The Uncounted: The ‘invisible’ sibling

Posted at 3:39 PM, Mar 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-21 15:55:09-04

Editor’s note: One tragic number is known: 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Another is not: How many military spouses, siblings and parents are killing themselves? What is war’s true toll? This is part of a CNN report by Ashley Fantz, The Uncounted.

(CNN) – Monica Velez, 36, lives near Austin, Texas. Her story highlights the often-overlooked family member touched by war: the sibling. The following is Velez’s story as told to CNN’s Ashley Fantz.

The first thing you have to know is how close Freddy, Andrew and I were. Because if you don’t understand that, then you won’t understand why I wanted to die when I lost them.

Freddy was killed in Iraq, and then Andrew took his own life in Afghanistan. I was their sister. I was supposed to protect them.

When we were little — I was about 7 — my mom took us to a gas station in Texas. My dad was in the driver’s seat, and we were crammed in the back. My mom said she didn’t want to have anything to do with us and got out. I watched her walk away. I can see us all in that car. My youngest brother Andrew was sleeping. Freddy, who is the middle kid, was crying. Something inside me decided right then and there that I would take care of them.

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My dad was a police officer in a rural town and worked all the time. We lived on the outskirts of Lubbock near a cotton field. Our nearest neighbor was a mile away. My brothers and I, we didn’t really have anyone else but each other. We played Army, cowboys and Indians, ship pirates. We shared a bedroom.

I would help the boys get dressed for school, help them with their homework, teach them new things like riding bikes and swimming. I learned how to sew because they were always popping off their buttons.

On the bus, kids would pick on us about our clothes, shoes and haircuts. I’d get defensive. If somebody made one of my brothers cry, we were probably getting kicked off the bus that day!

When we got older, I wanted them to dress preppy and spent money from my part-time job to buy them polo shirts and khaki pants. I taught them how to press their pants. I got them to do this thing with the brush where they’d spray their hair while the blow dryer was on it. Every day I wrote them notes about how important they were to me, how much I loved them.

Freddy was the boy who did everything well. He ran fast. He was awesome on the football field. He’d play dominoes and win. Oh my gosh, his dimples. Teachers loved him. He was the real confident one. It was always an unspoken vow between Freddy and me that we’d never let anyone hurt Andrew. They were a year apart, and Andrew always watched to see what Freddy did. They had a language between them.

When it was time for Freddy to go to college, we went door-to-door trying to raise money. That seemed like a good idea to us, just go and ask for it and show that he really wanted it. Some businesses actually donated to him. Looking back, I think this was when Freddy got worried about how we’d keep paying. He didn’t want my dad to do anything outside his means, and he didn’t want me to help out.

One day, I got a phone call. Come over, he said. When I showed up, he was acting weird. He said, ‘I’m going to be leaving in a couple weeks for basic. I enlisted in the Army.’

I was livid. And this was just before 9/11, so I cannot imagine how scared I would be if he’d told me this after 9/11. But I was so, so angry. I called an Army recruiter and said Freddy had a bum ankle from high school wrestling, and he couldn’t participate. The recruiter was like, ‘Don’t worry. We give all the guys a thorough examination, and he’s fine.’

Freddy was always trying to calm me down. He told me that he wouldn’t be in the middle of anything, and he was going to try to use the Army to get a degree that he would use after he got out. I believed him. We threw a party before he left for boot camp. Everyone was happy for him.

I remember Andrew telling me that he thought Freddy was leaving him.

He said, ‘What am I gonna do, be here all by myself?’

About midway through Freddy’s basic, he called to say he’d changed his mind and that he wanted to go infantry. ‘They get to blow up stuff over there and shoot really cool guns,’ he said.

I didn’t know what war looked like. No one did back then. I grew up when Desert Storm happened. I remember Geraldo Rivera doing his shenanigans out there, and it just kind of seemed like it was not real. It was like, ‘Yeah! We’re America, we’re pretty cool. You can’t mess with us.’ I actually thought it was going to be like that.

But one time, I remember, I was at work and saw the front of the Austin American-Statesman. It was a picture of a woman with her arms clinging to a casket that was draped in the American flag. I thought, ‘That can’t happen, it wouldn’t happen to us.’ I had to go home that day.

There wasn’t anyone from the military who told us what to expect, how we might feel or how to deal with any of those feelings. They had meetings, but those were for the wives. There wasn’t anything for siblings. I did call the military sometimes, like at Fort Hood. Most of the time, the operator would assume I was the wife. They’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re the sister? We can’t talk to you.’ I really don’t know if my dad ever got much information. I guess I was just doing what I’d always done, taking care of things.

When Freddy got deployed to Iraq in 2003, he was 22. When we would talk to him, he would make it seem like he was on a beach somewhere drinking martinis and piña coladas and getting a tan. We sent him care packages. He kept requesting that I send him loud music — Linkin Park, Metallica. I found out that he would put his headset on so he could drown out the sounds of the bombs and guns and the tanks at night when they were driving through a town.

