SPRINGFIELD, Mo. —When he was 6, police caught Kindall Johnson trying to cross Sunshine Street by himself. The Marine-obsessed child had discovered the recruitment office, then located in the Elfindale Center.
His mother, Kathy Davis, seemed to enjoy sharing that memory.
“One night I’m cooking dinner and there was a knock at the door. It was two police officers and Kindall was standing there smiling,” she said. “He had bumper stickers, lanyards, pencils, pads of paper. And he goes, ‘I found this really cool place and they give you all this free stuff.’“
Johnson stayed in touch with the recruiters and never wavered on his plan to enlist.
A strong runner, Johnson was invited to train with recruits who were getting ready to ship out. He was just 15 years old.
A few days after high school graduation, he was sent to boot camp.
Five years later, he died of a gunshot wound. The Marine was not killed by enemy fire.
Shortly after attending a Missouri State University homecoming tailgate party on Oct. 17, 2015, Johnson drove to the police station on Chestnut Expressway. He sent several messages to friends and family, apologizing and saying goodbye.
He then called 911 before shooting himself twice.
“We are always left with ‘why.’ Why did he feel there were no other options? Why didn’t he want to try? What happened?” Davis said, wiping away tears. “It kills me, just to think that he had to keep it to himself, that he couldn’t reach out.”
Davis said she doesn’t want this story to be just about her son.
When she met with the Springfield News-Leader on the seven-month anniversary of Johnson’s death, Davis brought framed photos of other veterans who had died by suicide: James Crider from Texas, Nicholas Gomez from Kansas, and John Adrian from Utah.
It’s about all of them, she said.
The VA announces changes. Is it enough?
Approximately 22 veterans a day commit suicide, according to a report released in 2012 by the Department of Veteran Affairs.
According to a Veterans Affairs study released last month, nearly 14 percent of veterans reported suicidal thinking at one or both phases of the two-year study. Compared to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found 3.7 percent of U.S. adults reported have suicidal thoughts in the year prior, the rates in the VA study are high.
This spring, the VA announced new initiatives and changes aimed at strengthening its approach to suicide prevention.
“We take this issue seriously. While no one knows the subject of Veteran suicide better than VA, we also realize that caring for our Veterans is a shared responsibility,” VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said in a news release. “We all have an obligation to help Veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of military service that lead them to think suicide is their only option.”
Some of these initiatives include providing veterans with the goal of same-day evaluations and access by the end of calendar year 2016; using predictive modeling to guide early interventions for suicide prevention; using data on suicide attempts and overdoses for surveillance to guide strategies to prevent suicide; and increasing the availability of naloxone rescue kits throughout VA to prevent deaths from opioid overdoses.
Davis said she appreciates the VA is paying more attention to the issue and hopes the changes will help others. Still, Davis said she questions whether any of them would have made a difference for Johnson.
When asked what she wishes the VA had done, Davis offered a few ideas.
“They’ve got my address on file because I’m getting all their junk mail to buy something or to support something. Why can’t they send me something to say, ‘Hey, these are the warning signs that you need to look for?’“ she said. “To say, ‘(Your) kid might seem happy but watch for these things and notify us if there’s a change in behavior and attitude.
“I knew he was mad but I didn’t know that it was going to be that extreme. I had no idea.”
The Springfield News-Leader reports that Davis knows of at least two times when her son called the veteran crisis hotline. His friends have told her the number is higher.
Whatever was said, what services or what advice was offered , it wasn’t enough, Davis said.
The Veterans Affairs Department Inspector General launched an investigation into the crisis hotline’s performance last year. The investigation found that at least 23 veterans, troops or family members who called the crisis line in fiscal 2014 were transferred to a voicemail system and their calls never returned.
It also found centers responsible for the voicemail errors, who were contractors hired to provide backup services when the VA-run crisis hotline is operating at peak, may not have trained their counselors adequately to answer calls from those experiencing a mental health crisis.
“He was once told if he did feel like he needed help, to call him back. I was like, are you kidding me?’ ‘ Davis said.
Dr. Caitlin Thompson is the VA’s deputy director of suicide prevention. Prior to that position, Thompson spent five years as the clinical care coordinator at the National Veterans Crisis Line.
According to Thompson, “dramatic changes” are happening at the crisis line because of that investigation, including increasing staff, better training and decreasing the use of backup centers.
“What is not changing is the incredible care and concern that all of our veteran crisis line responders have when they talk with veterans on the phone,” Thompson said. “They are continuing to get over a thousand calls a day of very intense crisis situations.”
Struggling with civilian life
Johnson did not want to leave the Marines, his mom said. After four years of service, he was given a medical retirement for a back injury that occurred during training.
“He was very disappointed,” Davis said.
Not one to take some time off, Johnson enrolled as a full-time student at MSU the first week he was home.
He struggled with his studies, his mother said, and had trouble concentrating and difficulty relating to the 18-year-old freshmen in his classes.
Even so, the guys with Delta Sigma Phi extended a formal invitation to Johnson to join the fraternity.
Blake Shepheard was president of the fraternity at the time.
“His military experience as a Marine was right in line with what our fraternity stands for,” Shepheard said. “Our motto is ‘better men, better lives.’ Our values are ‘courage, action and excellence.’ He totally rocked that. We knew right off the bat he was someone we wanted to be part of our brotherhood.”
