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Marine at Twentynine Palms adds to the growing list of military suicides

The photo is still tucked into Paul McShan's wallet. Protected by a plastic sleeve warped and dulled by the 23 years since the picture was taken, the image shows the wrinkly face of his sleeping 5-day-old son, Ricky.

10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, April 25, 2009
The Press-Enterprise

"I was there when he took his first breath," McShan said. "And I was there when he took his last."

Paul, 51, knew that when Ricky joined the Marines there was the risk he might be injured or killed. But when McShan rose to speak at a memorial service for his son April 3, it was because Ricky had become one of the growing number of military personnel who have taken their own lives in recent years.

Marine Corps suicides rose 71 percent from 2003 to 2008, with 41 Marines killing themselves last year, according to the Department of Defense. That's a rate of 19 per 100,000. The Army had an even higher rate of 20.2 per 100,000 in 2008.

Historically, suicide rates in the military have been significantly lower than that of the general population, when the numbers are adjusted to mirror the demographics of the armed forces. But the latest statistics put military suicides at or above that adjusted civilian population rate of 19.5 per 100,000.

The overall civilian suicide rate, before adjusting to match military demographics, is 11 per 100,000.

Camp Pendleton had no suicides in 2003. Last year there were nine among Marines based there. At the Marine Air Ground Combat Training Center in Twentynine Palms, where McShan served, two suicides each in 2003 and 2004 have been followed by a single suicide in each of the past two years. The increase in incidents since the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has spurred discussion and action.

In February, Marine commanders were ordered to hold an additional suicide-prevention training session for all troops sometime during the month of March.

Warning at Memorial

Ricky McShan, who had been deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, had recently re-enlisted. He was scheduled to join a company preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. Busy with the process of leaving Twentynine Palms, he did not attend the suicide-prevention session.

His memorial service at the base chapel reflected the heightened attention suicide is getting among the troops. It was more a warning than a remembrance.

"My sole purpose in being here today is to keep someone else from feeling this pain," McShan told the gathering of Fox Company, in which his son had served. He stood before pews of Marines in camouflage uniforms and told them that standing at his son's bedside in the hospital and watching him die "is the most miserable feeling you can have. Don't let what I feel now happen to your parents."

It was just five days earlier, on March 28, that San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies received an early morning call and found Cpl. Richard McShan lying in the driveway of a Twentynine Palms home with a head wound. He was still breathing. Sheriff officials say McShan shot himself following an argument with his girlfriend. She was inside her home when she heard a gun go off and raced outside to find him on the ground. Sheriff's deputies were on the scene within minutes. McShan was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

He was in transit, when an officer called his father.

Paul McShan was 260 miles from his Colorado Springs home that morning at a worksite in Guernsey, Wyo. He couldn't grasp the idea that his son had been shot.

"They told me it was self-inflicted," he said, "and I said, 'No, that can't be.' "

He couldn't make the news fit with the generally happy young man he knew, the son who was a hunting buddy and who had followed his father, a retired Army staff sergeant, into the military. Paul had spoken with him just three days earlier. There had been no hint, he said, that his son was troubled about anything.

He raced home to inform his wife, Angelika. They caught a plane for Palm Springs out of Denver and by the end of the day were at their son's bedside. Doctors told the couple that Richard had severe brain and skull damage. If removed from the respirator he was on, he would not survive.

"We had talked in the past, and he told us if he could not live on his own, he did not want to live connected to a machine," Paul said. "The hard decision was to obey his wishes."

Marines' Support

On March 31, doctors removed the respirator. The following day, the McShans watched as the boy they had seen grow up playing soccer and baseball, playing trumpet in the school band and working as a cameraman for his high school's television station, drew his final breath.

Marines from Richard's unit were there was well.

"There were Marines with us every day," he said. "They have gone out of their way to support us."

It was in an effort to support them, said McShan, that he felt compelled to address his son's company.

"Help your buddy," he told them. "When he starts to stumble, help him out and you'll help yourself out. Nothing is so bad that you can't talk about it. Speak to someone. Get it off your chest."

Chaplain Russ Hale led the memorial service. He compared the emotional turmoil experienced in life to windstorms. As if on cue, the doors of the chapel rattled from a dust storm rolling off the desert, whistling through the cracks in the doors.

A 17-year veteran of the military, Hale said he has seen increased numbers of Marines needing help with self-destructive thoughts.

"Within the last two months there has been a rise in people that are willing to come and talk," Hale said. In the two weeks prior to McShan's death, he said, eight Marines on the base had expressed suicidal thoughts.

"Of the guys I've talked to that have talked about hurting themselves and have actually acted on it, it hasn't been serious," he said.

Hale and other officials attribute the increasing suicides to the stress brought on by multiple war deployments. A recent Army survey on mental health showed that soldiers who had been deployed to Iraq three or four times had a more than 25 percent chance of showing signs of depression, anxiety or acute stress.

Changing Attitudes

At Camp Pendleton, Navy Cmdr. Chaplain Marc Ticonti, 50, said the rise is noticeable.

"I definitely have seen an increase of people saying, 'I don't know how to cope with this,' " Ticonti said. "I think it's a natural consequence of the changes since 9/11. It makes us proactive in saying, 'What are the outcomes of combat and war?' making sure we don't overlook the fact that people may have these issues. I like the fact that we're at least looking at it."

The increase in deaths has changed attitudes, he said. In the past, suicide prevention briefings were treated as just another box to check off on a to-do list, Ticonti said. Now, it's serious business.

His own briefings on the subject have changed, he said.

He incorporates many more visuals in his presentations, which he believes are more effective in reaching his audience. He also tries to convince the Marines that it is all right to ask for help.

"I've seen society change where it's less of a stigma," Ticonti said. "I think that's true in the Marine Corps and the Navy. There are people who have gone for that help, especially after combat. They're referred to a psychiatrist, and they're on meds, and they've gone on in their career successfully, even with promotions."

But statistics seem to show there is still a long way to go.

A 2008 survey by the American Psychiatric Association showed 75 percent of military personnel feared their chances for promotion would suffer if they asked for help with a mental or emotional problem.

Ticonti said seeking such assistance can't be left solely to the individual.

'Be Bold Enough'

He said he tells his troops, "You need to be bold enough or caring enough to come out and ask the question, or say, 'Hey I'm worried about you.' "

Hale said he's not sure anyone could have helped McShan.

While many suicidal people provide clues that they might harm themselves, Hale said, "With Cpl. McShan, there was none of that. I'd spoken to (him) on the Thursday prior. I had no indication to expect anything like this from him. He seemed happy."

His suicide also happened off base. Of the 91 suicides and attempted suicides reported on the two bases from 2003 to 2008, 59 occurred during liberty or leave, while 26 happened while Marines or sailors were on duty.

Paul McShan said he doesn't expect he will ever understand what drove his son to shoot himself. Richard's time in the Middle East hadn't seemed to be a major impact, he said.

"Everybody changes," he said, recalling his own experience in the first Gulf War. "But there wasn't any drastic difference, no red flags. If I had seen or noticed something, I would have done something.

"The only time I'll get that answer," he said, "is when I'm standing in front of the maker myself."

Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or mmuckenfuss@PE.com