• U.S.

A Soldier’s Tragedy

16 minute read
Mark Thompson

It didn’t look like a war zone on the ground floor of the small white house in Superior, Wis. At midday on Aug. 18, the Crock-Pot was set to warm, slowly cooking dinner. Freshly washed clothes were in the dryer. An iPhone kept buzzing to life on the living-room couch. But upstairs, the appearance of tranquillity ended at the master-bedroom door. Behind it, a barefoot Matthew Magdzas, adrift ever since his 2007 return from Iraq, had emptied his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol into the people he loved most.

The first shots killed his 26-year-old wife April and their 13-month-old daughter Lila, who was in her playpen. April’s sunglasses remained perched atop her head, a pacifier stuffed into her back pocket. Lila, in pink socks, was wearing a T-shirt that read SPANK GRANDMA — SHE SPOILED ME. Magdzas, 23, next turned his gun on the family’s three dogs, killing them all. Then he put the pistol to his right temple and fired his 14th, and last, shot.

(See the fervor over gun control after Tucson.)

There was one other victim that rainy summer day: the Magdzases’ second daughter, Annah, who was in her mother’s womb and due to be delivered by cesarean section the next day. When police arrived and saw that April was pregnant, they summoned an ambulance but canceled the call once they realized the baby had died along with her mother, sister and father. She appeared in the police report as “unborn victim — deceased.”

Matt Magdzas’ final acts may be the worst spasm of violence committed by a combat veteran since the U.S. launched two wars in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. But in taking his own life, he joined an all-too-common group: Magdzas was one of 113 National Guard members who killed themselves in 2010. The Guard’s skyrocketing suicide rate, up 82% from 2009 and 450% from 2004, now exceeds that of active-duty soldiers. This fact underscores the plight of Guardsmen, who — unlike their full-time Army buddies — lack the jobs, support and camaraderie found on military bases after they return home from war. Instead, Guard troops go in the span of a week or two from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan to living among civilians who have no idea what they’ve just gone through. Many of the Guardsmen can’t find work or adequate mental-health resources.

It’s not as though Magdzas simply slipped through the cracks. The demands on these soldiers are unique in American history. After a tour that won him several commendations, Magdzas returned home unemployed, suffering from nightmares and a worsening case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and descended into alcohol and drug abuse. The Wisconsin Army National Guard and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) charted his decline. Things got so bad that the VA flagged Magdzas as a high suicide risk, loading him up with antidepressants and meeting with him regularly for counseling sessions, including one on the day he killed his family and himself.

(See photos of an army town coping with PTSD.)

“None of us believed that anyone could ever suffer from PTSD bad enough to shoot your own 1-year-old baby,” says Shawn Oles, April’s older brother. He does not blame everything that happened on the war, but he believes it played a key role in his sister’s death. “I don’t think our government and our country is doing all they can to help these guys when they come home,” adds Oles, who served in the Marines for four years in the mid-1990s. “It’s not a light switch. You don’t train how to kill people and then do a couple weeks’ debriefing and everything’s O.K.” Magdzas’ mother Marianne Bergren says her friendly and sensitive boy returned from war “very, very distant and very angry.” Bergren says she didn’t want to pry into the life of her newlywed son. But she saw a changed man. “I feel just horrible about everything,” she says through tears.

The National Guard and VA, citing privacy laws, won’t discuss Magdzas’ case. But TIME has been able to trace what happened to him through military and VA records, which were obtained from government sources. His is an important story because it highlights the holes in the safety net that is supposed to catch the thousands of troubled Guard members returning from combat each year. If someone like Magdzas can snap — even while under the VA’s watchful eye — how many more part-time soldiers will fail to get the help they need?

Read “Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and the Military.”