According to Davis, that fraternity brotherhood seemed to replace the bonds Johnson once shared with his fellow Marines.
After his death, Davis found out that Johnson had shared with a few friends about his depression and that he feared he might have post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating condition marked by intrusive memories of a traumatic event.
“Kindall and I had several conversations where we connected really well,” Shepheard said. “He confided in me some things he was going through.”
On the Thursday before he died, a very upset Johnson came to Sheapheard. Johnson said he was going to be admitted into a two-month mental health treatment facility outside of Springfield and was having to drop out of MSU. That meant Johnson would also have to leave the fraternity, something that seemed to devastate the already troubled veteran, Shepheard recalled.
After he left the tailgate party on the day he died, Johnson composed an email to his fraternity brothers, explaining that he would be leaving and why.
Davis did not know about Johnson’s plans to drop out of school and enter a treatment facility until after his death.
Davis said her son was not formally diagnosed with PTSD, which is often associated with veteran suicide. And though he was deployed to Spain, Israel, Greece and Turkey, Johnson never saw combat.
Thompson, the VA’s deputy director of suicide prevention, said recent studies found that more veterans who have never been deployed and have never seen combat die by suicide than those who have been deployed – a fact that surprises most people.
While the VA continues to study this, Thompson said one theory is that soldiers who are deployed have a “sense of mission.”
“There is camaraderie among others. There is a really strong support group that can carry with you as you leave,” she said.
Johnson’s mother suspected that was true for her son.
“They were ready to go into Benghazi. They were told to retreat. I know that bothered him a lot. He was ready,” Davis said. “(His mental problems) were not combat related. It’s the failure of the mission. They didn’t get to do what they were trained to do. And the transitioning into civilian life – he was frustrated, disappointed. The loss of the dream, it was devastating.”
Davis said her son refused to talk to her about what happened while in the service or about what was going on in his head since returning home.
Stephanie Starkey, readjustment counselor at the Springfield Vet Center and an Army veteran, said there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about PTSD, which can lead to people not realizing they have the condition or seeking treatment.
“And even for those who are not traumatized by events that took place in the military, being in the military is such a unique life experience,” she said. “Getting out of the military is such a significant life change, that it could be difficult to adjust back into normal society.”
“(In the military) everyone around you is following the same guidelines you are. There are expectations of what everyone is supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave,” Starkey continued. “When you return from that environment, you have no control over what anybody does. You can’t look at somebody and see what their rank is and make a determination whether or not you’ve got general authority over them and tell them what you think they should be doing. People are just free to go about and for many vets, that never stops frustrating them.”
According to Starkey, this plays a big part in why a lot of returning vets have difficulty holding onto jobs. They find it hard to get along with others because the veterans have high expectations and standards, and yet little tolerance for people who fall short, Starkey said.
Bill Robison is a psychologist with Burrell Behavioral Health and an Army and National Guard veteran. Robison said he often counsels veterans and their families, because the VA contracts with Burrell due to a lack of VA doctors.
“These guys come in to see me and they’ve lived through horrendous things and they can’t talk about it with their families,” he said. “They’ve been trained to think, ‘I’m weak, I’m dysfunctional, I’m worthless if I go see a therapist and get help.’“
Even those who don’t have PTSD can face challenges that are unique to veterans, he said.
For example, veterans who have been deployed for several years are often coming home to families that have learned to carry on without the veteran. The spouse has been running the household and managing the finances while the other served in the military, Robison explained. Now the soldier, who has been trained to be a leader, comes home and is not in charge.
And many veterans can’t find a job that carries near the responsibility or prestige as the job they had in the service, he added.
“They are like, ‘Man, I used to command a unit of 400 men. And today, I can’t get a job as a middle manager of a shoe store,’“ Robison said.
Commanding officers don’t want to hear a soldier talk about being depressed or struggling with mental issues, Robison said. And soldiers are trained to think as a group, to be part of a group.
“If you start to become a dysfunctional element of that group, the group begins to ostracize you and put pressure on you,” he said.
That “think as a group” mentality can be detrimental for veterans back home.
“When they come back, there’s no group,” Robison said. “They are on their own.”
Davis said she believes having to drop out of the fraternity and lose that “group” might have pushed Johnson to a breaking point.
“He already lost his brotherhood with the Marine Corps,” she said. “He found another brotherhood with the fraternity, and now he was losing that unit.”
Since his death, Davis has grown close to Johnson’s fraternity brothers and the folks at MSU’s veteran student services office. Together, they are hoping to raise awareness about the signs of veteran-related mental health issues including PTSD, depression and anxiety, and that it’s not only combat veterans who are at risk.
“We decided that something needed to be done and that Kindall did not die in vain,” Shepheard said. “(Kindall Johnson’s death) definitely woke some people. I think we are seeing an increase of resources (on campus), an increase of awareness and an increase of things being done to help.”
On Memorial Day, Davis did something she thinks her son would have appreciated.
With Johnson’s photo pinned to her shirt and his dog tags around her neck, Davis went for a run.
“I used to love running. And he ran, too, I think mainly for training and to clear his head,” she said. “I tried to stay busy, then found myself stuck in the chair again crying. So I decided to take a deep breath and not drown in grief. I needed to do something that Kindall would do, so I ran.”