Tragedy Spreads: The Impact of Veterans’ Suicides on Families

Posted on January 9, 2024 By

by Sarah Terzo

The suicide rate for veterans is 57.3% higher than for non-veterans. Each veteran who dies by suicide leaves behind grieving loved ones.

 A Disabled Husband and a Sick Daughter

Barbara Chism’s husband Mack lost both his legs in Vietnam. He would stay up at night chain smoking, drinking, and watching war movies. When he tried to sleep, he tossed and turned all night.

Their daughter Kim developed ulcerative colitis at age nine. Kim was hospitalized repeatedly throughout her childhood, once spending a year in the hospital. She had multiple surgeries. At 18, doctors removed most of her intestines.

Doctors told Barbara that Mack’s exposure to Agent Orange was to blame.

When Mack died by suicide, his family blamed Barbara, ostracizing her. Even Barbara’s mother blamed her. Barbara says:

I don’t want to say Mack’s suicide ruined my life, but maybe if I’d had someone telling me I was good, that I could do it, it would have been different. Instead, everyone was saying, ‘What did you do to that poor man?’ and ‘Why didn’t you save him?’

It’s like I still hear my mother’s voice in the back of my mind: ‘You’ve done something to get him to this point of killing himself. Maybe you don’t deserve to live.’ I try not to let that rule me, but it’s always in the back of my mind.1

Many years later, Barbara is still struggling to function.

Mack’s suicide also traumatized Kim. She’s in therapy. Kim says:

Whenever I see pictures of my father and me, I always think, ‘Look at this beautiful little girl. Why wasn’t I enough to make him want to live?… Just, I’m not enough. Why aren’t I enough?’2


Suicide Attempts and Emotional Trauma

Linda Robideau, whose husband Don was a Vietnam veteran who killed himself, wrote:

Every year he talked about killing himself – and always around May and June. It was the anniversary of when all his friends died. Sometimes he tried. He would take the car and get liquored up and deliberately drive to hit a tree. Overdoses of medication, lots of times. He just never readjusted to civilian life. 3

She described her husband’s struggles:

He didn’t like to be in crowds. He didn’t like the smell of diesel. If a car backfired, this is the first guy who goes down on the floor. He didn’t like it when it rained in May or in June. Any Asian he didn’t like.4

They had a neighbor who was Asian. One day, Linda came home and found Don standing at the window, aiming a gun at the neighbor. Linda was terrified that Don would snap and shoot the man or someone else.

Don would wake up from nightmares hitting Linda. They went to the VA, which told them the military had lost Don’s records. They told Don, “There’s nothing in your folder, so there’s nothing we can do but medicate you.”5

The VA put Don on a slew of psychiatric medication, but nothing seemed to help him. One day in May, he told Linda he was going to kill himself. She describes what happened next:

I got on my hands and knees, and I begged him. I said, ‘Please, please don’t kill yourself, because your pain will be over, but mine will just begin. I can’t live without you.’

So, he said, ‘Okay then, I’ll take you with me and then you don’t have to worry.’6

Linda continued to plead with him. But her life was now at risk. She says, “[W]hen he laid down, I had to think, was I ready to die? I really wanted to be with him because we loved each other so much and we’d been through so much. But I thought about my sons.”7

Afraid, she left with her children.

Sometime later, the police called and told her Don was dead. He’d left a long suicide note addressed to her, telling her he loved her and had never wanted to hurt anyone.

Linda regrets leaving. She says, “Whether I bit the bullet or helped him, I should have stayed . . . I felt so guilty. He held me close for thirteen years . . . Thirteen years wasn’t long enough.”8


A Daughter Sees a Change in her Father

Paula Elvick is the daughter of a Vietnam vet who killed himself. She and her siblings were never the same.

Paula describes how different her father was when he came home from Vietnam.