Weekend Warriors

The National Guard and its weekend warriors have always been a mongrel military. Its 54 units — one for each state and territory — traditionally reported to their governors and only rarely to U.S. military commanders. But that changed after 9/11, when Guard units became a key cog in the U.S. war machine and spent more time fighting enemies overseas than floods and forest fires back home. Guardsmen account for nearly 400,000 of the 2.2 million troops who have served in combat since 2001. They’re part-time soldiers, typically spending 39 days a year training, and were never intended to fight for so long. The Guard lacks even the overstretched mental-health capabilities of the regular Army, relying instead on the VA and other government and private care to tend to its mentally ailing. “Psychological health is not a core competency” of the Guard, Joan Hunter, the Guard’s mental-health chief, said in a 2009 briefing. Military leaders have admitted that Guard troops coming home from war receive only cursory mental-health examinations. “I don’t think we’re getting enough time with them at the [demobilization] station to give them the kind of behavioral checkouts they need,” General Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff and top suicide fighter, told Congress in June. “We take a reserve-component soldier today, and within five to seven days, he’s back in his community on his own.”

Insufficient screening and lax follow-up make for a deadly combination: more Guard troops come back from war with mental illness (42%) than their active-duty counterparts (20%), according to a 2007 article three Army experts published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They also have a tougher time adjusting to postwar life: a 2010 Army study found that PTSD and depression in Guardsmen was “significantly greater” after a year back home than in their active-duty comrades.

(See pictures of a soldier coping with the aftermath of war.)

“They lack the ready camaraderie of fellow soldiers and the daily oversight and hands-on assistance from members of the chain of command experienced while serving on active duty,” Chiarelli said in January when he released the 2010 suicide toll. “They are more vulnerable to the challenges of an adverse economy and a troubled labor market, especially for our young people.” Young, jobless and lacking support — the general might as well have been describing Matthew Magdzas.

The National Guard suicide rate may be even higher than the official tally because families may not report the deaths as self-inflicted. “There’s a disincentive for reporting suicides on the civilian side because life insurance won’t pay up if there’s a suicide,” a National Guard official tells TIME. Compounding this problem is the Guard’s reporting requirements — or lack thereof. Lynne Oetjen-Gerdes, deputy chief of the Mortality Surveillance Division of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s office, told a recent Defense Department panel investigating suicides that there’s “very poor visibility” on Guardsmen who kill themselves. While the local unit may be aware of what happened and pass the information up the chain, “it certainly doesn’t get passed to the casualty-reporting system,” she said, where it could be added to the suicide toll. Ask the Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center for suicide data on Guard members, Oetjen-Gerdes says, and “they laugh and basically say, ‘Well, we can’t tell you a lot because Guard and reservists tend to fade away.'”

(Watch video of two veterans returning to Iraq.)

“Safe and Responsible”

Magdzas, the only son of a Wisconsin state trooper, always wanted to wear his nation’s uniform. He enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard a year before graduating from Superior High School in 2005. A year later, he volunteered to go to war. Before Magdzas shipped off, his hometown paper, the Superior Telegram, hailed him for his patriotism. “I want to fight for my country,” he told the paper. “It’s only a year,” April added. “He’ll be back.”

He logged 12 months and 28,243 miles (45,453 km) protecting convoys throughout Iraq. Magdzas’ commanders praised him as “exceptional” and “safe and responsible,” and he was awarded several decorations, including the Combat Action Badge. He earned that award for defending his convoy on Nov. 4, 2006, when it came under nighttime fire about 60 miles (95 km) south of Baghdad. Two insurgents armed with AK-47s were shooting at the convoy from about 75 yards (70 m) away. “Several of the rounds came within inches of my face,” Magdzas told his superiors. But muzzle flashes and tracers helped him pinpoint the enemy. “He was calm, professional and accurate with weapon,” the driver of his gun truck reported. Magdzas “neutralized” the threat after a five-minute firefight, according to the citation, “possibly saving his life, the lives of the team and other convoy personnel.”

Watch how dogs can help vets cope with PTSD.

