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A soldier's grim homecoming

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLYDE, N.C. - The old man looks down at the grave, so fresh it has no marker and the squares of sod have not yet grown together. He has come to visit his only grandson.

Rayburn Seeley last set foot on this spot Jan. 22, the day Army Spc. Jeremy S. Seeley was buried with military honors outside his hometown at age 28.

Now the grandfather gives an impromptu salute, standing motionless against a backdrop of clouds streaming past the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"We fought in different wars," said the proud veteran of World War II, "but we was still comrades in arms."

Jeremy Seeley survived Iraq but not the homecoming. Now his grandfather can't help wondering if the war played a part in his death, much as Vietnam sent Jeremy's father, Zane, into a downward spiral 30 years ago.

Jeremy Seeley was found dead of an apparent suicide at the Shoney's Inn in Clarksville, Tenn., not far from the 101st Airborne Division's base at Fort Campbell, Ky. Behind the bolted door with the "Do not disturb" sign, police found jugs of Pepsi, antifreeze and Drain Pro by the bed. Autopsy results are incomplete.

It was Jan. 17 - three years to the day after he joined the Army.

Ray Seeley, a hale 78, has heard about the suicides of those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. To some, his grandson's death fits a disturbing pattern of soldiers making it out of Iraq only to die after coming home.

The Army says 21 soldiers have killed themselves in Iraq or Kuwait since the war began last March, a rate officials concede is higher than that in the overall Army population. But the figure does not include nearly 70 suicides in the United States after a tour in Iraq, according to the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans advocacy group.

Stephen Robinson, an Army veteran who heads the Silver Spring-based group, says the military needs to do more for returning soldiers.

"These are people of character that are losing all hope and taking this very unique step of ending their life," he said. "We owe it to these guys to say, 'Hey, we know what you're thinking and know where you've been. You can survive this, there is no reason to lose hope.'"

The suicides, whether in the combat zone or on the home front, have occurred despite an intense effort by the military to alleviate combat stress and prevent soldier's from taking their own lives. The task is not easy, some in the Army say, because war can mask problems, and it is impossible to get inside someone else's head.

The Army sent a mental health team to Iraq last fall to assess its measures. Yesterday, the Army indefinitely postponed its report.

"Unfortunately, we cannot prevent all suicides," said Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd. She said she was not authorized to give out the number of post-Iraq suicides but asserted that it is "small."

'A normal guy'

In Seeley's case, it seems nobody saw any indications of major problems, either in Iraq or at Fort Campbell.

Lt. Col. Richard Carlson, the commander of Seeley's unit, choked back tears in Iraq last month when he bid farewell to departing troops of his 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. He told them not to do anything "stupid" back home, soldiers recall, and said Seeley might still be alive if only he had reached out to someone.

Those who knew Seeley are baffled by his death. They say he had seemed normal - quiet and kind - apparently trapping inside whatever demons he had.

"I'm still in shock about it," said Spc. Josh Brown, who served with him.

The Shoney's desk clerk said Seeley looked fine when he prepaid for his last two nights in Room 106.

"He seemed like a normal guy who came back from Iraq and wanted to relax," said Nicole James, one of the last to encounter him. "He didn't seem upset about anything. He was a very, very polite man."

A soldier's story

Last March, as his unit waited in the desert at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait, Seeley drew midnight guard duty on Tower 6. By chance, he encountered a Sun reporter and wound up in an article on how troops were coping with boredom.

He said little at first, peppering his comments with "sir." When asked about his background, he began to warm up. Staring through the darkness toward Iraq, he slowly told a story of a young man in search of purpose and satisfaction.

Jeremy Shannon Seeley was raised in Canton, N.C., a town of 4,000 west of Asheville. The Blue Ridge Paper Products plant sends plumes of white steam over the mountains that ring the town and emits a smell akin to boiled cabbage.

Seeley, a gangly 6-foot-3, went to Pisgah High School, home of the Bears.

"He was quiet and shy, just an extremely nice guy," recalled classmate Carrie Hill.

That night on Tower 6, Seeley said, "I floated from job to job, trying to find myself."

