I was recently contacted by Marcia Snyder, an Army mom who lost her son, Sgt. Douglas Snyder, to suicide. She saw a piece I'd written about the recent death of veteran Thomas Young, who, after no one at the VA's suicide hotline answered his call, decided to take his own life.
I had the honor of listening to her son's story and the events that followed.
Marcia recalled her son as a “handsome young man” who would stop in front of her china hutch and flex his muscles in the reflection of the glass. Prior to joining the Army, Marcia said Doug was very social, sometimes so outspoken it would even get him in trouble.
But Doug changed after serving two tours in the 82nd Airborne.
Iraq & Coming Home
Marcia described one event that had a profound impact on her son:
“Doug was one of the first deployed when the war began. The sergeant that was his buddy—he always referred to him as 'Sarge'—he was captured during their second tour. They found him the next day or so, and he'd been pulverized. They stomped him to death. That affected Doug deeply. He was the one that carried his body back out. Little by little by little he would verbalize things that happened over there.”
When Doug came home, things seemed normal at first, but over time, he began to deteriorate. Marcia noted how her son seemed apathetic about school and job hunting:
“I began noticing something wasn't right. Doug was the kid in high school that would always say too much and end up in trouble. That changed.”
After an arrest for theft, it became clear that Doug wasn't himself:
“Around 2008, he was arrested. His wife woke up during the night, the front door was open, and he was gone. He went jogging through the neighborhood in the middle of the night, and somebody had left a purse in their car, and he took it. He had no recollection of that. At the time, I didn't understand blackouts. I was upset and angry.”
Having difficulty adjusting to normalcy, Doug would call a veterans hotline to speak with other vets to whom he could relate. He began abusing substances: marijuana, Soma, Xanax, Vicodin. He would say he “needed them.”
Marcia told me two of her son's more disturbing blackout incidents:
"One time he stood in my kitchen, took a knife and cut his hand with it. He then proceeded to wipe blood on the walls. I have never been so frightened in my life.
Doug disappeared one night. I heard a knock on my door at 6:30 in the morning, and it's him. He was covered in insect bites. He said 'Mom, help me.' And I said 'My god, what happened?' He had been camping out at the VA. He walked from the VA to my home, which was about 35 miles, and he said 'I thought I was in Iraq. I had to hide. I think I laid on an ant hill.'"
“I took him to the VA, and the doctor actually said 'This is the funniest story I've heard all week.' They put him in for two or three days.”
The problems with the Houston VA only got worse from there:
“Each time I went to the ER, I was told, 'We can't speak to you. You have to sign a paper.' I had already signed one, and they continuously lost them. If he would disappear, I would call, and it would be 'We can't talk to you without the papers.' But they would just lose them. The VA would blow us off. Put him back in. Maybe keep him a couple days. It was a repeat cycle.”
"He had 15 bottles of medication. Two were anti-depressants, three were anti-psychotics. The rest were seizure medications, Beta blockers, tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, and pain meds.
I'm an RN. You don't take two different doses of anti-depressants at the same time. He said he didn't know how to take his pills. Meanwhile, the blackouts were increasing."
Eventually, Doug was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in 2009.
It was in November of 2009 that everything changed:
"Doug was arrested in November—I still don't know why. He called me from the jail on a Sunday, and said that the blackouts were really bad. Monday, we talked to him, and he was screaming and yelling, and I got angry, and I hung up on him. To this day, I can't forgive myself for that.
Tuesday evening, he told the jailers that he was a vet, and he was having an increase in blackouts. He said 'I think I just had one cause I fell and hit my head.' They told him he was just a liar. They said 'We have to confirm this with the VA.' So they called the Houston VA to get confirmation of records. The Houston VA sent back a paper that said Doug had never served in the military. There were no records.
Doug was again told he was a liar. The last thing he had left was the pride of having served, and they took that from him. Ten minutes later, he hanged himself."
After the suicide, a detective and a Texas Ranger met with the family. They claimed the lack of VA records proved that Doug had never served, and the burden was on Marcia and Doug's siblings to prove otherwise:
"So we went to the VA, and they couldn't find the records. They said 'He's not in the computer.'
Four hours later, we got the records."
For years, Marcia has tried to find resolution, to no avail:
“I tried contacting legislators, and President Obama, and no one seemed to care. I recently place a call to the Department of Veteran's Affairs and spoke briefly with a young man. I attempted to explain that I would like to give input regarding some changes that need to be made. He asked me when my son died and I told him in 2009. He snickered and said that was too long ago to make any difference.”
While I spoke to Marcia Snyder, she wondered aloud why I'd care to hear her son's story. I remarked that it's a shocking story that needs to be told. She quickly replied “No, it's not. It's happening everywhere.”
When the VA scandal first broke in 2013, and it was fresh to the majority of the American people, mothers like Marcia Snyder had already been experiencing the broken system for years. As I noted in the Thomas Young piece, this horrific problem still persists with little being done to change it.
I'd like to thank Marcia for telling her son's story, and hopefully, it will serve as a reminder that mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and family are still fighting for their lost and damaged loved ones, and this will not stop until the problem is properly addressed once and for all.