Army Spc. Michael Wargo returned from military service in Afghanistan with “terrific survivor guilt” and PTSD, according to his parents. He took his life eight years later, leaving them a long video message in which he described his pain and how he suffered in silence.

Shared from The Morning Call: 

When Michael Wargo returned from war in the Middle East, he looked fine. But he wasn’t.

He had endured a lot. Like many soldiers, he suffered in silence. He didn’t want anyone to know how troubled he was.

Eight years later, he took his life.

The suicide rate among veterans is high. They make up 8.3 percent of the adult population and account for 14.3 percent of adult suicides, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day.

Wargo’s parents, Mike and Sarah Wargo of Mahoning Township, are on a mission of their own now: to reduce that number. They are using their son’s story to illustrate the need for more to be done to stop veterans from losing “the war at home.”

The Wargos reached out to me after reading a column I wrote about the VA not spending the bulk of the money it allotted for suicide prevention advertising last year.

The VA said that happened because leadership was in flux and the suicide prevention program was being realigned. It said changes since have been made and nearly twice as much is planned for suicide prevention outreach this year.

The Wargos are sharing their son’s story even though he asked them not to.

In a 4½-hour video he left them on the day he died in 2013, Michael shared in great detail some of the things he witnessed in Afghanistan, particularly the deaths of 10 members of his unit, and how that tormented him. He asked his parents not to tell others that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because he said it’s considered a sign of weakness and he didn’t want it to reflect poorly on soldiers.

“Michael made that video so we wouldn’t ask why he died,” Sarah Wargo said. “That was a gift. Unfortunately, we couldn’t promise him that we wouldn’t share it.”

“You have to come forward because like Michael said in that video, it’s looked upon as a weakness and we have to change that,” Mike Wargo said. “If the veteran is suffering and struggling, they need to reach out. It’s not a weakness. Sometimes you just can’t overcome it yourself. You need additional help.”

MIke and Sarah Wargo holding photos of their son, Michael.

They told me their son went to great lengths to hide his PTSD. It wasn’t diagnosed until after his death, by a forensic psychiatrist they shared the video with.

Based on his diagnosis, they filed a claim for VA survivor benefits for Michael’s daughter and sent the agency the video as evidence of his condition. They said the VA ruled his death was service-related and that Michael’s daughter was entitled to benefits including medical coverage, a monthly stipend and money for college.

“Michael wanted to hide the fact that he had PTSD so much, but yet he gave us the evidence,” Mike Wargo said.

“We wanted someone with authority to see this because there’s clues in there as to what happened,” Sarah Wargo said. “And it’s happening to other soldiers and veterans.”

Michael didn’t always intend to join the Army. He graduated from Lehighton Area High School and went to college to become a doctor, then decided he wanted to teach science instead.

After 9/11, he enlisted in the Army and became a nuclear biological and chemical specialist. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003.

He was there for 10 months. After returning, his life slowly deteriorated, according to his parents.

He bounced from job to job, moving from teaching to computer science, in a position where he could work alone from home. His parents said he walked away from his marriage, though he remained deeply involved in his young daughter’s life. And he stayed on good terms with his former wife, his college sweetheart, helping with plumbing problems and cutting her lawn.

“He still wanted to be involved but he was just so messed up inside,” Mike Wargo said.

His parents knew something was wrong but they couldn’t get him to open up. He was buried on his 37th birthday.

All they can do now is try to help others who may be going through the same thing.

They work with various veterans causes, including Valor Clinic in Brodheadsville, a foundation that offers assistance to veterans, including support for those suffering from post traumatic stress injuries. They participate in food and clothing drives and are involved in plans to build a “memorial mile” in Kidder Township to honor veterans who die by suicide.

They believe that preventing veteran suicide takes a communitywide effort that extends beyond the government. But they also would like to see the government do more.

“Our government spends so much money and time to train our soldiers to go over there, but when they come back, it’s a pat on the back,” Mike Wargo said.

He said there needs to be follow-up after the exit interview that soldiers go through, to look for problems that veterans such as Michael may not be willing to report themselves.

“What we need to do maybe six months later, and this has to be mandatory … go back and interview a soldier again,” he said. “And interview his spouse and his family and see how the answers have changed … at that point, you’re going to uncover the real truth.”

 

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