David McDaniel is a military father from Highlands Ranch whose son, Connor R. McDaniel, died by suicide last year after years in the Army and a combat tour in Afghanistan. David hopes to bring more awareness to Post Traumatic Stress within the military so the Armed Forces can better help those who serve their country.
I fully support the U.S. Armed Services. This includes the people who run each branch, but especially those who volunteer to risk their lives to ensure the safety of not only American citizens, but those in many other countries as well. All of these people have some of the hardest jobs in the world, some having to send young men and women to risk their lives, and some being those lives being risked.
One of my sons, Connor R. McDaniel, was one of those who volunteered. Within six months of graduating high school, he was off to boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was largely inspired to join the Army by the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. He strongly felt that he wanted to go fight the bad guys, the people who attacked us on our soil.
After boot camp, Connor was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McCord outside of Seattle, Washington. He really liked the area, being able to go hiking and camping, two of his favorite things.
Connor was training hard for a possible deployment and did go on a southeast Asia tour, working with partner countries on improving their combat readiness. Then it happened.
This was the first time he called me, despondent, saying that he was not happy with his life and he wanted to end it. From Denver, at 2 a.m., I thought I was able to “talk him off the ledge”.
Connor was then able to transfer back to Colorado Springs, to Fort Carson. I thought this was perfect., We could see each other much more often, he could get closer to the family again. Ugly thoughts, like those of suicide, tend to slip away pretty quickly when everybody appears happy and healthy.
But appearances are just that, and the reality of one’s happiness is usually not readily visible.
One reason Connor wanted to transfer to Fort Carson was because they were due to go on a tour to Afghanistan. Connor had been training for this for about four years now; he was ready, willing and able.
You see, the Army does a phenomenal job of training their soldiers.
They are prepared for any situation, mentally and physically, and have the creativity to solve almost any problem with the most basic of supplies.
One year camping, Connor taught us how to build a snare with just string and small branches.
So the day came, and it was time to say goodbye to Connor, for now, for nine months.
He couldn’t really tell me where he was going or when we could talk. But then we were able to talk several times, and things seemed to be going well.
He’d tell me about his missions, things like, “We went to fight 400 Taliban who are attacking some village along the foothills.” I would ask with how many troops. He’d chuckle and say, “A good-sized crew, like 15”.
I was stunned. But mission after mission, he came back, along with his entire crew, mostly unharmed.
He even found a tiny puppy dog and we were able to get her sent back to the states. There was a very strong bond between Connor and Lily.
After he returned (at 3:15 a.m. on base, waiting about 6 hours), we had some time to spend together and he was able to be with his favorite, Lily, again. They were pretty much inseparable from that point forward.
Connor started sharing stories and even pictures and videos from his tour. He had been promoted to Sergeant during his tour and led his entire group of infantrymen that was paired up with a group of Special Forces while in Afghanistan. Some of the stories, pictures and videos were horrifying; I have perfect images of them in my head, even now. These are things that no human can be prepared to see.
People missing body parts, having been blown off by IEDs, watching aircraft drop bombs on the enemy who is shooting at our soldiers from the woods, and watching people die right in front of you, with barely anything you can do to help them.
These are images that will haunt anybody; these are the things that cause PTSD. The crazy thing is that having Post-Traumatic Stress is not a Disorder; it can only be quantified as something that would be normal for most any human to suffer from after witnessing what our soldiers saw.
Then, experiencing mortars and rockets being hurled at you while hiding in some ditch or behind a hand-built wall. Again, pictures of holes in walls and damage from these weapons the enemy used to attempt to kill you can only leave one in a PTS situation.
Six months later, Connor decided it was time to separate from active duty and joined the Army National Guard. He could still use his military skills, but also transition to a more normal civilian life and build his future. He received separation training from the Army where he gained skills in sheet metal work and welding. Then COVID hit, and hit him hard. It became very difficult to find steady work and he eventually gave that line up and started doing house remodels with some friends.
He really enjoyed the work, but again, the work was not that steady. The economy was faltering, and Connor was really struggling to pay the bills, especially his new-to-him dream car, his Subaru WRX. Then things started to get to his relationship.