Everybody could see he’d changed . . . He would wake up screaming…

He started going out to bars a lot of the time. It was extremely stressful for all of us to see a person who used to be outgoing, boastful—you know, happy—come back withdrawn, negative, and mean, abusive, with us never understanding why.9

After her father’s death, Paula’s mother was ill, and it fell to Paula to arrange the funeral. She went to the VA and brought her father’s medals and commendations, asking them to help with funeral costs and to bury him in a military cemetery. When they found out he died from suicide, they refused.

Paula had to pay for the plot in a private cemetery. On the day of the burial, the VA called and said they’d made a mistake – they would bury him in a military cemetery. But the plot had been paid for and the arrangements made.

The military refused to give her or her mother anything. She says, “They told me that when he killed himself, his pension died with him.”10

Paula finished her law degree, but was suspended from practicing law because of her heavy drinking. All her remaining siblings had drinking problems.

Then Paula’s brother died of suicide. According to the CDC, a family history of suicide is a risk factor for suicide. He left behind two children.

Eventually Paula got sober. She says:

Sometimes when I get together with my sister and brothers, we go through old pictures and try to figure out when things changed, when things started.

We try to understand what he went through, and why it was so bad that he had to take himself away from us. And then, what happened to us?

Vietnam—that’s what happened. Before that, we were a family. When my father came back, everything fell apart.11


A Veteran’s Experiences Leave Emotional Scars

Maryallyn Fisher’s husband, Dennis, was also a veteran who killed himself. Before he died, he told Maryallyn about some of his traumatic experiences. Don was the only survivor of a hand grenade attack which killed five other men. He befriended a little girl who was later raped by an officer, which haunted him. He was also in a helicopter when the man next to him was killed and he was injured.

Maryallyn had left Dennis because of his erratic, troubling, and sometimes violent behavior. She says, “I had been gone a year and a half when I got the phone call. It was the Everson police, and I thought, okay, now what did he do? But the cop said Dennis had shot himself.”12

Jean-Marie Fisher, Dennis’s daughter, said:

My dad was awesome . . . He used to always buy stuff for me, just because . . .  He let me dye my hair, and one time he drove me up to Canada for ice cream because nothing in our town was open . . .

But I remember being scared a lot, too. He was so unpredictable. There were times when he was really weird.

I remember one time he was sitting out in the garage with a BB gun. He was shooting at mice that weren’t there. I was scared out of my mind. That’s why I didn’t want kids coming over to my house.13

 Jean-Marie began cutting herself and using drugs after her father’s death. She says:

[W]hen Daddy died, I think I went a little crazy. I would be sitting in class, and I would just be thinking of him, and I would see him with the gun to his head. I would close my eyes and the image wouldn’t go away. I would open them, and it’d still be there . . . I went to classes stoned, and I had really bad grades.

I thought it should’ve been me, it should’ve been me, and so I used to cut myself a lot . . . and then I would cry, and then I’d think, ‘What have I done? I’m such a messed-up person.’14


A Live Saved by Love for a Son

Sometimes, though, the love a veteran feels for their family allows them to resist the temptation to die by suicide. Love for one’s children can be lifesaving. Peter, a Vietnam veteran, says:

I remember once coming home after having a flashback while driving. It was of the Tet Offensive where scores of guys died. I nearly died on the highway because I lost control of the car and nearly hit some people.

Driving home, I decided I was a danger to society and should kill myself. But when I got home, my son, who was six at the time, was waiting outside for me. ‘Daddy, Daddy, where have you been? he asked. ‘I’ve been waiting for you a long time . . .

After that, I realized I couldn’t kill myself. My son needed me.15


  1. Penny Coleman Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2006) 94-95
  2.  Ibid., 97
  3. Ibid., 13
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 14
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 15
  9. Ibid., 16
  10. Ibid., 17
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 39-40
  13. Ibid., 42-43
  14. Ibid.
  15. Aphrodite Matsakis, PhD Vietnam Wives: Facing the Challenges of Life with Veterans Suffering Post-Traumatic Stress (Lutherville, Maryland: The Sidran Press, 1996) 68


This is a companion piece to the post: 

Heartbreakingly Common: Suicide Among Veterans

See also:

Suicide Prevention and Other Kinds of Killing

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