He worked at a Hardee's and at two McDonald's restaurants. He tried the trucking life after graduating from Alliance Tractor-Trailer Training Center in Asheville. He finished with a class average of 92.4, near the top of his class, said the center's Steve Clark.

"He was an excellent student," Clark said. "Didn't make any noise, always did what was required of him."

Seeley liked watching satellite television in his truck at night, but not the driving.

"I was sitting behind the wheel of a transfer truck, driving coast to coast. You're sitting behind the same steering wheel looking at the same roads day after day," he said.

Duty in Iraq

Needing "a change," he joined the Army in early 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks almost guaranteed there would be war. When the fighting began in Iraq, his job was to help fire mortars, and his gun team lobbed 60 mm shells near the city of Najaf.

In late April, the 3rd Battalion moved north to Mosul. With major combat operations over, Seeley became a truck driver again. He escorted Bravo Company's commander and had to keep the Humvee clean and in working order.

It was a tall order. Sand and dirt took a toll on the engines, and convoys frequently came under enemy fire and risked hitting roadside bombs when they left camp, said 1st Sgt. Todd Svenson, the company's lead noncommissioned officer.

Still, Svenson said, "I don't remember any instance where he was exposed to anything super-traumatic."

To him, the absence of visible problems amounts to near-proof that Seeley's death did not stem from the war.

"I don't think it had anything to do with being in Iraq per se," Svenson said. "If he had a problem eating at him stateside, he got a reprieve when he was deployed and had to deal with it again stateside."

After Seeley returned home, "he didn't have his support group" of fellow soldiers, Svenson said.

But if something was eating at him, no soldier knew about it.

"For the two years I knew him, the dude kept to himself," said Brown, a member of his mortar team.

Unlike most soldiers, Seeley almost never talked about women, or his family back in Canton. When Brown invited him to parties, Seeley begged off, saying he didn't want to impose.

Brown did not know, for instance, that Seeley had gotten close to marriage at least once, only to have it fall apart for reasons he did not want to go into on Tower 6.

Sgt. Robert Hites, the third member of Seeley's gun team, calls him "a simple man" but one who could occasionally shock the group by rattling off some obscure scientific trivia he'd heard on the Discovery Channel.

The battalion's chaplain, Sungnam Kim, saw that Seeley did not have a lot of friends. He brought him snacks and invited him to attend worship services as a way to open a dialogue.

"I believe I was very close to him," Kim said. "I loved him and he loved me." He wondered aloud why Seeley did not talk to him about anything bothering him.

On Tower 6 that night, Seeley had said he might stay in the Army if he could become a full-time truck driver. Or he might leave the Army and work for the autism society in his hometown, where he said he once volunteered.

In early July, he still seemed unsure whether he wanted to remain a soldier.

"One minute he didn't really want to, the next he just re-enlisted and he was happy about it," Brown said.

On the Fourth of July, Seeley signed up for another three-year hitch, which included a stint in Germany, a coveted duty station. When Seeley left Iraq in early November, he returned to Fort Campbell for a break between assignments.

Before leaving Iraq, like all departing soldiers, he would have been evaluated for signs of physical or psychological problems. Another assessment would have followed at Fort Campbell, including a one-on-one session with a behavioral health expert.

If he had asked for help - from paying bills to talking through stress - he could have received it immediately, said Dr. Bret Logan, a psychiatrist and deputy commander of Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell.

Six counseling sessions outside the Army system also would be available, Logan said.

But Robinson, the veterans advocate, said top generals need to state publicly that a soldier will not be labeled a coward for seeking such assistance.

"You can have all the programs you want," Robinson said. "If soldiers don't recognize there is no stigma attached to it, if it's not a career-killer, they're useless."

It is unclear whether Seeley sought or received such help. The Army says it cannot discuss his case because of confidentiality rules; Seeley's friends and family do not know.

Brown last talked to Seeley before Christmas. "He seemed fine," Brown said. "He seemed like Seeley."

