Last year, more U.S. service members took their own lives than died in combat. And despite the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the pullout in Iraq, and hundreds of new programs designed to help troubled servicemen and women, the number of suicides continues to rise.
Nicholas Rodriguez is one such young man. Military service was practically a foregone conclusion for Nick. His family's history in the armed forces stretches back to the Revolutionary War. His grandfather fought in World War II, his father was a Marine and his stepfather's brother died while on active duty in Afghanistan.
So when Nick joined the Marines at 21, he felt he was honoring both his country and his family. He "wanted to go and help the world in some way," explains his stepfather, Michael Geiger.
Nick left for Afghanistan in 2010. His mother, Anna Rodriguez, was relieved when he returned from combat by year's end. But when Nick came home to Whitehall, Pa., for Christmas, "there were cracks and I started to see them," Anna says. Nick was "jumpy" and "on guard," she says. "I was confused, 'cause my son was hurting and I didn't know what to do."
Nick returned to Camp Pendleton in California in early January 2011. He had headaches. He was troubled by memories. Less than two months later, he took his own life.
"In hindsight now, I look back and think, 'Well, these were all red flags that were going up and we never saw them," Michael says. "We didn't know they were red flags."
Before Nick's death, Anna and Michael say, they had never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. By sharing Nick's story, they hope families of other servicemen and women can learn to read the signs that they could not — and can find resources to help.
"Coming Home: Nick's Story," was produced by Elizabeth Meister and Dan Collison of Long Haul Productions.