Justin was called Jon by his family and close friends. As the youngest, Jon had to learn how to be tough at a very young age, which, of course, he did and excelled at. Jon was a truly intelligent boy. As he grew up we knew he had an intelligence all his own. He assisted his older brothers with their homework. His outstanding intelligence caused him to get bored with what was handed him while he was going to school. He was never truly challenged enough. That is why he did homework for his older brothers. Jon decided school was not for him and he got in trouble for disrespect and was suspended a few times. I had to change his school. At this time Jon was about sixteen. Jon and I decided to remove him from public school when he was in his teens. Jon could not figure out what to do with himself, so being a single mother at the time, I decided what I thought was best for him. I sent him to a type of boot camp in Aberdeen, Maryland. I believe he lasted three days and decided it was not for him. As this was a voluntary school, I was called to come and pick him up. Once home, Jon found a full-time job and enrolled at our local college and received his G.E.D.
Jon joined he Army at the age of twenty. Once he completed basic and AIT, he was stationed in Ansbach, Germany for, I believe, about three years. During this time, he was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom at the age of twenty-one. While there, Jon earned an AAM. This deployment turned out to be very difficult for Jon in more ways than I will ever know. Jon had to kill his first person. It was kill or be killed. To this day, I do not believe Jon ever got over this and suffered deeply within himself. He thought of himself as a monster.
Jon returned to Iraq again in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. During this deployment he was injured, not seriously, but enough to leave another scar on such a young man. I was never informed that he was injured and when we finally talked about it all, Jon told me that I was not to be notified when he was injured, only when he died (which, of course, is another story in itself). All in all, Jon was deployed six times in seven years — too much for such a young person.
Jon earned the following awards/medals while enlisted in the Army:
- two Army Achievement Medals
- two Army Commendation Medals
- two Army Good Conduct Medals
- National Defense Service Medal
- Army Service Ribbon
- Overseas Service Ribbon (a few)
- Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal
- Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
- Iraqi Campaign Medal
- Driver’s Badge
- He attended the Preliminary Leadership Development Course and the Basic Non Commissioned Officer Course
- Two foreign awards
- Polish Award
- Award from Holland for his 100 mile march in uniform and 45lb rucksack
- Competed in the German marksman competition
- Received the German sportsman badge
- Operation Victory Strike
Now let’s talk about why I am writing this: My son committed suicide on July 11, 2009. I feel that the Army let my son down and that when he needed them the most, they were not there for him. All I can do is lay out the facts as I know them and hope that I save one soldier, one mother from going through the awful pain and grieving that Jon’s three brothers, extended family, friends, and I are going through.
I need to take us all back a few years and try to begin the story of Jon’s ending. As stated earlier, Jon’s first deployment to Iraq was when he was twenty-one. How traumatic could that have been? Not only did he see what he saw and went through what he went through — he actually had to decide to kill another person, which is totally against all he knew. When Jon came home from Iraq, he came straight home to see me. I can say that he had no counseling. He was just sent home and sent on leave to deal the best way he could. I can tell you it had an impact on my son. It took him quite awhile to readjust to live in the States. He did not talk much about this experience as he knew I could never relate to what he saw or went through. I spent about a week or so with my son and could tell that he was different, but I had no idea how to talk to him or how to help him through this.
Jon deployed numerous times while in Germany. He supported Operation Victory Strike II in Poland. While there he was the American liaison to the Polish Army. He deployed to Normandy, France, to host the 60th Anniversary of D-Day and also went to Holland to compete in a 100 mile, four-day rucksack march.
During the years, Jon would talk about how he wanted to volunteer to go back overseas. He said he felt more comfortable there and I believed him. It was hard for him here in the States, trying to defend all that was going on and yet not being able to discuss it with his friends or family. Soon, the only friends he had were his Army buddies. Yes, we still talked and emailed, but it was never the same as before his first deployment to Iraq. He started coming home to visit less and less, always saying he was bus and had to be there for his unit. At that time, I know I lost my baby and did not know how to get him back, how to be close to him like we were before. He did come home for a few holidays, special occasions, and a family vacation, but it would be few and far between. We did get him home for, I believe, two Christmas’ in a row. It think it was easier for him to talk to us on the phone and email than to see us face to face, as we could then see his depression and desperation.
