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Ex-soldier's mother wishes more had been done

Sep. 27, 2012 - 10:03AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 27, 2012 - 10:03AM  |  
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The 2 years after Trever Gould left the Army were not easy for him or his mother, Sheri Johnson. She watched as he struggled for months to find work, abused drugs, drank and got into fights.

Near the end of his life, he would come home from his job and go straight into his room, sleeping in the afternoon or playing Xbox. Home from college for the summer, he pulled away from his mother and never told her how dark his thoughts had become.

"In hindsight, he definitely had [post-traumatic stress disorder] and was clinically depressed," said Johnson, 47, of Fulda, Minn.

If only the Army had alerted her, she said, to what he told three doctors before he was discharged in 2009 that he was considering taking his own life. Only after his death did she find his discharge papers and realize the Army had sent home a ticking time bomb.

Her son listed her as his emergency contact, she reasons, and aren't suicidal thoughts enough of an emergency to justify contacting her as his next of kin? She remains angry at the Army, which she says did not do enough to include her as his mother.

"I know that the soldiers have their privacy, but there's a point when a life is at stake when that should be thrown out the window," she said. "If I would have known this when he came home, I would have dragged him to the [Veterans Affairs Department] to get help. I would have gotten him to counseling here."

Johnson, now an advocate for a stronger safety net of resources for veterans and their families, said the military needs to better engage families, to both ask for advice and provide resources.

"The Army's busy fighting wars, and they can't solve this problem, so why don't they call the families and ask for our help," she said. "If they would just involve the families, it would move mountains."

Gould, a 25-year-old former diesel mechanic with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, of Fort Hood, Texas, died by his own hand on June 23. He left behind a grieving mother and three sisters. His stepfather had taken his own life when Gould was 10 years old, and it had been devastating.

"My son did not believe in that," Johnson said. "Suicide, I'd never have expected him to do it, not in a million years."

‘Will God forgive me?'

Gould was not an angel, and in 2005, had been convicted of misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct in Fulda. However, his mother said he had been a "happy-go-lucky" young man, one who loved family, his friends and his two Labrador retrievers. He could be counted on to stick up for the little guy. He loved fast cars and would tinker with his 2001 Chevrolet Camaro.

He joined the Army in 2006, inspired by a relative who was killed at the Pentagon in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"He wanted to make a difference," Johnson said. "I backed him up 100 percent."

Just a month into a 2007 deployment to Iraq, she received a distraught and tearful call. He had been in an us-or-them situation, he told her, and he had taken a life for the first time. He asked his mother, "Will God forgive me?"

"I go, ‘Look, look at how you're here right now talking to me; God was right there, and the right man did come out of it,'" she said.

After that, the calls home were one-sided. He would ask about what was going on back home but was guarded and would volunteer no information.

"The longer he was there, the more withdrawn he was," she said.

Her son returned home changed, getting in trouble, smoking marijuana, drinking and fighting. He lied to her for the first time, she said; he claimed that if she received a call that he had failed an Army drug test, she shouldn't worry, because he was actually part of an undercover operation.

He had been a specialist, but he was busted to private over the failed drug test, his mother said.

As he was being processed out, Gould was in the building at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009, where a gunman opened fire, killing 13 and injuring many more. He told his mother afterward only that he had heard bullets whizzing by as he hid under a desk with a woman.

He was wracked with guilt, his mother said. He agonized that, although he had been a few feet from a door, he opted to stay with the woman and not retrieve his gun from his car outside.

This summer, he was home in Fulda to earn extra money before returning to Minnesota State University in the fall to study business. After a frustrating job hunt of several months, he landed work with a trailer-home manufacturer.

He was isolated. His old friends had lives, families and jobs of their own; and he saw them less and less. He was struggling with a girlfriend, his mother said, but he couldn't picture life without her. He was disconnected from other veterans and left to grapple with his memories on his own, his mother said.

"He knew nobody here that he could talk to one on one about the war," she said.

His mother discovered his body in the garage where he had hanged himself. There was no suicide note. He could not have been thinking of his family or the pain his death would cause them, she said, or he would never have done it.

She regrets not talking to him about getting help. She said she didn't want to risk injuring his pride or angering him.

"I was so afraid of losing him that way," she said. "In hindsight now, I would have pushed it like crazy."

She was shocked to find in his Army papers that he had asked for help from the Army at least three times, telling doctors he had planned to kill himself. Ultimately, he had retracted his words, and his mother believes it was because sticking to his story would have kept him in the Army longer. Because Gould was an adult, the Army was not obliged to show his family his medical records. His mother says the information should have at least been sent to VA.

"They let my son down," she said. "They, in essence, helped him put that cord around his neck."

Today, she volunteers for the organization Purple Star Veterans and Families, gathering signatures for a petition to bring attention to veteran suicide and to create more resources to integrate veterans into civilian life.

"If a parent thinks their child is strong and can make it through, or that they can help on their own, they're mistaken," she said. "There are things not even a parent can fix."

Through her son's website and word of mouth, she is being contacted by mothers and sisters who have lost their soldiers or are battling to save them.

"They're reaching out. I want people to know that I'm there … and they can reach me."

Staff writer from reader">Patricia Kime contributed to this story.

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