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Stress and Suicide in the Corps

Deployments, combat, family, and finances can all create a great strain on Marines and their families. So far in 2012, 24 Marines have succumbed to that stress and committed suicide and there have also been 100 reported suicide attempts. Get the help that you and your family needs before it's too late. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Priscilla Sneden)

After Barbara Christianson got off work on Jan. 24, she picked up her 4-year-old grandson Nate, ran by the grocery store and McDonald’s, and headed home. Christianson’s neighbor hated when anyone parked in the street in front of her house, but that day as Christianson pulled into the driveway of her rambler home, she noticed a blue van parked there.

As soon as Christianson parked her truck, her son-in-law came out to unbuckle Nate. He seemed in a hurry and said someone was there to see her and nodded toward the van, where she could make out people inside. Christianson’s first thought was that it was the Internal Revenue Service. Then she saw two individuals dressed in green military uniforms get out of the van and begin walking up the driveway toward her.

When Christianson saw their faces, she knew they were there to report her son’s death. She kept yelling at them, “Don’t tell me my son is dead! Don’t tell me my son is dead!”

But her only son was dead – and not from a bullet or an improvised explosive device.

Christianson screamed, ‘No!’ and dropped to her knees.

Although Cpl. Gavin Kopponen had returned from Afghanistan months ago and was only months away from completing his time in the Marine Corps, he had given his life battling the enemies within.

“My world crumbled that day,” Christianson said. “And it’s still not back together. He was my only son. He meant the world to me. I didn’t know what went wrong. We made it through Afghanistan. Why now? What happened?”

When her son came home from his deployment with 2nd Marine Division at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Christianson knew she had lost her little boy and that her son was troubled.

The things Kopponen had done and seen in Afghanistan had changed him – but he refused to talk about it.

| More: How to support a family member with PTSD. |

“Gavin was tough and never showed his pain to anyone,” Christianson said. “He said he would take the shit he saw in Afghanistan with him to his grave – and he did.”

When he did open up to his girlfriend about some of the horrors he saw in Afghanistan, he broke down in tears and his whole body shook. Finally, his girlfriend begged him to stop because she couldn’t take it anymore. It troubled him the most at night; he saw the faces of those he killed when he closed his eyes.

Being a Marine had been Kopponen’s life goal and, as the end of his active service neared, he didn’t know what he was going to do after the Corps. On top of all that, personal problems crippled Kopponen even more. The pain was too much for him. The 25-year-old took his life in his barracks room Jan. 24, 2012.

“When I think of Gavin, I hurt because I know the pain he must have felt was incredible,” Barbara said. “It was so very bad that he couldn’t live with it anymore.”

Halfway through its eleventh year of uninterrupted war, the Marine Corps continues to see the negative effects of deployments and other hardships on its Marines and their families. So far this year, 24 Marines have committed suicide and 100 suicide attempts were reported, according to Headquarters Marine Corps Suicide Prevention Program statistics.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other combat-related stresses are common among service members returning from deployments. The Marine Corps offers multiple programs to help families and Marines cope with these stresses properly. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Scott Schmidt)

But Marines facing stress, whether combat-related or personal in nature, are not alone. Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other mental combat injuries are prevalent among service members returning from deployment. The Marine Corps offers multiple programs such as stress management, family support groups and counseling to help Marines struggling with these stresses get the assistance they need. The key, though, is that these valuable resources can only help the Marines and families who use them.

Help protect yourself and your family by getting the help you need … before it’s too late.

“I couldn’t save my son,” Christianson said. “But I know what it feels like to have lost him. I don’t want any mother to ever feel that pain, so if I can save someone’s life, then I would do it in a heartbeat. If I had had a clue that Gavin was going to take his life, I would have driven all night to stop it. I would have done anything to prevent his death … anything.”

As Kopponen’s would-have-been 26th birthday on Aug. 9 nears, Christianson, the rest of Kopponen’s family, and his girlfriend are left with doubts and questions, as well as haunting guilt that they somehow could have prevented the death of this young Marine.

“They say his suffering is over and I believe it is,” Christianson said. “But my suffering began with the two Marines walking up my driveway. Every day is a struggle for me. Life doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. I don’t enjoy listening to the birds or seeing the sunrise. My sun set on Jan. 24 and it will never rise again. I implore Marines to please get help. Call someone: a friend, a neighbor, or anyone and everyone. Don’t give up! There are people who care about you and love you. When you give up, you don’t just take your own life, but you take theirs as well.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with stress, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, contact the anonymous Marine Corps DSTRESS line at 1-877-476-7734.

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  • Anonymus

    I have recently herd what is happening to you and I want to wish you the best. You are one of the bravest, nicest, courageous person I have ever met. I admire you and I hope you continue on to live because you are capable of doing great things.

    Thanks for inspiring me and changing my life forever. I will never forget you.

  • Anonymous

    MSgt Ryan Love was my best friend. He took his life on July 18th 2012. I was in Afghanistan when this happened. I wasn’t able to process or deal with this pain until now. I’ve been back for several months now. Ryan I have had many dreams and nightmares about this. I miss you so much. I wish I could have been there for you that day. My son Conor misses you too. We wish you were still with us. They say time makes the pain less. I don’t believe that. I’m just now able to deal with this because I was pretty busy in Afghanistan. One of my marines was shot on that day as well. I think of you daily. “Effin A bud I tell you what. Your high as a hawks nest now”
    -Sean

  • Amanda Kopponen

    Merry Christmas Gavin… This year sucks because last year I could’ve been with you mom, and the rest of the family. I miss you…

  • http://www.facebook.com/cathy.s.mosteller Cathy Sweat Mosteller

    Exactly your words cost my son his life on March 7,2008..his Sgt/Major gave him hell that morning for more than two hours due to marrying the wrong girl 6 months earlier and all she wanted was money and no husband. Had his CO followed Marine Corp policy, (never leave anyone in emotional distress alone) my son would be alive…after degrading him for 2 hours..they sent him home..alone ..to get paperwork..home..with a loaded shotgun. God tried to send help..but his roommate only got the key in the door when he took the shot. He was troubled since returning from deployment but they asked “do you really have issues or are you just a p….boy”..so no one asks again..he married someone he had only known for 6 weeks.lived with her for 3 months before she left and constantly called his CO for money. ..she is now serving time in prison for defrauding the gov of over $35,000 in his name after his death. We could put her away but we can’t touch the Marine Corp…wish we could..I would shout it from the highest mountain top what they do to these kids.