When Freddy first left, Andrew hung out for a while. But then his girlfriend got pregnant. Of course, I was scared, but I got more excited as time went by. I threw my energy into helping him with the baby. He was so concerned about his daughter, very responsible. I was proud of him. I realized that he had learned what it meant to love somebody unconditionally.

The last time we were all together was Thanksgiving in 2002. I took a snapshot in my mind. I admired how they’d grown up, and I was looking forward to more Christmases and Thanksgivings. I imagined us getting old together, how they’d make fun of my gray hair and I’d get to make fun of them for going bald or getting fat. Freddy got married that year to his high school sweetheart, Nickie.

That Thanksgiving, the buildup to Iraq was happening.

Andrew never really gave me a reason why he enlisted the next year. When Andrew made a decision, you didn’t question it. But he was struggling with his young family, working two jobs. Two kids by this time. They were living with his wife’s mother. The military offered them housing, a set paycheck, benefits. It seemed like a good deal to him.

Freddy was in Iraq and then Andrew was sent to a base in Kuwait. You know when moms say how it feels when the last kid leaves the house? I felt alone. How am I going to protect them now? How am I going to make this work? I couldn’t turn on the TV without something from Iraq coming up. I just stopped looking at the news.

Andrew came home for R&R. We wined and dined him. We were expecting Freddy to come home, but then we found out he wasn’t. He told me that he needed to pull his weight there. He told me he joined a new unit and the guys were pretty tough and he was learning so much.

Around Freddy’s birthday, he called us. It was October 31, 2004. Andrew was still at home, on one of his last days of R&R. Freddy wanted to tell us they were going into Falluja. It was strange but for some reason, he was able to spend his day talking to us — to Nickie his wife, to me and my dad. I remember Andrew taking the phone from me and walking away in our home to have a private conversation with Freddy. I don’t know what they said.

I couldn’t stop thinking how odd it was, Freddy spending the time to talk to each of us. I had a terrible thought. I thought he was saying goodbye. My dad said to stop that negative thinking.

The next day or so, Andrew’s R&R was up, and he had to go back to Iraq. So I now had two brothers over there.

I watched the news every day. November 1, November 2, November 3, November 4, every day. I can list to you every soldier that died during that time. I woke up November 12 and turned on the TV. They were reporting that there had been a casualty in Iraq connected to Fort Hood. Maybe I didn’t allow my brain to go there because I kept working. I didn’t think it was us. I went home and sent Freddy an e-mail. At 2 or 3 in the morning, Nickie called me. The casualty was in Freddy’s unit. She heard it from a friend in casualty assistance.

I got to her apartment. I started to feel like there was no way it was us because in the movies, the casualty people only show up during the morning. But it was 1 p.m., and there was a knock at the door. I opened the door. There were two guys dressed in uniform. They asked for Nickie. I said, ‘I am his sister. Is he hurt? I am his blood type! I can give him my kidney! I can give him my lung!’ I think they thought I had gone crazy.

They just said, ‘We need to speak to Mrs. Velez. We can’t speak to you.’

I screamed, ‘I’m his sister!’

Nickie was standing next to me. She was paralyzed. She couldn’t speak. Then they started in, ‘Mrs. Velez, we regretfully tell you that your husband has been killed in action.’

All I could see was my little brother’s face asking me for milk or asking me what time the bus was coming. It was like someone drowning you in a tub full of memories.

Then, all of a sudden, there were all these people. Military people, people from the base, wives, women everywhere. Some of them told me to stop crying because I had to be there for Nickie. Ladies from a family readiness group — they had these groups — they came over and brought food and toilet paper and they kept telling me that I had to pull it together for Nickie. They asked me to run errands. Go get ice. Can you call people?

I felt irrelevant. I felt like I didn’t matter. Nobody really talked to me. I just sat with Nickie, and we cried. She knew that I was hurting, too. She and I were in the same place.

I wanted to be the one who told Andrew. I was patched through to him in Iraq. He said, ‘Tell me it’s not true, tell me it’s not true.’ He just screamed and screamed. I told him, ‘They should be sending you home soon.’ I found out later that Andrew did some damage to the building he was in after I told him.

He told me, ‘Yeah, they’re sending me to go meet up with Freddy. I’m coming home with him. Don’t worry. I’m going to bring him home.’

They do that. If there’s a family member, they see if that relative can come back with the body. When they landed in Germany, Andrew called me. He was hysterical. He was crying. He couldn’t breathe.

In Lubbock, the media was there. Chaos. I ran to the park to be alone. I got on my knees and put my head down. I didn’t know how to help Andrew. Because it was really bad for him.

