Chesapeake, Va. - The leading cause of death for active duty troops for the past two years is not from combat but suicide, according to a recent report released by the Pentagon.
Now one former Sailor in Chesapeake is telling the story of her husband’s battle with depression that ended in suicide, with hopes sharing her pain will save lives.
In one moment, everything Lou-Ann Ellingson envisioned for her future was gone.
"Whatever pain and suffering that he was feeling and despair, he already knew that he was not going to be able to make it through it,” she says.
David Ellingson was a Master Chief Petty Officer in his 28th year in the Navy and preparing for retirement. Lou-Ann, a retired chief petty officer, first met David in 1995 when the two were both deployed to Iceland. She says they were walking in the snow – when he saved her life.
“I went into a deep hole that was over six feet and all I remember is he reached in and grabbed me and carried me back to the barracks, literally,” she says. “We became good friends and a couple years later we got married.”
Flash forward to 2008: David had come back from a deployment.
“Everything seemed normal to me although I did see signs of Dave having moodiness but he had a high stress job” Lou-Ann says.
David was in his own emotional hole: So deeply depressed, Lou-Ann says he was out of reach. She says he methodically planned the months leading up to his death.
“He had cleaned out his locker at work,” she says. “It was premeditated. He had all the Christmas presents, and this was November, done and wrapped underneath the couch in our office.”
Two weeks before he died, David insisted on having family portraits taken, something Lou-Ann says in the past he never wanted.
On a cold Friday night in November Lou-Ann lost her husband to suicide.
“I went up the stairs and I just had this really sick feeling in my stomach for some reason,” she says. “I knocked on the bathroom door and there wasn't any answer. I opened the door and he had shot himself. He was in the corner of the shower.”
Looking back, Lou-Ann says there were signs, dots that she didn't connect.
“It was something that I didn't see that was in my own house,” she says.
“There are very difficult emotions that come with the job and persona of being military,” says Chris Gilchrist, founder of the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support group.
For several years Gilchrist has worked alongside Lou-Ann and the Navy to raise awareness for depression.
“Depression is a treatable disease and suicide is a preventable tragedy,” Gilchrist says.
Pentagon officials say suicides among active duty sailors this year are up compared to last year. As of last month, 49 sailors have taken their lives, compared to 36 in the same time period for 2013. According to a Pentagon medical journal, suicide was the top cause of death for troops in 2012 and 2013. For both years, suicide surpassed war, cancer, heart disease, homicide and transportation accidents for troops’ means of dying.
Lou-Ann says it’s not that the Navy isn't trying; she says nearly every command now has a suicide prevention coordinator. What needs to change, Gilchrist says, is the stigma still associated with mental illness in the military.
“As far as being vulnerable, as far as the emotionality, it’s hard to integrate that in with the role of leadership and you’re resilient and you’re strong and you’re brave,” she says.
Lou-Ann now speaks publicly about her pain. It’s never easy, but she hopes just like her husband she can pull someone out of a dark hole.
“It takes something out of me but then it gives me something back also,” Lou-Ann says.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is just a call or click away. Call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (option 1) or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net.
For more information on the Navy’s ongoing efforts to prevent suicide and support Every Sailor, Every Day, visit www.suicide.navy.mil.