Magdzas was in Iraq during the surge in 2007, when the U.S. sent 30,000 more troops into the country. It was the most violent period of the war. When he filled out the required mental-health form upon returning home in July 2007, he said he had witnessed combat killings, was depressed and needed help.

Magdzas had trouble finding work beyond occasional stints as an instructor at a shooting school. Three months after going home, he sought help at the VA for PTSD and for the back pain he said kept him from Guard drills. Though doctors could find no evidence of a back injury, a National Guard officer said, “The soldier has much support for a PTSD injury.”

(See the costs of mental health.)

“I knew he was having problems,” says a Guardsman who served with Magdzas and asked not to be named. “The support from other soldiers definitely would have been helpful.” Magdzas stopped meeting regularly with his unit in August 2008, when his commanders began letting him go to VA counseling in lieu of drills.

Threatening Suicide

National Guard officials said Magdzas had talked of coming under mortar fire and witnessing a Marine’s suicide while in Iraq, neither of which apparently happened. He missed appointments with the VA. How much of this was fibbing or malingering or evidence of PTSD or a traumatic brain disorder isn’t clear.

“You could tell he was really depressed,” says Crystal Durm, who had been Magdzas’ friend since high school. For more than two years, the VA prescribed him a battery of medications, including Lexapro for depression, Ultram for pain and clonazepam for panic attacks. “They didn’t help,” Durm says.

In April 2008, nine months after he returned from Iraq, Magdzas got into a fight with April at her brother’s house in Minnesota and ended up threatening suicide with an AR-15 rifle. A cop talked with him for 30 minutes about his Iraq service and got him to surrender the gun. Police confiscated the weapons he had in the house where he and April lived, in Carlton, Minn. “When he got back [from Iraq], he seemed sad all the time, sometimes angry, just sat on the computer and played his gun games,” April’s brother told police at the time.

(See a female soldier discussing her experiences in Iraq.)

Becoming a father didn’t help matters. “I was married to a Vietnam vet, and I recognize PTSD, and I saw it immediately in Matt,” says Jana Studelska, who was the family’s midwife when Lila was born in July 2009. Magdzas told her he didn’t think he was getting the help he needed at the VA. “He was seemingly frustrated with the bureaucracy and the ineffectiveness of it,” she says. “I encouraged him to get help outside of the VA. I thought that was crucial.” He never did.

A month after Lila was born, April typed a note — addressed to no one — on her computer detailing her husband’s “increased paranoia and depression.” “Matt has scratched, elbowed and choked me in his sleep, and often talks in his sleep as if he is still in combat,” she wrote in the message, which was recovered by police after her death. “When I talk to him about these things in the morning, he has no memory of doing so.”

By this time, Magdzas had moved his family back to Wisconsin and was rebuilding his arsenal. “Matt insists on having loaded guns unlocked in our bedroom in case someone breaks in,” April continued in her August 2009 message. “I have discussed with Matt that I don’t like having loaded guns around our daughter, but he is convinced that they need to be near him at all times.” A month later, Magdzas’ commander wrote in Magdzas’ Guard file that the “VA recommended and did accomplish removing his personally owned weapons from his residence.” Local police suspect the commander thought the VA had done what the Minnesota police actually did following Magdzas’ earlier suicidal standoff and mistakenly believed that he remained unarmed a year later.

According to a police investigation, the VA, apparently early in 2010, gave Magdzas a “high risk for suicide” flag. That designation requires the VA to take certain steps, including “frequent follow-up appointments … and limiting access to means of harming oneself when possible.” Magdzas met more with VA counselors, but there is no evidence the department tried to limit his access to the two dozen weapons he had at home.

Nightmares and Counseling

Suicide prevention has been a persistent challenge for the VA. In 2008 the department estimated that 6,500 veterans kill themselves each year — 18 a day — including 1,800 under VA care. Counselors “have a wide range of interventions that we can use for suicidal patients, including therapy, medications and hospitalization,” says Elspeth Ritchie, a recently retired Army psychiatrist who specialized in suicide prevention. “Unfortunately, sometimes despite everybody’s best efforts, there are tragic results.”

