A soldier's grim homecoming

Questions: A World War II veteran wonders if Iraq played a part in the apparent suicide of his grandson, Spc. Jeremy S. Seeley (right).

February 18, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLYDE, N.C. - The old man looks down at the grave, so fresh it has no marker and the squares of sod have not yet grown together. He has come to visit his only grandson.

Rayburn Seeley last set foot on this spot Jan. 22, the day Army Spc. Jeremy S. Seeley was buried with military honors outside his hometown at age 28.

Now the grandfather gives an impromptu salute, standing motionless against a backdrop of clouds streaming past the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"We fought in different wars," said the proud veteran of World War II, "but we was still comrades in arms."

Jeremy Seeley survived Iraq but not the homecoming. Now his grandfather can't help wondering if the war played a part in his death, much as Vietnam sent Jeremy's father, Zane, into a downward spiral 30 years ago.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about a soldier's suicide misstated a veterans group's estimate of how many veterans of the Iraq war have killed themselves in the United States. The National Gulf War Resource Center says that seven to 10 of 67 stateside suicides by military personnel last year involved Iraq war veterans, and that the number could be higher. The Army says 21 soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq or Kuwait but has not said how many did so after leaving the war theater.

Jeremy Seeley was found dead of an apparent suicide at the Shoney's Inn in Clarksville, Tenn., not far from the 101st Airborne Division's base at Fort Campbell, Ky. Behind the bolted door with the "Do not disturb" sign, police found jugs of Pepsi, antifreeze and Drain Pro by the bed. Autopsy results are incomplete.

It was Jan. 17 - three years to the day after he joined the Army.

Ray Seeley, a hale 78, has heard about the suicides of those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. To some, his grandson's death fits a disturbing pattern of soldiers making it out of Iraq only to die after coming home.

The Army says 21 soldiers have killed themselves in Iraq or Kuwait since the war began last March, a rate officials concede is higher than that in the overall Army population. But the figure does not include nearly 70 suicides in the United States after a tour in Iraq, according to the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans advocacy group.

Stephen Robinson, an Army veteran who heads the Silver Spring-based group, says the military needs to do more for returning soldiers.

"These are people of character that are losing all hope and taking this very unique step of ending their life," he said. "We owe it to these guys to say, `Hey, we know what you're thinking and know where you've been. You can survive this, there is no reason to lose hope.'"

The suicides, whether in the combat zone or on the home front, have occurred despite an intense effort by the military to alleviate combat stress and prevent soldier's from taking their own lives. The task is not easy, some in the Army say, because war can mask problems, and it is impossible to get inside someone else's head.

The Army sent a mental health team to Iraq last fall to assess its measures. Yesterday, the Army indefinitely postponed its report.

"Unfortunately, we cannot prevent all suicides," said Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd. She said she was not authorized to give out the number of post-Iraq suicides but asserted that it is "small."

`A normal guy'

In Seeley's case, it seems nobody saw any indications of major problems, either in Iraq or at Fort Campbell.

Lt. Col. Richard Carlson, the commander of Seeley's unit, choked back tears in Iraq last month when he bid farewell to departing troops of his 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. He told them not to do anything "stupid" back home, soldiers recall, and said Seeley might still be alive if only he had reached out to someone.

Those who knew Seeley are baffled by his death. They say he had seemed normal - quiet and kind - apparently trapping inside whatever demons he had.

"I'm still in shock about it," said Spc. Josh Brown, who served with him.

The Shoney's desk clerk said Seeley looked fine when he prepaid for his last two nights in Room 106.

"He seemed like a normal guy who came back from Iraq and wanted to relax," said Nicole James, one of the last to encounter him. "He didn't seem upset about anything. He was a very, very polite man."

A soldier's story

Last March, as his unit waited in the desert at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait, Seeley drew midnight guard duty on Tower 6. By chance, he encountered a Sun reporter and wound up in an article on how troops were coping with boredom.

He said little at first, peppering his comments with "sir." When asked about his background, he began to warm up. Staring through the darkness toward Iraq, he slowly told a story of a young man in search of purpose and satisfaction.

Jeremy Shannon Seeley was raised in Canton, N.C., a town of 4,000 west of Asheville. The Blue Ridge Paper Products plant sends plumes of white steam over the mountains that ring the town and emits a smell akin to boiled cabbage.

Seeley, a gangly 6-foot-3, went to Pisgah High School, home of the Bears.

"He was quiet and shy, just an extremely nice guy," recalled classmate Carrie Hill.

That night on Tower 6, Seeley said, "I floated from job to job, trying to find myself."

He worked at a Hardee's and at two McDonald's restaurants. He tried the trucking life after graduating from Alliance Tractor-Trailer Training Center in Asheville. He finished with a class average of 92.4, near the top of his class, said the center's Steve Clark.

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