As the days dragged on, we were both just lost. It felt like we’d been left on the side of the road in the dark without a flashlight.

I tried to look for counseling through my insurance because Andrew didn’t want to see anyone in the military. He didn’t want anyone to think he wasn’t OK. He had anger. He was struggling at home. He just didn’t feel like anyone understood him. His commander made him see a chaplain.

I was so worried about him staying in the Army. I called Fort Hood. I called casualty assistance. I called veterans affairs. I started doing research into post-traumatic stress disorder. I called anyone who would listen to me for five minutes. I did what I’d always done — I was my brother’s keeper.

I confessed this to Andrew. I told him that I didn’t feel important any more. I couldn’t do my job anymore as a sister. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to feel the pain any more.

‘I’m not going to get hurt. Nothing’s going to happen,’ he told me. He asked me to write down that I was important, that he loved me and his kids needed me. He made me promise that I would not hurt myself.

He said, ‘This is your promise to me. This is your word.’

The Army gave Andrew the option to step out as the sole survivor, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to go back. He wanted Freddy’s sacrifice to have stood for something. He got deployed to Afghanistan.

We e-mailed each other a lot. Over time, his stories became more graphic. He would explain to me what it was like to kill somebody. I kept asking him to come home or get reassigned somewhere else. He could get what’s called compassionate reassignment. I learned that from some wives who let me join their group at Fort Hood. They met and comforted each other. They saved me. I thought I could find something like that for him.

I tried to tell him every time that everything here was good. The wives told me that no matter what’s happening at home, make it sound like you’re baking cupcakes. Deal with whatever when your soldier comes home.

He told me, ‘When I get home, I’ll go to counseling.’

Andrew was 22. The day I found out he ended his life was seven months after Freddy died. I was in Killeen signing a lease on an apartment, and I’d turned my phone off. I came home, and my boyfriend was in the kitchen crying.

He said, ‘Have you talked to your dad?’ That stopped me in my tracks. I said, ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘You need to call your dad,’ and he started crying more.

The phone rang. It was Nickie. She was crying. I said, ‘Tell me what’s going on!’ She said, ‘I can’t tell you. I can’t do it.’

I don’t think I’ve ever felt that angry in my entire life.

About that time, I see these cars pull up to the front of my house. You never forget those cars. My boyfriend put the phone to my ear. It was my dad. He tells me, ‘Andrew’s gone.’ I said, ‘He went AWOL?’

He said, ‘Andrew committed suicide. He put a gun in his mouth, and he killed himself.’

I didn’t believe him and hung up. Then all the people came again. A rush of people. A chaplain was there. One of the wives from my Fort Hood group, my boss.

I stepped out of myself. Whoever Monica Velez was, she died the day that Andrew did. I just couldn’t understand. Did he not remember that I loved him? I kept thinking, now no one is going to remember our memories.

From then on, whenever I stood, I fell. Then I stopped getting up. I was not, in my life, doing what was good. I was working at the time, finding excuses to be at work when I didn’t need to be. I found myself not wanting to get out of bed. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Friends and co-workers always asked, ‘Are you OK?’ Some days I stayed in my apartment all day with the lights off.

I quit my job. I broke up with my boyfriend. I cashed out my 401(k). I was getting into bad things. The company I was keeping was kind of risky. One night we were speeding down the road, and I tried to jump out of the car but those people grabbed me.

One day I got a call from the wife from the Fort Hood group. I told her that I didn’t want to be here. She said, ‘OK, I’ll come pick you up. I said, ‘No, I mean, I don’t want to live.’ She made some calls to this group called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Then I got a call from a woman with TAPS who told me that her brother died in the war. She asked me if I wanted to talk and if I needed help.

I said, ‘Yes, I want somebody to help me.’ I asked her if it ever goes away. Would I feel better? She told me no, it’s a long road, but there are people who will be there.

It’s not like you feel better in a few days or a week. I still had very low moments. I was in my apartment once just pitying myself looking at photos, wanting to die. I was drunk and passed out. When I woke up, there was a song on the radio that me and Freddy and Andrew used to pretend we were playing. Freddy and Andrew playing the guitar, me on drums. That made me call a counselor at the Veterans Affairs department in Austin, and I made my first appointment.

I met with her three times a week. It was awkward. I didn’t know what to say to her, and she didn’t seem to know what to say to me. I thought it was a waste of time so I called TAPS again. That worked. They got it. I just kept with it.

I got on Facebook and met other families who had lost in the way I had. I learned there was a whole world of families out there in tremendous pain, some of them who thought about suicide, who needed to talk to people like me.

The darkness eventually walked away from me. Actually, I can tell you it was a moment: I crossed the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon in 2009. Marines ran alongside me, chanting my brothers’ names. I had their pictures on my shirt. For those few seconds, I felt like the three of us were finally seen.

By Ashley Fantz