Read TIME’s cover story “Healing the Hurt.”

Magdzas talked about the VA a lot: “They pretty much sit me in the room, and they make me rehash only the things that happened in the war,” Durm says he told her. “I’m having worse nightmares that don’t go away. They’re not helping me get over it. They just listen to my stories and send me out the door.” By now, Magdzas was drinking heavily and smoking marijuana regularly. Yet at the same time, he was making an effort to hold his marriage together. He and April started attending counseling sessions and going to church, which pleased relatives.

But in the four months before his death, Magdzas lost the two things he held most dear: first his military career and then his wife. On May 10 — his 23rd birthday — Magdzas was ordered to Fort Knox, Ky., for a mental-health evaluation. The psychologist who examined him determined that he had chronic PTSD and warned that “the stress of further deployment … would most likely result in exacerbation of symptoms and loss of therapeutic gains, thus endangering the safety of SPC Magdzas or his fellow soldiers.” His recommendation: “It is in the best interest of this soldier and the Army” that Magdzas leave the service.

(Is there a clear cut way to diagnose PTSD?)

Such a decision can feel like abandonment to combat veterans. The soldier who went to war alongside Magdzas summed up officials’ reactions like this: “When they see an injury, be it mental or physical, they just look at you as a broken piece of equipment that’s probably not going to get fixed anytime soon, and it’s probably cheaper just to throw you off to the side of the road than rehabilitate.”

Scared and Excited

On Aug. 5, Magdzas told a va counselor that his wife had recently moved out after she discovered he’d been cheating on her. “He said she told him they need to be separated for at least a year, and he felt hopeless,” according to the counselor’s notes from that visit. Magdzas also said during the session that he had attempted suicide but that the gun jammed. Among the counselor’s notes that day: “Patient is not in immediate danger of harm to self or others.”

A week later, Magdzas complained to the VA of being flagged as a suicide risk, which jeopardized his ability to legally carry a concealed weapon. The VA didn’t budge. “Mr. Magdzas is at a heightened risk of suicide,” the counselor noted. “He will continue with his … suicide behavior flag.”

(See six warning signs of whether someone is mentally ill.)

Three nights before he killed his family and himself, Magdzas visited Durm, and they chatted on her deck in the darkness for an hour. “He talked about how he was scared about having another baby but was excited at the same time,” Durm says. Although April had moved out, Durm says Magdzas seemed eager to patch things up. “He seemed fine. He had a trip planned, and they were going to do family stuff together.” But he was melancholy as well. “He said going into the military was one of the best, and worst, decisions of his life,” she recalls. “He said it was the best because he helped protect his family, but it was the worst because he came home not O.K. enough to raise a family.”

Aug. 17 began as an ordinary day. April learned, to her delight, that she was being promoted to head cheerleading coach at Duluth East High School. She went to Matt’s house for a marriage-counseling session scheduled for the afternoon. That morning, Matt filled out an application for work at a sporting-goods store. He said he wanted a job as a “firearms manager” and could start in a week. He also went to the VA clinic at 10:30 that morning. “The veteran denied current suicidal and homicidal ideation,” the counselor’s notes say. “He is mindful of the suicide safety plan he recently developed.” The 30-minute session was his 10th visit to the VA in two weeks.

Then he went home and killed his family and himself. He didn’t leave a note.

A funeral for April and her daughters was held in her hometown of Cloquet, Minn., six days after they died. “Lila loved to dance from the time she was only a few months old,” the family obituary read. “She even danced to the heartbeat of her little sister.” The following day, Magdzas’ funeral was held 20 miles away in Superior. His Facebook page still lists his favorite activity: “spending time with my beautiful family.”

This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2011 issue of TIME.

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