U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Lee Stuckey slid his pistol into his mouth, closed his eyes and began to squeeze the trigger. Injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and haunted by visions of lost comrades, Stuckey wanted to end it all.
As Stuckey’s finger tensed on the trigger, his cell phone rang. The screen displayed the identity of the caller as “Mom.” Stuckey, a 2004 supply chain management and logistics graduate of Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, put down the pistol, picked up the phone and made an admission that was too long in coming.
“I was crying,” Stuckey said. “I said, `Hey, I need help.’”
Over the course of the next few weeks, as Stuckey faced his demons with the help of family and counseling, he considered other young men and women in uniform attempting to cope with unbearable stress and loss. Those contemplating suicide may not be interrupted by a fortuitous phone call. According to Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate for male military veterans under 30 increased by 44 percent from 2009-2011. Female veterans saw an 11-percent increase in their suicide rate in that same span. On average, 22 veterans take their lives each day.
Stuckey, the commanding officer of Transportation and Support Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group at Camp Lejeune, wanted to do his part to find a solution. As he talked to other Marines, he found that many opened up about the problems they were encountering.
Stuckey invited a group of 65 veterans to his farm in Shorter, Alabama, for a deer hunting trip. The pastoral setting proved ideal for what Stuckey calls “screen porch therapy” and inspired him to start A HERO Foundation (America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreational Outdoors) – a year-and-a-half-old non-profit that connects Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with peers and provides opportunities for healing.
“We make suicide such a taboo conversation,” said Stuckey, who began his seventh deployment in August. “No one ever wants to talk about it.” The tones are even more muted in the military, where alpha personalities, physical prowess and mental toughness are points of pride.
“It’s not weak to talk about your emotions,” Stuckey said. “We bring the guys together, take them hunting and fishing. At the end of it, we’ve had a counseling session. We’ll talk about what we’ve been through, what we’re going through.”
Of the 435 veterans who have been served by A HERO thus far, Stuckey said 90 had admitted to contemplating suicide. “They’re all still alive,” he said.