Seeley's family did not know that he had returned to the United States. His grandfather said Seeley's mother, Debra Rector Guffey, had gotten occasional voice-mail messages but he never left his phone number. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

No one answered

On Jan. 13, Seeley checked in at the Shoney's Inn just off the interstate in Clarksville, Tenn. He told the desk clerk he planned to stay four nights. The hotel manager, Dinesh Patel, saw him carrying a 12-pack of Budweiser one night. On Jan. 15, Seeley paid desk clerk Nicole James for the final two nights.

Checkout time at Shoney's is 11 a.m. When Seeley failed to appear on the 17th, a Saturday, Patel called the room three times. Then he knocked. Then he called police.

The two Clarksville officers who entered the room saw a half-eaten pizza from Pizza Hut and beer cans on the coffee table. They also saw, according to a police report, "two cutting instruments" and a football pump with liquid inside.

Next to the table were jugs of Pepsi, antifreeze and Drain Pro. In North Carolina, antifreeze is a well-known way to get rid of unwanted pests. It supposedly tastes good and is sure to kill any animal that laps it up.

On the bed lay an unclothed Seeley. In the dry language of the police report, "The male appeared to be deceased."

What officers did not find, according to the report, was a suicide note or any other evidence that might answer the biggest question: Why?

A funeral in Canton

Five days later, mourners packed the Crawford-Ray Funeral Home chapel on Main Street in Canton. Five soldiers and the wives of two others still in Iraq made the trip from Fort Campbell.

Seeley's mother and sister, Kyla Renee Tolley, spoke movingly of his bravery, say those who attended. At the graveside service at Crawford-Ray Memorial Gardens, down the road in Clyde, an honor guard from Fort Bragg, N.C., fired a salute. A bugler played taps.

It was a sunny, cold day. The wind blew so hard that the American flag fluttered off Seeley's casket. No one mentioned suicide.

Last week, Ray Seeley still didn't want to talk much about suicide. Until he hears it officially, he will consider the cause of death unknown, whatever his heart tells him.

Until the medical examiner's office can complete toxicology tests, Clarksville police are calling Seeley's case an open death investigation, said spokesman Lt. Geno Grubbs.

Last week a neighbor walked over to Ray Seeley's modest brick home on Wesley Street and gently asked if Jeremy died in combat. His grandfather shook his head no but did not go into detail. In this town, as in many places, the stigma of suicide endures.

"You'll find that with mountain people," said Ray Seeley, a native of Canton who delivered mail for 36 years. "If it turns out that way, there might be a bit of shame."

The scenes of war

The death has hit him hard. He reflects back 60 years to World War II, when he spent nearly four years in the Navy on destroyer escort ships, first in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and then in the Pacific.

He saw many men Jeremy's age or younger die. He told how his ship arrived on the scene not long after the USS Underhill was split in half by a Japanese torpedo and bloated corpses bobbed in the water. He remembers when a bunkmate went "stark raving mad" and had to be taken ashore.

If Jeremy Seeley's death was a suicide, his grandfather is inclined to think Iraq might have affected him badly.

"There's a time after you come back, you're disturbed," he said. "All of us went through it. I went through it myself."

What he cannot figure out is how he came through it but others did not - such as his grandson, "just beginning life," and his son Zane.

Zane Seeley, Jeremy's father, enlisted in the Marines during the Vietnam War and came home "different." He soon left Canton and drifted, popping up in Biloxi, Miss., and Key West, Fla.

Ray Seeley doesn't know what became of his son, who would be 53, or whether Zane is still alive.

Even so, when he learned that his grandson was joining the service, Ray Seeley felt glad. He said he hoped he would make a career of the military.

He saw it as a way for Jeremy, then 25, to find the direction that eluded Zane.

That was something Jeremy Seeley clearly craved. On Tower 6, he was asked whether he had finally found himself by becoming a soldier in the Army.

"In some ways I have, but in other ways I'm still searching," Seeley replied after a moment's reflection. "But that's basically the quest for life."

An article yesterday about a soldier's suicide misstated a veterans group's estimate of how many veterans of the Iraq war have killed themselves in the United States. The National Gulf War Resource Center says that seven to 10 of 67 stateside suicides by military personnel last year involved Iraq war veterans, and that the number could be higher. The Army says 21 soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq or Kuwait but has not said how many did so after leaving the war theater.
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