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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. A new report out this week focuses on a very serious problem facing the U.S. military: suicide. The report is titled “Losing the Battle”. It highlights not only the personal costs to families, but also the risks for the military and the nation. We’re going to speak with one of the report’s authors in a few minutes. First, though, we’re going to hear one soldier’s story. Colin Kilcoyne from Northborough, Massachusetts joined the military when he was 17 years old; he volunteered for the infantry, and in 2007 he was deployed to Iraq as part of President Bush’s surge. But when Colin returned 15 months later, he was a changed man. He was troubled by what he had seen and done. In January of this year Colin took his life. He was just 25 years old. Colin’s mother Kathy is in the studio with us now. Thank you for coming in. And I am eager to hear what Colin was like when he was young before he went to Iraq. It sounds like he was a pretty ambitious guy to join the military at age 17.
Kathy Kilcoyne: He always liked the military and he was always fascinated by history and he constantly read about. You know, we’d have to tell him to turn off the History Channel. He was one of those kids who was never in front of other programs. It was like, œJust turn off the History Channel for a while. But the thing is, he loved history, he loved reenacting, it was a big part of his life.
Mullins: Reenacting being?
Kilcoyne: Actually, he was a British footguard, one of her Majesty’s first footguards. He started that when he was 12 years old. He used to reenact living history. He had a wonderful time with it and he made great friends in it and a lot of them ended up in the military with him. He continued on to National Guards with a member Chris Cunningham. They ended up in Iraq together, too. They ended up going full military.
Mullins: I’ve got to say that it sounds like he was a pretty serious guy, but I’ve seen the pictures. He was pretty funny.
Kilcoyne: Oh, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was a character. I mean, he was your normal kid, I mean, he was not a saint. You know, he was a good person, had a wonderful heart.
Mullins: Not a saint meaning?
Kilcoyne: He would get in trouble; he was a devil at times, and he would joke. He was an all-around boy. He loved life. He had a wonderful time.
Mullins: One of the things that guys and women that go over there want immediately is the Combat Medal.
Mullins: Especially for infantry. And he and his comrades got it after the first night. They first landed¦
Kilcoyne: They landed in a firefight. Yes, a direct fire. And he was very proud of that medal. In fact, to tell you the truth, that’s the only military item we buried him with, was his Combat Infantry Badge.
Mullins: Tell us what happened that night?
Kilcoyne: You mean the first night when they landed? They were in a firefight and he was a machine gunner at that point, and what he did was he saw was explosive devices were being planted, and so he was actually in a battle and he did fire and kill the man that was planting the explosives. And the next day they had to go off base and justify why it was done. He actually said he went and got the shovel and brought it back and said this is why he was killing them. But one of the things that Colin told me at the time was, later when he was home, was he felt very badly because when he went out the first man he killed he said, “Mom, I felt so bad. It wasn’t a clean shot.” He said, “That poor guy didn’t die right away.” He felt so badly about that thinking he must have suffered that night. And he said to me later that it was a big regret of his. He said, “ wish I got a clean hit.” And I never understood what he meant at the time and then he just said to me, “Mom, he bled to death.” You know, and even though it was enemy forces that were shooting at him, he still felt bad about thinking the other way. What this man went through. And one of the other great things he talked about later was he felt terrible about the children of the parents he had killed. He said, in terms of how they survive in that dark, poor country.
Mullins: Colin came back to Fort Stewart on July 4th of 2008. How about in terms of the help they needed psychiatrically, mental health counseling? Was any available there?
Kilcoyne: Not at the time. What they did was they brought these kids home and guys that had a place or had family off base were allowed to go off base, and these kids were left here to sort of unstructured, no schedule for a few days, and unfortunately, what I think it was was self-medicating with beer, booze, whatever, in terms of they were supposed to take classes the following week and they referred to them all jokingly as ‘Don’t Beat Your Wife Classes’. And what it was is it was just supposed to be post-traumatic stress, guidance counseling, and they spoke about things, but the one thing that they were told was “Don’t forget, if you want to stay in the army and you want to be an officer and be promoted, these things don’t look good on your record, so don’t”
Mullins: You mean getting counseling?
Kilcoyne: Getting counseling.
Mullins: Before the day that Colin took his life this past January was there any kind of spiral down or did this seem to come out of nowhere for you?
Kilcoyne: The cycles were off and on. I mean, in terms of, at one point, a few months before, what he had said was, he worked as a mechanic days, and what he said was, “My days are great. I just can’t stand the nights. I can’t take the nightmares.” So as far as when he was busy and working, things were better, and when he kept focused. But he had moments where he’d get a thing on his Facebook or whatever, and he’d go into a spiral and you’d see, “Oh, my God. It was the anniversary of when the four guys got killed. I can’t believe I forgot it was today. How could I ever forget? It was the worst day!” And when he was with my son in law at that point he mentioned, “Well, I think that’s a sign of improvement, Coll, that you didn’t think about it right away today. That shows improvement.” And he said, “No, no one ever should forget a day like that.” So that went into a spiral at that point, when he remembered the four friends that were killed.
Mullins: Where – do you mind if I ask how he died?
Kilcoyne: He shot himself in the lower level of Caitlin’s home. She went out that night with her husband and he had been living with his sister. She was wonderful to him, and he lived there, had a great time. He loved them. He stayed there basically for the last year, a full year. He just moved in with her and they sort of joked about it. They gave my husband a surprise birthday party, sort of told her that day when it was a year ago that summer, “Oh, by the way, Cate, I think I’m going to give my formal notice. I’m moving into your basement today.” And she had a living room downstairs and a bedroom and things like that, and that’s where he stayed.
Mullins: How are you and your husband doing now?
Kilcoyne: You have good days and you have bad days. I mean, in terms of we have a lot of wonderful memories, and like I said, the last two years were a blessing; we were lucky to have them. And that gives us strength. But the frustration level when the President’s speaking on TV and talking about different things and I just think, “Oh, you don’t have a clue. You know, they don’t understand.” Or they talk about look at these vets, these poor guys. Even when I go down the street and see the homeless now, I keep looking and thinking we have a whole new generation of homeless vets coming up. We’re looking at our friends that were in Vietnam still struggling. Or at Colin’s wake we had soldiers come that were Green Berets in Vietnam, men that we really respect, and they said, “We’ve been getting counseling for the last few years,” and these were guys that served 30 years ago.
Mullins: Does it get you upset that you make the sacrifice he made the sacrifice? Your family has and others don’t?
Kilcoyne: Well, I don’t think it has upset me as much as the fact that I think we’ve gotten to realize that it was a privilege in some ways. That he was that good, and that we really didn’t quite understand the depth of his loyalty at times. But I think in terms of that’s what makes this country continue. It’s the boys just like him. All of his friends were the same way. They all volunteered for the infantry. This is not a draft army. They all knew what they were walking into and they accepted it. At times they were angry at how things were going, but it was their choice. And I’m sure if we could do it all over again, it would be the exact same path.
Mullins: Okay. Kathy Kilcoyne whose son Colin served 15 months in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. He took his life in January of this year. It was very good to have you here and talk to you. Thank you.
Kilcoyne: Oh, thank you for listening. Thank you, Lisa.
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