'Like an airborne disease:' Concern grows about military suicides spreading within families
Erin Trieb for NBC News
Monica Velez, pictured in Austin, Texas, had two brothers, Jose "Freddy" Velez and Andrew Velez, both of whom served the U.S. military and both are now dead -- Freddy was killed in action in Iraq, and Andrew took his own life.
Before Army Spc. Andrew Velez left Texas for the final time, he asked his fragile sister to write him a promise – a vow he could carry with him to Afghanistan.
Monica Velez knew she owed him that much. In the horrid weeks after each had lost their beloved brother, Freddy Velez, to enemy fire in Iraq, Monica tried to end her life with pills and alcohol. Now, she put pen to paper: “I will not hurt myself. I will not do anything crazy. I know that Andrew loves me. I know that Freddy loved me.” Andrew folded her note and slipped it into his pocket.
“Don’t break your word to me,” he told her before heading back to war.
Seven months later, Andrew, 22, sat alone in an Army office at a base in Afghanistan. He put a gun to his head and committed suicide. Back in Texas, word reached Monica Velez who, once again, found herself in a dangerous place. Only now, she was alone. Days of alcohol and anti-depressants. Nights of dark thoughts: “It would just be better if I was gone.”
'The storm' is coming
As the U.S. military suicide rate soared to record heights during 2012, the families of service members say they, too, are witnessing a silent wave of self-harm occurring within their civilian ranks: spouses, children, parents and siblings.
Some suicides and suicide attempts — like those that ravaged the Velez family — are spurred by combat losses.
Others may be triggered by exhaustion and despair: As some veterans return debilitated by anxiety, many spouses realize it's now up to them — and will be for decades — to hold the family together.
Specific figures are lacking as no agency tracks civilian suicides within military families.
However, Kristina Kaufmann, a long-time Army wife, knows of three other Army wives, all friends, who took their lives in recent years.