Kim Schmit knew her husband was in trouble, that much was clear.
It had been seven years since the Willmar couple’s 26-year-old son, Josh, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while serving in the Army. Greg Schmit, an 18-year member of the Minnesota National Guard, had found it particularly hard to adjust.
Out of guilt and grief, his life had dissolved into a series of unproductive counseling sessions at the VA. A medley of medications for anxiety, depression and sleeplessness now frequently left him either lethargic or irritable. Contributing to his despair, he contended that the Guard had been unsupportive after Josh’s death and that a few commanders had conspired to ruin his career and have him fired.
Late on a July night last year, Kim would later tell authorities, she was awakened by her husband struggling for breath next to her. She spotted the prescription bottles. All were empty. Within minutes, Greg Schmit, the by-the-book supply sergeant, was rushed to the hospital in a futile attempt to save his life.
“I tried with Greg,” Kim Schmit said, “but I wasn’t enough to keep him going.”
Few organizations have felt the crisis in military suicides more than the Minnesota National Guard. In the past five years, more of its members have died by suicide than all but one state Guard in the country. Minnesota’s Guard is the 10th largest state Guard by size. But when it comes to suicide, its 27 deaths rank second only to Pennsylvania’s 30.
By comparison, the state of Minnesota overall ranks 41st in the country in the rate of suicides per 100,000 people.
Asked if the Minnesota Guard has a suicide problem, Command Sgt. Major Douglas Wortham, the Guard’s top enlisted soldier, said simply: “One life lost to suicide is too many.”
Guard leaders say they can’t explain why only the Pennsylvania Guard has recorded more suicides. Stressors in everyday life — job loss, financial difficulties, relationship and mental health issues and substance abuse — more than Guard service are likely contributing factors, they say.
“We see our soldiers two days out of the month, but the community, the churches, their employers, they get to see them those other 28 days out of the month,” said Maj Ron Jarvi, program manager for the Minnesota National Guard Resilience Risk Reduction & Suicide Prevention Office.
Changes in record keeping — Guard units did not keep uniform records on suicides until recently — could also account for the high number. So, too, could a possible “contagion” effect, where suicide might be considered more acceptable the more it happens around you.
“With each suicide you have an increased pool risk of suicide,” said Melissa Heinen, suicide prevention coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, who has worked closely with the Guard. “The more suicides you have, the more that becomes a more normalized option.”
The new reality
On a snowy Friday morning, more than 70 soldiers file into a classroom at the Minnesota National Guard Armory in Cottage Grove. At first it seems like just another meeting during just another drill weekend.
But as Capt. Tony Hodgkins takes the podium, it quickly becomes clear it is about something deeper. Hodgkins, the unit commander, asks the soldiers how many have experienced someone close to them feeling suicidal. Nearly half raise their hands.
This is the new reality of the National Guard, where suicide prevention has become not only a priority, but a necessity. In the last eight years, Hodgkins tells the group, about 40 members of the Minnesota Guard have taken their lives.
Most have been men. The average age of victims was 26 — much younger than the middle-aged males in the general population who kill themselves. The most common cause of death — a self-inflicted gunshot.
Some, such as the 41-year-old Guard member who shot himself while sheriff’s deputies pleaded with him, had been deployed, police reports and other documents show. But fewer than half — 17 of 41 — had been deployed or seen combat experience.
In 2015, a 27-year-old full-time member of the Honor Guard at Fort Snelling who had never been deployed killed himself in his apartment within two weeks of being told he was failing Officer Candidate School. The year before, a 21-year-old Guardsman killed himself after drinking heavily and arguing with friends. He died 10 days after joining the Guard and before he was scheduled to ship out to boot camp.
In an effort to address the issue, the Guard has taken steps in recent years to ensure that each Minnesota unit has a resilience leader trained to identify common stressors and recommend resources. Each unit also has scheduled an annual block of suicide prevention training that includes role-playing and videos.
The Guard also is employing new techniques and technologies — using Internet resources and social media connections — to reach out to soldiers.
“We live by soldier’s creed and warrior’s ethos and after it’s all said and done and we stand at attention and declare these things we’ve memorized, it really just means we’re here for each other,” Hodgkins tells the group. “At least we’re supposed to be.”
On this winter morning, soldiers are assigned to the 204th Area Medical Support Co., whose mission is to provide health support to Army units wherever they are deployed, including the battlefield. Staff Sgt. Mandie McGinnis, one of the unit’s suicide intervention officers, takes the lead.
“I want you to take your masks off if you are having a bad day,” she urges the class. “Somebody can help talk you through it and find the light at the other side.”
Leaders hand out cards outlining suicide risk factors, along with a card listing suicide-prevention hot line numbers. Each soldier is given a gun lock. McGinnis also leads a role-playing session where she steps on a table and pretends to be thinking about jumping off a bridge. Several soldiers in the class volunteer to step forward to talk her out of it.
McGinnis, whose regular Guard job is in medical supply, and several other unit members recently started a Facebook page to help soldiers in need. It is a resource for nearly any type of support. The page, Battle Check, is available only to current and former service members. As evidence that it is filling a need, it now has more than 2,500 members nationwide. As the Friday morning session winds down, 1st Sgt. Brent Ambuehl, the senior enlisted member of the unit, addresses the group.
“The scariest thing for me as part of a command team is suicide,” he says. “That’s the 11th-hour call that I fear the most. Losing a soldier in your ranks to something that is this preventable is plain-out scary. This is a group effort here and we all need to take care of each other.”
