This Marine's death came after he served in Iraq
When Jonathan Schulze came home from Iraq, he tried to live a normal life. But the war kept that from happening.
At first, Jonathan Schulze tried to live with the nightmares and the grief he brought home from Iraq. He was a tough kid from central Minnesota, and more than that, a U.S. Marine to the core.
Yet his moods when he returned home told another story. He sobbed on his parents' couch as he told them how fellow Marines had died, and how he, a machine gunner, had killed the enemy. In his sleep, he screamed the names of dead comrades. He had visited a psychiatrist at the VA hospital in Minneapolis.
Two weeks ago, Schulze went to the VA hospital in St. Cloud. He told a staff member he was thinking of killing himself, and asked to be admitted to the mental health unit, said his father and stepmother, who accompanied him. They said he was told he couldn't be admitted that day. The next day, as he spoke to a counselor in St. Cloud by phone, he was told he was No. 26 on the waiting list, his parents said.
Four days later, Schulze, 25, committed suicide in his New Prague home.
She also said that after hearing of Schulze's death, the hospital is doing an internal review of its procedures.
Schulze's father and stepmother, Jim and Marianne Schulze of rural Stewart, Minn., say their son would be alive today if the VA had acted on his pleas for admittance. They say they heard him tell VA staff in St. Cloud that he felt suicidal -- in person on Jan. 11 at the hospital, and over the phone on Jan. 12.
On the evening of Jan. 16, Schulze called family and friends to tell them that he was preparing to kill himself. They called New Prague police, who smashed in the door and found him hanging from an electrical cord. Police attempted to resuscitate him, but it was too late.
Schulze's family doctor in Stewart, a farming crossroads in McLeod County, said he was convinced that Schulze suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a disabling mental condition that can result from military combat.
"Jonathan was a classic," said Dr. William Phillips, who said he first examined Schulze in October 2004 when Schulze was home on leave from Marine duty.
The doctor also asked Schulze to seek counseling at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California where he was assigned. Phillips said he was unable to learn whether Schulze had done so. "We don't have a system for this," Phillips said this week. "The VA is overwhelmed, and we're rural doctors out here trying to deal with this.
Unfortunately, we're going to see a lot of Jonathans."
Maj. Cynthia Rasmussen, the combat stress officer for the 88th Regional Readiness Command at Fort Snelling, said veterans returning to Minnesota who have problems often don't seek help until their civilian lives begin to fall apart. "Soldiers think if they go to get help that they're going to be seen as weak, but they also think their command won't have faith in them," she said.
Rasmussen said reasons for mental illness among returning veterans are many and complex, but often relate to personality changes that service members must make while in uniform -- and especially in combat zones -- and then try to readjust to civilian life.
After Schulze left the Marines in late 2005, he continued to have aching memories of combat. "When he got back from Iraq he was mentally scattered," said his older brother Travis, who also served there with the Marines.
Much of Jonathan Schulze's anguish seemed to relate to combat in Ramadi in April 2004. Schulze, who carried a heavy machine gun, wrote his parents that 16 Marines, many of them close friends, had died in two afternoons of firefights and bombings. Twice he was wounded but didn't tell his parents, not wanting them to worry. He wrote them about dismembered bodies. About youth and combat and disillusionment. And about the bombs.
"I pray so much over here and ask God to keep me out of harm's way and to make it back home alive and in one piece," he wrote Jim and Marianne in May 2004. "I bet I easily pray over a dozen times a day and I always pray while I am on patrol as I am terrified of getting hit by an IED aka a bomb. Our vehicle elements and Marines on patrols are getting hit hard by these bombs the Iraqis plant all over and hide on the ground."
Schulze carried guilt that fellow Marines died. He wanted to return to Iraq to somehow redeem himself, said his father, who did three tours of duty in Vietnam.
When Schulze left the Marine Corps, he participated in military color guards, visited aging veterans in the state homes, helped anyone in need. He worked with his stepfather building houses. An unmarried father, Schulze bragged of adoration for his young daughter, Kaley Marie, on his MySpace website.
But the war always got in the way of a normal life. Schulze was on an emotional roller coaster and couldn't get off, said his close Marine friend from Iraq, Eric Satersmoen, who with Schulze's stepbrothers described him as becoming uncharacteristically quiet.
"Lot of inner turmoil, lot of flashbacks, lot of nightmares," was how Jim Schulze described his son.
The Jan. 11 visit to the VA in St. Cloud came a few weeks after Jonathan Schulze waited for more than three hours at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, hoping to be admitted, Jim Schulze said. His son last saw a psychiatrist at the Minneapolis VA on Dec. 14 but someone there told him he couldn't be admitted for treatment until March, Jim Schulze said. They went to St. Cloud with the expectation that Jonathan could be admitted quicker.
Satersmoen and Travis Schulze think that Jonathan Schulze didn't intend to kill himself. They said that he was drunk and confused and speculate that he unintentionally blacked out before police arrived.
Secondary causes of death, said the Minnesota Regional Coroner's Office in Hastings, were post-traumatic stress disorder and acute and chronic alcoholism.
Cold wind ripped across the cemetery in Stewart where he was buried. Veterans from the Hutchinson, Minn., VFW fired a three-volley salute. Travis Schulze, dressed in black, and Satersmoen, wearing Marine dress blues, removed the flag from the casket and folded it. Travis Schulze presented the flag to his father. And saluted him.
"He was a delayed casualty of the Iraq war," Jim Schulze said of Jonathan.
UPDATE: VA Asked to Explain Marine Suicide
MINNEAPOLIS - An Iraq war veteran committed suicide after his family said he was turned away from two VA hospitals, and now a U.S. senator has asked for a probe into the hospitals' actions.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, also wants to know what the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing to prevent tragedies similar to Jonathan Schulze's.
"I am concerned that reports of VA's failure to respond to Mr. Schulze's request for help may indicate systemic problems in VA's capacity to identify, monitor, and treat veterans who are suicidal," Akaka wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Dr. Michael J. Kussman, the acting undersecretary for health with the VA.
Schulze, 25, of New Prague, Minn., told a staff member at a VA hospital in St. Cloud two weeks ago that he was thinking of killing himself and asked to be admitted, Jim and Marianne Schulze, his father and stepmother, have said.
They said Schulze, who left the Marines in 2005, was told that he could not be admitted that day. The next day, a counselor told him by phone that he was No. 26 on a waiting list.
Four days later, on Jan. 16, police found Schulze hanging from an electrical cord.
In December, Schulze sought admittance to a VA hospital in Minneapolis but was told he could not be taken in for treatment until March, his father has said.
A phone message left with Jim and Marianne Schulze was not immediately returned on Wednesday. They have said their son would still be alive if the hospitals had acted on his pleas for admittance.
Akaka wrote that initiatives were developed in 2004 to improve VA's ability to prevent suicide, but he believes not all of them have been implemented.
"For a veteran at risk of suicide, contact with VA must trigger a response that will prevent suicide and provide ongoing monitoring and care," wrote Akaka.
Joan Vincent, public affairs officer at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center, said that she could not comment on Akaka's letter, and that privacy laws prevented her from confirming whether Schulze had been at the facility.
Steve Moynihan, public affairs officer for the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, also declined to comment.