From the outside, Johny Sanchez seemed to have a happy life, with the love and support of a large, close-knit family and many friends.
But then, two months ago, his mother Zoila Frias-Ramos received a frantic call in the middle of the night from Sanchez's wife with the tragic news that he had taken his own life.
"I can't understand and won't understand why he did that," Frias-Ramos said.
Sanchez, 33, a specialist in the Army during the Iraq War, is one of two members of the military with local ties who recently took their own lives. Their suicides reflect a growing national trend that the armed services are still struggling to comprehend.
In addition to Sanchez, Christopher John Twomey, known as "C.J.," passed away April 15. He lived in Keene, but his grandparents are from Haverhill.
Twomey, a 1st Class Airman with the Air Force, was honorably discharged after sustaining a leg injury while deployed. In April, he was told his injury would be a liability and was barred from rejoining his unit overseas and offered other options to serve. His family said he committed suicide the next day.
According to statistics released by the Army, there were 32 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers in June, the worst month on record. The Army counted 160 suicides last year, the highest total ever. The rate was above that of the civilian population for the second year in a row.
"War is devastating, to say the least," said Joseph Cotton, executive director of The Psychological Center in Lawrence. "People see things, hear things, and it even affects people who read about it. Those who are in combat or even if they did not experience war, the stresses in our world today are overwhelming. They are in deep depression and see no hope."
Daniel Cotnoir, a sergeant in the Marines, experienced this firsthand when three men in his unit killed themselves while he was serving in Iraq in 2004.
"It has to do with the guilt factor that you survived and your buddy didn't," said Cotnoir, who runs the Racicot Funeral Home in Lawrence with his family.
For soldiers who commit suicide after coming home, Cotnoir and others said there are various factors leading up to it, including suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty readjusting to civilian life, not being able to find a job due to the crumbling economy, mounting family problems, and not getting the support they need.
Cotnoir said many soldiers — either on the battlefront or at home — don't bother to seek help.
"They come back physically and mentally broken," he said. "If they have a broken limb, it is easier to see a doctor, but it's harder to see a psychologist because you don't want to appear weak."
Understanding the problem
Francisco Urena, Lawrence's director of veterans services, said another issue contributing to the number of suicides is the several tours of duties soldiers are doing these days as the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on.
He said the time away from home strains the family ties, and once soldiers return to the United States, they may face marital problems and difficulty finding a job.
The Rev. Alexander Daley, a retired priest who was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, said this generation is more adrift, often coming back to a single-parent home, usually without any siblings with whom they can share.
"It's the coming back here and not being understood and not having the help they need," said Daley, a former priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in North Andover. "Suicide is an option for these people. It's the estrangement, the physical and psychological help they need and can't get that drives one to suicide."
"It's a bit of an enigma," added the Rev. Marc Bishop, a Navy chaplain who served in Iraq in 2006. "There's a lack of support when they get back, and support they don't seek. They feel there's no one to share their stories with.
"When you watch the war on TV, you don't hear the sounds, smell the odors and live in the expectation that your friends are counting on you," said Bishop, a former pastor at Our Lady of Good Council Church in Methuen. "That type of stress that goes on for months and seemingly years takes an unbelievable toll physically, never mind psychologically and on your soul."
A red flag
The alarming trend of military suicides is raising a red flag around the country and throughout the Merrimack Valley.
The Army reportedly plans to hire additional staff for mental health services and implement a five-year study on soldier suicide which includes proposals for projects to improve diagnosis and treatment. It also recently unveiled a new training video aimed at combatting suicides.
The situation is so dire that Deborah Helms, head of the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, a suicide prevention hot line, said they are considering starting a program just for soldiers. Presently, people who call the Samaritans do not have to give their name or occupation.
Helms said veterans show the same signs as any other people who want to end their lives. These include talking or writing about death, feeling hopeless, trapped, anxious, agitated or unable to sleep, and having dramatic mood swings.
"The war has gone on for so long, and they serve multiple tours, they worry more about what is going on at home," she said. "It's outrageous to us that they go overseas to protect us, come back and commit suicide. This is a serious situation that tugs at your heartstrings."
Helms said suicide is a permanent problem to a temporary solution, which in turn creates bigger problems for the survivors.
"It's a horrible, horrible grief," she said. "For a lot of them, it's more difficult than any sudden death, primarily due to the stigma of suicide. The survivor deals with guilt, shame, embarrassment and isolation."
"There's no easy way to deal with suicide," added Rev. Bishop. "You have to deal with the anger, the pain and hardship and grieve. You have to understand that you didn't cause anything, move on and forgive them."
He said the best way to understand a soldier's suicide is to see it as a casualty.
"This was a person in intense pain that needs compassion, not judgement," Bishop said.
Religion plays 'powerful role'
Religious organizations are also getting involved in welcoming veterans and letting them know how spirituality and medicine can help to heal post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton offers a two-week program for chaplains in the Air Force, Army and Navy. And last month, Harvard Medical School offered a one-day workshop titled, "Healing Combat Veterans and their Families: Exploring the Powerful Connections Between Medicine and Spirituality."
Cotton, of The Psychological Center, said returning soldiers need someone to listen to them and be attentive.
"The clergy have a powerful role in the healing process of a soldier because they are people who have strong beliefs and are highly trusted," he said. "For the soldier, it's all about accepting what happened and letting go. The issue is gaining skills and forgiveness, which are highly valued by the world's main religions."
Sanchez and Twomey's families have been open about their sons' suicides. At the Memorial Day service at Bellevue Cemetery in Lawrence, Sanchez's family wore T-shirts bearing his face and his date of birth and death.
Twomey's family participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's "Out of the Darkness" walk in Boston in June.
"Trusting in the Lord is my only way of finding comfort," Sanchez's mother said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
How to help someone considering suicide
Talk openly about suicide
Allow them to express their feelings, listen, and accept them
Don't judge whether suicide is right or wrong or their feelings are good or bad
Show interest and support
Look for help
Tell them about the resources available, including people and agencies specializing in crisis and suicide intervention
Where to get help
Veterans suicide prevention hot line, 1-800-273-8255
Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, 1-866-912-4673 (toll free) or 978-327-6607