‘Pins and needles’
Even with all the Guard’s prevention efforts, the death last summer of Greg Schmit illustrates the stark difference between how things work in training and what actually plays out in real life.
In response to Schmit’s death, the Guard told the Star Tribune that it ensured that he had access to mental health, family survivor specialists and spiritual counseling; and that his behavior — even before his son’s death — was “inconsistent with standards of military order and discipline.”
But his wife and others believe the Guard’s treatment of Schmit after his son was killed contributed to his grief and ultimately, his death. Five years before Schmit took his life, after a series of increasingly tense workplace confrontations and accusations of disrespect and insubordination, his commanders had fired him from his full-time job as a supply sergeant at the Willmar armory.
“It reminded me of a soldier who was injured laying on the battlefield and they were stepping over him, letting him bleed out,” Kim Schmit said recently.
As the Guard moved closer to firing him, it sought insight about his behavior from the soldiers he worked with. More than a dozen wrote letters of support. But several claimed Schmit used Josh’s death as an excuse for behavior they described as unsettling.
One first sergeant wrote that Schmit, who had made some enemies, had been told many times before and after his son’s death, “to change his behavior,” according to paperwork Kim Schmit provided to the Star Tribune. “Now when he is told to change his behavior, his response is how people are out to get him because his son died.”
Another complained of walking on “pins and needles” on the anniversary of Josh’s death, and of feeling threatened because Schmit had access to weapons.
One supportive soldier wrote that many people felt Schmit “needs to get over it and move on with his life” and were “getting sick of him using his son’s death as an excuse to have an outburst.” Yet, he added, others recognized Schmit “will never get over the loss of his son, and he has the right to grieve his son.”
In November 2010, the Guard cited seven incidents over the previous two years in which Schmit was accused of disrespect, insubordination or failure to obey orders, including a 2009 letter of reprimand in which he was docked three days’ pay. It also listed four incidents before Josh’s death to show what it called “the prolonged and continued nature of your anger problems.”
A month later, Schmit made a passionate plea to stay in the Guard and “continue to serve my country, bring stability to my family, and honor the values and way of life (of) Joshua, and many like him, who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect.”
The following March, Major Gen. Richard Nash, head of the Minnesota Guard, signed the letter dismissing Schmit. The letter, officially called an “Involuntary Separation Care Plan,” offered the names of resources for support.
“I encourage you to take advantage of these resources to assist you through this difficult time,” Nash’s letter said.
That same month, Schmit attempted suicide for the first time. He would tell doctors that he remembered waking up after taking an overdose of pills and being angry that he had survived.
Asked about how it felt it responded to the situation, the Guard said in a recent written response: “After Sgt. Joshua Schmit’s death — even with sympathetic and caring leaders and full access to counseling — Staff Sgt. Greg Schmit continued his behavior, resulting in progressive nonjudicial punishment and ultimately termination of his employment.”
Veterans advocate Trisha Appeldorn, director of the Kandiyohi County Veterans Services Office and an acquaintance of the Schmits, learned about Greg Schmit’s struggle after he asked her to help him fill out paperwork. She said she was stunned by how he was treated.
“Anyone would be shocked,” she said. “A father loses his son in Iraq and basically gets booted out of the National Guard two years before he could retire. In my opinion, it was just sort of a raw deal.”
After being dismissed from the Guard, Schmit’s condition worsened. He was treated briefly at a hospital in Pueblo, Colo., then entered the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas. It was one of several programs set up by the Army to help wounded soldiers transition back into the military or to civilian life.
He was medically discharged from the Army in 2013 due to headaches, depression and post-traumatic stress.
More than 1,000 pages of notes from the Minneapolis and St. Cloud VAs that Kim Schmit obtained document his slide. The reports are dominated by words such as “resentment,” “unresolved anger,” and “hopelessness.”
Greg Schmit told of having vivid word-for-word conversations with Josh in his dreams, described flashbacks of seeing his son’s dead body and discussed the once-a-week panic attacks that put pain in his chest and blinded his eyes.
In one meeting with a VA staff psychiatrist, Schmit admitted that he was emotionally “stuck.” In a 2013 session for medication management and supportive therapy, he spoke of having regular nightmares and feelings of worthlessness. He also told the doctor he would attempt suicide if he knew it wouldn’t hurt other people.
Two years later, after more counseling failed to help, Greg Schmit killed himself. The cause of death was listed as intentional multiple drug overdose, with a secondary cause listed as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was 56.
Schmit was buried alongside his son at Fairview Cemetery in Willmar. Because he had been fired, the Guard no longer considered him a member at the time of his death. Nor does it consider Schmit to be one of its suicide victims.
“The circumstances surrounding the Schmit family are tragic,” the Guard said recently, when asked to respond to his death, adding that its “thoughts and prayers … are with the Schmit family.”
Kim Schmit, meanwhile, has been left to shoulder the deaths of two soldiers: a son killed just 10 days before he was to come home and a husband who blamed himself for the loss. She said her son, like his father, “wanted to play the Army game.” Greg encouraged Josh to enlist and when Josh died, Greg “thought he killed his son in a roundabout way.”
Not long ago, Kim Schmit’s co-workers at a St. Cloud medical clinic bought a stone slab that features laser etchings of pictures of Greg and Josh hoisting beers. The photos were taken when the family visited Josh in Germany for his wedding.
The slab sits prominently inside Kim Schmit’s home. The inscription reads: “You are now free and our tears wish you luck.”