Then, the Afghanistan withdrawal was approaching. Then the call happened again… he’s despondent again, he wants to end his pain. He feels that life is “tiny glimpses of happiness” that comes crashing down when the reality of life comes back.
Again, after a long phone call, I feel like I talk him down. I’m now constantly worried about him. But then, a surprising turn happens and he introduces us to his new girlfriend. She’s amazing and Connor, for the first time in a long while, seems truly happy again.
I start to come up with a plan on how to help Connor with his finances. His sister just bought a big house and needed work done on it. We’d move Connor in with her and Connor would work on her kitchen while finding more permanent work up here in the Denver area.
The economy is recovering quicker up here than in the Springs and I’m sure we can get him squared away. Things were looking really pretty good considering.
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But then something happened in his head. His demons took over and he couldn’t see the light through the darkness. Even looking at a brighter future, he had decided to end his life. Everybody has different stories. He was going to be living with a friend, an Army buddy, a former co-worker, depending on who you talked to.
Then one Tuesday, he dropped his beloved Lily off at his sister’s for a few days while he “moved.”
Nobody really thought too much of it. Different family members watched her fairly often. But this was different. The next day, his sister called me, which is a little unusual, but I was in a meeting, so I didn’t answer.
Then the text came in: “Dad call me now it’s about Connor.” My heart skipped a beat. It all came back and before even speaking to her, I knew what was happening.
We dropped everything and started driving towards Colorado Springs. We had no idea where he was, but it was clear that he was very serious. We found out where he was, notified the police and headed there.
Then he called to make sure I got his email and to say goodbye. I pretended I didn’t know what was happening, so that I could stall him. At some point, I could not pretend any longer and kept talking to Connor, trying to convince him not to do this. He was set.
Through all of the wonderful things Connor was — funny, caring, reliable — he was also stubborn. He said nothing I said or did would change his mind. Later that night, we received the call saying he was gone.
Much like having children, there is nothing that anybody can do to prepare you to lose a child. Especially to suicide. Connor’s darkness had taken over. He had spent the last few days of his life with his new girlfriend and told her nothing. He seemed happy. He seemed better or normal. He was anything but.
Like I said at the beginning, I support the U.S. Armed Services. Even after this, I still do. But, as with all things, I think they can get better. In the last 5-10 years, as mental health has become a more visible and impactful part of somebody’s life, or death, it seems that the Army has been slow to react.
There is still a huge stigma associated with anything that makes one “unfit” to serve or fight. I believe the biggest issue is that the Army has many programs to help veterans, but those essentially are not available to active duty.
This is because as soon as you say that you have a mental health problem, or want treatment for PTS, the Army declares you unfit and you may not even be able to possess a weapon. For a soldier, who wants not much more than to be able to go and defend his or her country, this is disabling.
You’re being told that you’re too weak to fight. This basically prevents soldiers from getting any help, which is completely contradictory to what I believe should be happening. While humans are not machines, they do share common aspects, like needing maintenance. After every training and combat mission, all of a soldier’s machines get maintenance.
Their weapons, either guns or mortar systems or others, their planes, helicopters and trucks all get services. What’s missing is servicing the soldier. With the diagnosed but untreated PTS my son suffered from adding to his other demons, he was on a course for trouble.
Instead of making a soldier feel worthless or weak or unfit after a combat tour, wouldn’t it make more sense to treat them for both physical and mental injuries they suffer?
I believe that the trauma every combat soldier experiences deserves to be treated, just like a physical wound. If we made the process of coming off-tour to include mental health treatments, it would also not allow these PTS experiences to build up and compound on each other, eventually having a severe impact on every combat soldier.
Make it just part of coming home, just as normal as any other part of the process. No stigma, no “unfit” soldiers, just healthy people ready to serve again. Wouldn’t this serve the Army by having a physically AND mentally fit soldier ready for the next mission? My son did not want to be a statistic, and my way of honoring him is to not allow that. My goal is to change the way the military treats their most valuable assets, the people that volunteer to risk their lives for our Freedom.
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