Last year 349 active-duty members of the U.S. military took their own lives, nearly one per day. After two tours in Iraq, Army Maj. Jeff Hall might have been a similar statistic. His first deployment was thrilling. “We did a lot of action in 2003,” says Hall, 42. “I was doing what I was born to do.” But by the end of his second tour, he had seen more than 100 Iraqis and Americans killed. The Jeff who returned “wasn’t the same man,” says Sheri, 44, his wife of 22 years. Now the couple, who have two daughters in college, offer a rare look inside a veteran’s depression and what helped. Hall has since counseled hundreds of soldiers. “For a lot of our guys,” he says, “I don’t think the real war has begun.”
SHERI: I was just glad he was alive, but the second I saw him at the airport, I knew something wasn’t right.
JEFF: The girls waited to see their daddy, and I couldn’t feel a thing. No emotion. I felt lost in a fog, like I had 800 television sets in my head and no way to shut them off. I was never so alive as around the death and craziness. Home, I have Walmart. We’re not going to downtown Baghdad; we’re going to the mall.
SHERI: Jeff is a pretty easygoing guy, but he’d become so angry. I was always trying to keep the peace, which really wears you down. I’d tell our two girls [Tami, then 14; Courtney, then 13], “If Dad asks you to do something, for God’s sake don’t whine. Just do it.” We were all walking on eggshells.
JEFF: I began training soldiers for battlefield warfare, and I’d sometimes get so angry that my eyes would turn black. I later learned about pupils dilating in “fight or flight” mode. I was a scary-looking dude. I was out of control but I couldn’t get help. I told myself, “If somebody thinks I’m having problems, they’re not going to let me be in charge of anything.”
SHERI: I was scared that if I told somebody, they might take him away. I kept thinking that I was the only spouse of a soldier like this and I needed to find a way to fix it.
JEFF: The dreams had begun by this point. Things like floating on a lake on my stomach, and I’d pull [human] arms-reaching out, not connected to anything-out of the water and put them on my back. In 2007 I started taking flying lessons, the only thing that made my adrenaline pump. If I crashed, I crashed. A year later I lost interest in flying, and I started sitting in the backyard with my 9-mm pistol. I’d place it up under my chin, hoping I’d have the courage to pull the trigger. You think that [your loved ones] would be better off if I wasn’t here.
SHERI: I’d drive the girls to school and cry all the way home. In the afternoon I’d pick them up and run in the house before them to make sure he hadn’t done anything while I was gone. He kept telling me to leave, but I knew what would happen if I did.
JEFF: One morning I lay on the floor in the kitchen in my uniform and couldn’t get up. I’d hit rock bottom. “I’ve got to make this end,” I kept thinking. “I’m not going to be able to win this. It’s getting worse.”
SHERI: I’m an Army wife; I don’t complain. And I don’t go to the commander for anything. But I finally told Jeff I was going to call. Jeff said, “My career is over.” When I got the colonel on the phone, I said, “We have to do something. Jeff isn’t well.” He said the opposite of what Jeff feared most. He said, “We’re going to fix this.”
JEFF: In July 2008 I got into a program at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. I thought I was going to the crazy house. With the first doctor, we had our little war, but he was the perfect person for me. I had pains in my foot and back that I never realized. They weren’t just sitting me on the couch to “talk to Dr. Freud.” They laid out the path: how you got here, and this is why you act the way you do.
SHERI: He said, “I don’t want to die anymore, and I want you to come with me.” That was huge because he had been pushing me away. We would spend all day in different therapies, then do yoga, then go back to the hotel. Some days we would be laughing, joking. Other times we would be so emotionally drained we would just crash.
JEFF: They made me listen to what Sheri had gone through. It was shocking. My pain levels were down, so I could actually hear her. But things went south too. You thought you were on your way to healing, and all hell would break loose again. There was still a lot of emotional bleeding that had to happen. I found myself starting to get pissed off again. But I’m still seeing a therapist, and they’ve given me the tools to help me. When I get angry, I pull out my pencils and start doing doodles and lose myself for a little while to calm down. I came back home excited. I know for a fact now that this didn’t jeopardize my career. Will I command troops again? No. I’ve had to come to grips with that. I would be a liability. I’m exactly where I need to be to finish my career. I can look at a formation and pick out the people who are having trouble, because I can see myself in them. They always say, “I thought I was the only one.”