Special Report: KSNT investigates Fort Riley deaths

FORT RILEY, Kan. (KSNT) – They survived the war overseas, but the real battle is at home. Eight Fort Riley soldiers have died since July.

KSNT News takes you through the gates of Fort Riley to ask the tough questions and tell you what’s still left unanswered.

Suicide is something Fort Riley veteran Michael Fellman knows all too well.

In 2015 he drove to Lake Shawnee in his new truck, with the windows down, to end his life.

“Nothing major happened, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Fellman said.

He wrote goodbye letters to his loved ones, engraved the bullet he was going to use, and had his finger on the trigger.

“Well over a year, I looked okay on the outside, but really hurt on the inside,” he said.

A stranger walked by and asked if he was okay, that’s what he said saved his life.

But he has seven friends – who are all soldiers – who didn’t have that same saving grace.

“It’s another thing to survive combat, and then come home and have that person take their life,” said Fellman.

“The ones that you really have to be concerned about are the ones who don’t say anything, you just find those folks,” Geary County Sheriff Tony Wolf said. “The ones who actually have an outcry for help, those are the ones you can help.”

In 2006 the Army’s suicide rate topped the nation’s.

Since then the rate has stabilized to about 120 suicides every year.

“This is a problem across the United States, and it just so happens were experiencing quite a little bit of it here, and I want to try and figure out what’s going on,” Sheriff Wolf said.

It’s an issue that’s been kept quiet and had KSNT News asking questions before the trend began.

After attending ceremony after ceremony at Fort Riley – being told no leader could talk – we finally sat down with Commanding General Martin to publicly talk about the silent epidemic for the very first time.

“What do you tell these families that are affected by suicide who are desperate for answers?” KSNT News reporter Molly Patt asked.

“I can’t imagine how hard that would be, what I tell them is we will do whatever we can to understand exactly why the unique set of circumstances led to a soldier deciding to end his or her life,” Major General Martin said.

Sartorius Swift is a widow to Staff Sergeant Garett Swift. She is still waiting – 58 days later – for answers to her husband’s death.

“They haven’t shared anything with me, I feel like they would be more willing to us answers, and they just aren’t,” Sartorius Swift said.

“What do you think is that common denominator surrounding your community members that are attempting suicide?” KSNT News reporter Molly Patt asked.

“In the end, the one thing that’s a thread of continuity is that the stress was so overwhelming that that particular person, no longer valued their future and decided to end their opportunity to be there for the future,” said Major General Martin.

Fort Riley does have resources on base for those who are experiencing challenges with thier mental health.

“Fort Riley has a very robust program of resources, community, subject matter experts, enablers, who are able to reach out to our soldiers, and we are continuing to do so. It’s not a new effort, it’s our continual efforts that we have here at Fort Riley to mitigate risk of loss of life,” Fort Riley Suicide Prevention Manager Ted Parks said.

But why aren’t those resources being used?

“Traditionally there is a stigma attached with behavioral health, but we try to lower that,” Irwin Army Hospital Dr. Joseph Carmona said.

Family members of Fort Riley soldiers are asking the same question.

“It doesn’t make sense. Something is not going right, and all the support that the soldiers have and should be given, it doesn’t make sense that this rising number of suicide is happening,” said Sartorius Swift.

Swift says it isn’t fair to her or her two sons that the Army is leaving her in the dark.

“I feel like the Army not only failed him, but failed his family.”

When taking a closer look into the pasts of those who died – KSNT News found that all eight soldiers have connections to each other.

Three soldiers were in the 1st armored brigade combat team.

Three soldiers were in the 2nd armored brigade combat team.

Two of the soldiers were in the 1st combat aviation brigade.

The 82nd engineer battalion had two of the eight soldiers.

The 1st battalion and the 5th artillery regiment had two soldiers as well.

Some experts say deployments aren’t the only cause of soldier suicide – but seven of the Fort Riley soldiers who have died have deployments in common.

Four of the soldiers deployed in South Korea.

Two soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and two to Iraq – all at separate times.

Finally, two of the soldiers went to theatre in Kuwait.

On September 22, Major General Martin held a division-wide stand-down; meaning everyone stopped what they were doing to listen on a loud speaker.

He read a letter he wrote called “The Value of Life.”

To read the letter click here.

“I decided it was time to take a look at the status quo and change the status quo and I did that,” Major General Martin said.

From the feedback he asked of his community members – he created a master plan for curbing the mental health challenges surrounding the Army.

Some of the plan includes developing leadership skills for officers, providing soldiers training schedules at least six weeks in advance, and requiring leaders to visit their soldiers at home – not as an inspection – but to see how they are doing.

To read the entire plan click here.

“We need them all, so if they need help, they need to ask for help, because asking for help is a sign of strength and courage,” said Major General Martin.

Michael Fellman says even with the stigma of getting help, it is the key to saving your life.

“I look back and tell people, it’s the worst and the best day of my life, it was the worst because I almost killed myself, but it was the best day because I have a new beginning in life,” Fellman said.

The silence of soldier suicide and mental health has now been broken for a conversation.

KSNT News filed requests for the autopsies of the soldiers and was only given one, that one is the only death that has been ruled a suicide. The other autopsies are sealed as they are still under investigation.

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