Gregg - 'Chancellor's Story'

by Gregg Keesling

Gregg - 'Chancellor's Story'

Gregg and Jannett with a portrait of their son, Chance.

USA Today recently reported that "soldiers killed themselves at the rate of one per day in June 2010, making it the worst month on record for Army suicides. There were 32 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers in June 2010, including 21 among active-duty troops and 11 among National Guard or Reserve forces, according to Army statistics." It appears that 2010 is on pace to break the record of the more than 300 military suicides that occurred in 2009. My son was one such statistic.

Our handsome boy entered active duty service in October 2003 at the young age of 18. He joined up while still in high school in response to the patriotic fever that had swept the country after 9/11. I was proud that he joined up, though my wife, Jannett, and I had many reservations. In December 2005, Chance was deployed to Iraq, where he served as equipment operator and gunner on tactical convoys. He completed his four-year enlistment in late 2007 and left the army, turning down a $27,000 reenlistment bonus. His marriage broke up during his deployment and impacted him greatly. He had been on suicide watch late in his first deployment. His battle buddies recognized he was in trouble after he threw his wedding ring into the Tigris River upon realizing his marriage was over. His gun was taken away for 10 days. We were so happy when he came home, left the enlisted army, got a job, a new girlfriend and began to rebuild his life. The following year was a very good one for Chance and our family. He was strong and healthy -- he could lift 300 pounds and run a mile in under six minutes.

However, when he signed up in 2003, his commitment also included a four-year stint in the Ready Reserves. So in 2008 he began fulfilling his weekend warrior requirements with a small 10-man, Indiana-based unit. That small group of Reservists was called up and on his second deployment Chance was assigned to the 300 man 961st Engineer Company from Sharonville, Ohio, a subordinate unit of Task Force 844 based in Baghdad and deployed in April 2009. They had only spent several weeks together before going off to war. We have subsequently learned that the American Portability Act prevents battlefield trauma information from a soldier's enlisted time from being shared
with his reserve unit.

His unit returned from Iraq in April 2010. Chancellor Keesling was the only death of any kind suffered by the 961st.

Our son died by suicide in a latrine at Camp Striker in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 19, 2009. He was 25 years old. His awards and decorations included the Army Achievement Medal and the National Defense Service Medal. The 15-6 Military Investigation into his death revealed that Chancellor was a good soldier and one who was loved by his unit. He was in charge of the physical training (PT) and his battle buddies and leadership told us stories of Chance's exploits motivating other soldiers to train and become more fit. There was great shock among his commander and immediate superiors to learn that he was under suicide watch in 2007. No one knew, and the only way they could have known was if Chance told them.

When the American Portability Act was passed, reservist soldiers were not used in war the way they are now. Often when a soldier returned from war and joined up with the Reserves his Reserve Commander could also be his employer. It was thought that battle field trauma, like Chance experienced, was best left within the Department of Veterans Affairs to prevent employers and others in the community for discriminating against the returning veterans. Gen. George Casey wrote in late 2009 that it was Chance's responsibility to tell his new unit of any mental health problems. We believe that is an especially tough burden to place on soldiers. Chance told us it was impossible to do that because he would not be believed and that it would appear was just trying to get out of being deployed. We encouraged him to talk with the Chaplain, but I believe that is very hard to do too, as it shows weakness and above all else, our son wanted to be strong!

"

We are determined to wrest purpose and meaning from our profound tragedy by bringing the issue of military suicide and all suicides to the forefront of national attention.

"

After his death, we learned that there is a long standing United States policy that prevents the president or top ranking Pentagon brass to acknowledge the families whose child dies by suicide while at war as he would if the death were for any other reason. That really shocked me. The lack of acknowledgment and condolences has left us with an emotional vacuum and a feeling that we his family have somehow less of a sacrifice. Our son's military service since 2003 and through two deployments to Iraq is at best underappreciated and at worst, it's treated as nonexistent and completely unacknowledged. These are feelings my family and friends are struggling with one year after his death.

He succumbed to an illness as much as someone who dies in the war theater from food poisoning or infection, and we believe that the president should send condolences and express the country's appreciation to families like ours. We feel the commander-in-chief could also encourage Congress to look at the American Portability Act and more forcefully encourage current efforts underway by the military to thwart the growing suicide crisis. Congress persons Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) have authorized a bipartisan resolution calling on the president to change the policy. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told a CNN reporter in November 2009 that the president was reviewing this policy that he had inherited from previous administrations. During the nine months this review has been underway, hundreds more soldiers have died by suicide. Jannett and I know the pain, suffering and humiliation these families struggle with.

Less than 1 percent of our country serves in the military. Regardless of how a soldier dies at war, unless there are exigent circumstances, the families of these soldiers who make a significant sacrifice for our country deserve solace and acknowledgment from the president and top military brass. My wife and I have begun an effort to get the president to change the policy. We hope you might support our efforts.

Chancellor's death was both senseless and preventable. We are determined to wrest purpose and meaning from our profound tragedy by bringing the issue of military suicide and all suicides to the forefront of national attention. Our goal is this: that no other soldier's life should be so suddenly abbreviated, and that no other community of friends and family need endure the unique form of suffering a suicide leaves in its wake.

Update: In early August my wife received a telephone call from military personnel telling her that the policy was not the Pentagon's; it was White House policy. The military person who called her said with a name like Chancellor, did you have a name you called him. She told him we called him Chance. On Aug. 23, we received two condolence letters, one from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and the other from Army Secretary John McHugh. They both used Chance in the letters, so we feel the phone call and the letters are connected. We are unclear whether this signals a change in Pentagon policy, but the letters were very nice, they spoke about our son's work and dedication as a soldier and his commitment to our country. Both my wife and I were very pleased to get them.

Gregg lives in Indianapolis.