  • Akopponen
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NI7STEU33BRYLUOHISU73RAZFI Kimmy Kimkim

    I am an atheist but I still bless you because there needs to be people that CARE about our troops and what they’re going through…

  • http://www.facebook.com/rolando.jeter.9 Rolando Jeter

    I served from 1983 to 1991 I live on Quincy MA want to talk about anything do so on FB

  • Akopponen

    Suicide Awareness Day ♥September 10th, Write “Love” On your wrist or wear something yellow to show your support for anyone who has Thought of, Attempted, Or succeeded in taking their own life. . Copy and paste for everyone to see.. R.I.P Gavin I love & miss you brother. I pray every night that you find peace. <3

  • kristy

    i am crying right now!i am so sorry! my son is also a marine!~ i wish your son was still here,

  • Concerned Dad

    My son is extremely depressed. I called this distress line number to seek some kind of intervention. He is angry and depressed and I am scared for him. I am afraid that this could actually make him worse, but I am not sure what else to do. I also contacted the FRO and asked them to have his Gunny talk to him. He recently received an NJP for a relatively minor infraction and he lost a stripe.

    Some of the issue is that he is being harassed by his coworkers over his NJP. When he asked to go to medical; he was harassed again. I am afraid that he will explode and hurt himself or someone else if they do not stop this nonsense. I respect the Marine Corps, but I am very unhappy with how the Marines treat their younger enlisted troops. An NJP is not cause for harassment or ridicule. It is the punishment and that should be the end of it.

  • Justscopin

    You nailed it, Major. After 13 years as an active duty Marine and five more as a civil servant I’m dismayed at the pervasive “man up” mindset within the infantry community… and it’s as bad if not worse amongst the supporting elements. Until we decide as leaders to embrace the issue, we’re not going to defeat it. Until captains and colonels and gunnery sergeants and first sergeants address their OWN combat stress related issues, lieutenants and sergeants and corporals won’t learn to accept or address their own.  It’s systemic.  And it completely contradicts “Semper Fi.” 

  • Lochiel99

    If you want to deal with stress and suicide in the Corps you must first deal with commands that either fail to recognise the symptoms or who ignore them when they are brought to light. For example:
    MP Sgt goes to his warrant officer complaining of violent nightmares and is told to drink a pint of vodka every night and it will go away. Two DUIs later he is medically retired.
    Corpsman with 5th Marines goes to his BN Surgeon complaining of nightmares, paranoia, and is told he just needs to adjust.
    Marine goes to treatment and his therapist is told by hus BN XO (1/5, Dec 2010) that PTSD is a bunch of BS.
    I could go on. As a company commander i saw it with my own eyes. Unless company commanders, battalion commanders, and regimental commanders are punished for these acts it will not change.
    Furthermore, Marines need an investigative agency to go to seperate from the IG, because they dont trust the IG. I have heard this many times. We need people who understand PTSD and TBI.
    Maj, USMC(RET)

  • T_bear223

    Love him, let him know how very much you care. Let him know how very much I care. Let him know that from reading the article about my Son, how much that would destroy your world. My Son, Gavin’s birthday was yesterday. It was a heartbreaking day for me and my family, but Gavin’s twin sister had the hardest time. Our family is in incredible pain and has been since Gavin’s death. Do what you can for your son, but please tell him not to give up.

  • T_bear223

    I had to write to you concerning your cousin. Please, please, find a way for him to get help. Try reasoning, love, try going WITH him. As far as his comment, Marines don’t have problems? Even the best built machines need tweaking. There is no shame. I do not know you, but please, if all else fails ask him to do it for me, or for his Marine brother, my Son, who died from PTSD. Let him know us civilians care. I CARE.

    Barb Christianson

  • ACM

    My cousin is a former Marine and served in Kuwait and Somalia.  I know it’s been a while, but I’m convinced he suffers from PTSD. I once had him stay over at my house and heard yelling from his room in the middle of the night.  When I went to check on him, he was standing at attention and yelling.  This still happens to this day, he’s suffered from alcoholism and even has a messed up shoulder compliments of his service.  I myself am a former Army Combat Medic and have tried to get him to seek help, but he won’t because he doesn’t believe he has a problem and says he would feel ashamed because “Marines don’t have problems.”  Not sure what else to do at this point, but I feel he needs help.  He’s never told me what happened, but I can only imagine having been in similar situations.

  • Leighann Erdman

    Forgive me for a duplicate since my first one had typos.
    Alex Dziobek, you have amazing maturity and give me great hope for the future.  Thank you.

  • Sgtg4422001

    Outstanding blog on a very important topic. I applaud your approach to this topic. So glad this is an issue addressed by our leaders and professionals. 

  • ~Cris~

    I have twins sons who are  20 years old & they are being sworn in this Friday as Marines. They are my only children, I will be praying for you that a peace and comfort will come over you & you will begin to get through each day with God’s grace…Know that I will be thinking and praying for you everyday. Cris