sought.

Sandra feels the system failed her son. That after serving his country he was let down, and lost his life as a result like so many other men and women of the armed forces.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with this country,” she said. “These kids are fighting for your country. And they deserve the best. Nothing but the best.”

A spokeswoman for the VA sent over several pieces of information on the way the administration has improved and is working to deliver better treatment for veterans. She did not address John’s case directly, and the psychiatrist who saw John at the Fort Hamilton VA declined to comment.

VA REPORTS INCREASE IN SUICIDES

In its most recent report, the VA reported a drastic increase in suicide from 2005-2016 among veterans. While the non-veteran population saw suicides rise 20.6 percent, suicides among veterans rose 25.9 percent.

Lamonde said one of the hardest parts for combat veterans is transitioning from a life of war to civilian life, especially if no one around the soldier has experienced combat.

“You get out and you’re just another number, another body, another statistic just waiting to happen,” he said. “You get out and you just go — you just fall through the cracks. Unless you get out and you have yourself together real well, you know, nothing’s phased you, you just fall right through the cracks.”

On average, about 20 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the VA, but most of those veterans have not received healthcare from at a VA facility. Additionally, the number of veteran suicides decreased from 2015 to 2016 — the latest available statistics.

VA TARGETS SUICIDE PREVENTION

The VA is working to continue that trend with various programs designed to improve mental health treatment available to veterans, including the 11,000 men and women clinically at high-risk for suicide.

For fiscal year 2019, the VA has a nearly $50 million budget for suicide prevention — $20 million of which will go toward outreach, according to an emailed statement from a VA spokeswoman.

Under an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in early 2018, the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Homeland Security were tasked with coming up with a plan that would improve the access to mental health treatment and suicide prevention for veterans with a focus on those in the first year of their transition from uniformed to civilian life when suicide is twice as likely.

In 2017, the VA began a partnership with seven cities across the country to begin its Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide, which aims to combat the issue on a more local level than previous approaches. In 2019, the VA is working to implement the program in 24 different cities.

Additionally, veterans have access to the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255. Trained professionals are also available to chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

IN HIS MEMORY

John’s family continues to keep his memory alive by telling his story with the hope that it will help more people understand the struggles veterans face when they return from war.

She keeps a garden in front of her home dedicated to her son — it has a photo of John, and is filled with patriotic memorabilia — that his aunt Brenda and uncle Lew helped put together.

Sandra said John’s life was honored on the Fourth of July at an artillery ceremony in Battery Park.

His gravesite at Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp is kept in pristine condition. Like the garden, it’s filled with patriotic items dedicated to her son’s service. Sandra said she often visits the grave just to talk to her son. She takes comfort in the fact that a man who served as a Navy SEAL is buried nearby.

“I love him. I would do anything. I would cut my leg off to see him walk through the door,” Sandra said. “I would apologize to him that I couldn’t do more but I didn’t know what else to do.”

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© 2019 Staten Island Advance