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The tolls of war don’t end on the battlefield

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Jonathan Bret Lovejoy — born Nov. 17, 1988; died Jan. 18, 2014.

Bret Lovejoy was an Army veteran who, according to his obituary, “served his country proudly as a Military Police Officer in the 3rd Platoon, 209th Military Police Company, with service in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Unified Response (Haiti).”

He died at the home of his parents in Plainville, Mass. They found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 25.

Bret was the son of my cousin and his wife. I remember how proud his dad was when Bret and his brother Nathan both enlisted in the Army about seven years ago. Nathan was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division and came to Fort Drum as an infantryman; not long after he was posted here, his parents came to visit and we all met for breakfast at a Watertown restaurant. I remember asking Nathan whether he was worried about being deployed to a war zone, and he said he would be proud to go. His dad just beamed when he said it.

Both boys — though they were surely then men in every sense of the word — got out of the Army at about the same time, a couple years ago. While Nathan seems to have survived his experiences, his brother was a very different story. After his death, his dad told me of some of his struggles — with alcohol, depression, a failed relationship. He started to go to the University of Massachusetts on the GI bill, but dropped out after a semester. Then he applied to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where he was going to learn commercial cooking.

His parents didn’t know it for months, but he never entered Johnson & Wales. His failed year at UMass was blocking his GI benefits, and his drinking was blocking everything else.

His dad said the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder were obvious. He suffered debilitating nightmares. His drinking was way out of proportion to his background. He was not the Bret that his family sent so proudly off to the Army.

He finally succombed to whatever voices were playing in his head. He saw only one end to the torment, and he took it.

Jonathan Bret Lovejoy is now many things. He is a sad, indelible memory for his parents and his friends and the Army buddies who have rallied around his memory with a Facebook page in his honor. He is a suicide statistic for the state of Massachusetts — but not for the U.S. Army, because he was no longer in the Army when he took his life. His is a veterans’ suicide, but as a cipher, he may never count against the cost of a military incursion into a lonely and distant foreign land. While he is doubtless a casualty of that war, his death will never be chalked up as a count of its cost.

This is an unimaginable burden on his parents. It took three days for Jerry to be able to send me even a single sentence about Bret, and many more days before he passed along his obituary. Now, weeks later, it must be as freshly horrible to Jerry and Denise as if it happened yesterday. In fact, it will probably always feel, in some respect, like it happened yesterday.

It is likely dozens of lives were changed that January day when Bret decided to end his. The Lovejoy family is large and extends across Massachusetts and beyond. Bret’s friends and Army brothers are scattered across the country. None of us — not family, not friends, not brothers in arms — are likely to put this completely behind us, and that is a large burden.

The burden is also America’s. It is America that Bret was serving when he contracted the disability, the debilitating disease that is PTSD. It was an articulated defense of the American ideals that sent he and his brother to that recruitment center, and it was their enlistment that fostered such pride in their dad. Now, it is that enlistment that has brought such unspeakable sorrow to two parents who would have done anything to keep their family whole.

We owe our Gulf War veterans more than we are providing them. There are men and women like Bret all across America who are unsuccesful in getting their arms around the trauma that they brought home with them. Not all of them will take the drastic step that Bret did, but many of them will suffer from alcoholism and an inability to enter into lasting relationships with another person. Many will divorce, and be unable to hold a job to the level of their qualifications. Many will suffer nightmares, many will turn to drugs rather than booze. And many — far too many — will not seek help.

There are no easy answers. But we need to acknowledge that this is a burden that all of us bear, and agree to do whatever we can to help these men and women who have sacrificed so much for the rest of us. In the absence of knowing any other way for me to do my part, I’m writing a check to the Wounded Warrior Project.

And we all can promise, should we find someone suffering the latent wounds of war, not to ignore it, to speak up and speak out and do whatever we can to ease these veterans’ suffering.

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