War casualty on the home front
A poster boy for suicide prevention, Houstonian becomes another statistic
By LINDSAY WISE
April 9, 2011, 7:
Marine veteran Clay Hunt had a tattoo on his arm that quoted Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
“I think he was a lot more philosophical about life than a lot of us are, but trying to search for some inner peace and the meaning of life, what was the most important thing,” said his father, Stacy Hunt.
His son’s quest ended last week when he took his own life at his Sugar Land apartment.
The 28-year-old had narrowly escaped death in Iraq four years ago, when a sniper’s bullet missed his head by inches. But he wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt over the deaths of four friends in his platoon who weren’t so lucky.
“Two were lost in Iraq, and the other two were killed in Afghanistan,” said his mother, Susan Selke. “When that last one in Afghanistan went down, it just undid him.”
In many ways, Hunt’s death is all too familiar: the haunted veteran consumed by a war he can’t stop fighting.
Suicides among Texans younger than 35 who served in the military jumped from 47 in 2006 to 66 in 2009 — an increase of 40 percent, according to state records.
The problem seems increasingly intractable. Efforts by the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to stop the alarming rise in military suicides nationwide through training and screening have had limited success.
‘He tried everything’
Hunt’s suicide was baffling to friends and family, but not because he hid his struggle or failed to get help. It baffled them because he faced it, head-on, leading from the front like any good Marine.
Hunt had become a poster boy for suicide prevention. He appeared in an award-winning public service campaign to encourage returning veterans who feel isolated to reach out to their peers for help.
“He tried everything,” said his best friend Jake Wood, a fellow Marine. “He tried the medication, he tried (humanitarian) service, he tried moving back closer to family. He tried everything under the sun, and he was fully self-aware. I think that’s what kind of surprised everybody. We thought that Clay was taking the steps to try and avoid something like this. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to.”
Hunt was born at Houston’s Methodist Hospital on April 18, 1982. He grew up in the Memorial area, a tow-headed ball of energy who played tackle football, read voraciously and loved to collect turtles.
“But he definitely didn’t move at a turtle’s pace at anything,” his mother said. “He was ADHD with kind of a big H — very hyper, very outgoing,” she recalled, referring to Hunt’s childhood diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Hunt graduated from Stratford High School in 2001. He headed to College Station to attend Blinn College, with the goal of transferring to his dream school, Texas A&M.
A few years later, when the paperwork for Hunt’s transfer was almost done, he called his father. “Dad, I just feel I’m wasting your money,” he said. Hunt said he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps infantry in May 2005.
“Clay said to me at several points, ‘I want to be given a task and complete and do it well,’ and that’s kind of how he was made,” his mother said. “Give me a mission, put me on the ground, let me go do it.”
A warrior’s poise
In January 2007, Hunt deployed to Iraq with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Before he left, his parents traveled to California to see him off. His father remembers marveling at his son’s self-assurance. He attributed the young man’s newfound poise to months of intense training and to the bond he had built with fellow Marines.
“He was like, ‘Dad, don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry,’ ” the elder Hunt said. “But he was so confident. He was feeling pretty good.”
Six weeks later, Hunt called his father by satellite phone from Anbar Province.
“His voice had changed,” his father said, “and for the first time in my life, I could tell he had a touch of fear in his voice.”
Three friends from Hunt’s company had died in the space of a few weeks, “basically right in front of his eyes,” his father said.
“He didn’t feel invincible anymore,” his mother said.
One of those killed was Hunt’s friend and bunkmate, Lance Cpl. Blake Howey, 20. After his death on Feb. 18, 2007, Hunt moved from his top bunk and started sleeping in Howey’s bottom bunk. “He just felt like it brought him closer to Howey,” his mother said.
Not long after Howey died, Hunt was driving a Humvee when a sniper fatally shot Lance Cpl. Nathan Windsor, 20, who was walking in front of the vehicle.
“Clay felt very helpless in that firefight because he was stuck driving a Humvee, and he wasn’t able to do anything,” Wood said. “He wasn’t able to fire his weapon.”
Hunt told his mother it was like watching a bad movie. “He said that scene played in his head,” Selke said. “He said it would be on replay, rewind all the time.”
A few days later, a sniper’s bullet ripped through Hunt’s left wrist. He’d rested his chin on that hand right before the shot rang out, and moved his head at the last second.
“I would’ve thought you’d feel like the luckiest guy on the earth that you got shot and they missed your head, but that’s not how he felt,” his father said. “He felt he didn’t deserve it.”
Became sniper himself
Hunt’s wrist wound was his ticket home, but he hated leaving his buddies in Iraq.
He had no choice. Hunt was evacuated to Germany, and then California, where he threw himself into helping rehabilitate a badly injured Marine from his unit.
A year later, after graduating from Marine sniper school, Hunt deployed again, this time to Afghanistan, where two more friends were killed.
When Hunt left the Marine Corps in 2009, his mother bought him a shadow box. Inside he put his medals and pictures of those four fallen Marines from his platoon. He kept it by the door in his apartment.
“Every day he looked at that, and thought of his guys,” his mother said.
“He could never really leave behind the feeling of, ‘Why me? Why did I make it and the other guys didn’t?’ ” his father said.
Civilian life not easy
Like many vets, Hunt had a bumpy transition from the military.
It took him 10 months and a series of doctor visits to get disability payments after the VA lost his paperwork.
He dropped out of Loyola Marymount University last year, and a two-year marriage ended in divorce. He told his parents that he’d come close to killing himself at least twice in the past six months.
But he found a renewed sense of purpose in volunteerism. He lobbied for veterans’ rights on Capitol Hill, helped build bikes for Ride 2 Recovery, a mental and physical rehabilitation program for injured veterans, and volunteered in earthquake-stricken Haiti and Chile with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit founded by Wood that rechannels military veterans’ skills to humanitarian aid work.
“I think it was incredibly therapeutic for him, for all of us really, to be able to go to a place like that and do nothing but help people,” Wood said.
In recent months, Hunt focused on the future. He moved back to Houston. He bought a truck. He found a job at a construction company. He got medication for his depression and PTSD. He moved into a new apartment and started dating. He even considered re-enlisting.
On March 31, though, Hunt didn’t show for work. He stopped answering his phone. His frantic mother drove to his apartment. Maintenance workers forced their way in and found Hunt dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
His mother desperately wants to know what was in his mind when he pulled the trigger.
“I thought we were over that hump,” Selke said. “He said, ‘Mom, stop worrying.’ He said, ‘Mom, there have been so many times I’ve thought about it, but I love you guys too much, and I just don’t want you to have to go through that.’ So I know whatever happened, it had to be something he just couldn’t control. He did not want to do this.”
Funeral drew 1,100
Active-duty military suicides hit record numbers in recent years. No statistics track how many veterans like Hunt have taken their own lives after leaving the service, said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the nonprofit group that sponsored the public service ad featuring Hunt.
“This was a guy who was doing all the right things, it seems like, and we lost him,” Rieckhoff said. “If it can happen to Clay, then it can happen to anyone. This should be a wakeup call for America.”
More than 1,100 people packed Memorial Drive United Methodist Church on Monday for Hunt’s memorial service. Veterans came from all over the country.
Wood flew in from California to deliver a eulogy for his brother Marine.
“He thought the world was supposed to be a better place than it is, and he lived every day of his life thinking, perhaps naively, that his efforts could make the world be what he thought it should be,” Wood said.
When Hunt woke up every day and his efforts seemed in vain, that made him more depressed, Wood said.
“Clay, I think that you realize now just how loved you were,” Wood said. “You have a church full of people who are honored to be here, and we love you.”