Please excuse the long background. I want everyone to know who my son was before the Army and while in the Army. He loved the Army and excelled in all that he did for the Army. I have reviewed all the military records I have and can tell you my son got written up for the excellence and motivation he showed in his work and all that he brought out in his soldiers as well. He felt most at home with the Alpha Braves; he loved them and worked as hard as he could to be worthy of them.
My son got reassigned to Ft. Gordon, Georgia in March of 2009. He, for whatever reason, could not settle in. He felt alone and abandoned there. He felt like he just did not fit in, but during this time he again gave 100% to his training and to Ft. Gordon. For whatever reason, looking at all his letters, emails, and talking to his buddies, I believe this was the beginning of the end for my son. I truly believe he had PTSD and will explain a little later.
The downhill started for my son in May 2009. On or around May 15, 2009, my son used his web cam and emailed and talked with a friend of his. During this conversation, he had letters strewn all over the floor and was talking about being a monster and wanting to stop the pain and commit suicide. His friend talked him out of it at that time, or at least so we thought. On May 22, 2009, my son wrecked his car in a suicide attempt and again he survived. At some point in June 2009 (the Army will not provide dates to me) my son went AWOL. He was tracked by his credit card receipts. He was headed to Texas and along the way he bought a shot gun and some alcohol and was in a hotel. Family and some of his Army buddies tried calling him all day, but he would not answer his phone. When one of his closest Army buddies got ahold of him, he told my son he would come to him. Instead, one of his superiors found him and took him to Metroplex Hospital in Killeen, Texas. From the records I found in my son’s car after his death, it looks like he only spent a few days at Metroplex and then was transferred to Darnall Army Hospital on the 19th of June. He hated Darnall (which he told his Uncle, Gary Garza.) It seemed Metroplex did more for him. He was in Darnall Army Hospital for about ten days. When Darnall released him, they released him with specific instructions, as follows:
24 hour adult supervision
Safeguard the home: make sure there is not access to any weapons, knives, medications, guns, or any other items that can be used in a harmful manner.
Discharge level: Acute Psychiatric
He was discharged on June 30, 2009 with adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotion and conduct. Depressed mood.
His first follow-up visit was scheduled for July 9, 2009. I have a message on his phone stating that there is a backup/mix up with counselors and if he does not hear anything by Monday the 14th to give a call. Well, he committed suicide on the 11th. There were also messages from a chaplain.
Okay, who was the “24 hour adult supervision” for my son? Who went to his house with him to ensure there were no weapons? He shot himself in the head. All his appointments were listed as “pending.” Again, why a delay in counseling and why no 24 hour supervision? When he was discharged from Darnall, Ft. Gordon did not want him. They realized he needed to back with the Alpha Braves. Well, Fort Hood had not processed him in, so again he was alone without a Unit, not able to be in formation or on base, so he was alone in an apartment all day with his thoughts. He was not receiving pay, as the Army still had him listed as AWOL. He could not pay his bills and had to borrow money from his Uncle Gary.
I was never informed of any of the above – that my son had an accident, that he was AWOL, or that he was suicidal. If I would have known, I wold have flown to be with him. The Army robbed me of a life with my son and at the very least a chance to see him again and tell him that I loved him. I did not get to say goodbye. My son filled out all the required paperwork and questionnaires tat Darnall Hospital gave him and knew the answers they were looking for. Why would you have someone counsel him who had never been through what my young son had gone through? How could they understand what he was feeling and how did they miss the PTSD? Hell, I could have counseled him! I, at least, knew my son and who he is/was and knew that he was pulling the wool over these people’s eyes.
Once we got the news of my son’s death (By the way, I was never formally notified that he passed away) we headed to Texas. We had to go through my son’s storage shed and car. In his car, I found numerous letters addressed to himself, to me, to his Unit, and to a friend. These letters were dated May 15, 2009 and he died on July 11, 2009. What the hell! Someone had to have noticed the change in him. My son was dating a girl and she was in Texas and my son’s best friend was a friend of hers. I have a very disturbing letter that he wrote and you can tell that PTSD had hit him strong. I am willing to share most of each one of these letters so that the Army and the general public can see how my son slipped through the cracks.
Believe it or not, this is just a general overview of all that took place. If you are interested in my son’s story, please contact me. My son asked in the letter to me and the letter he left on his laptop and to his best friend that his story be told. If this even saves one soldier and one mother from going through what I went through, then telling his story will be worth it. I will be my son’s voice for as long as I can and to whoever will listen to me.
Teri J. Smith, mother of SSgt. Justin Lee Garza
You can contact Teri Smith through this website by clicking here.