Kody Decker was 22 and serving in the Navy when he took his life last year. And on Memorial Day, his mother will go to a veterans cemetery to visit him, even though Decker never saw combat.
These deaths - which on average eclipsed military fatalities from hostile action and terrorism combined by about 251 to 149 annually over a 40-year period ending in 2021, according to Defense Casualty Analysis System data - aren’t always acknowledged in our nation’s Memorial Day rituals.
“I think they are the forgotten ones,” said Decker’s mother, Melissa Will. “It’s not combat. You know, we think of fallen heroes, dying in action. But they all still were serving their country.”
It’s impossible to know the role military service played in the deaths of 335 active-duty members who took their lives in 2021, or the 406 who died the same way the previous year.
It’s something Will wrestles with every day as she continues to go through everything her ebullient, charming son said and did in the final months of his life.
He struggled in boot camp, just like her older son, who also joined the Navy and still serves today. After Decker finished, he told his mom he was optimistic - “He found his family,” she said - and got glowing reports as he worked his way up the ranks.
But a tough commander kept breaking him down, forgetting the whole building-back-up part that’s supposed to follow, Will said. Despite having a loving wife, an 8-month-old son and a new passion for creative baking, he struggled with depression.
He sought help, but the Navy counseling sessions were short and seemingly ineffective, his mom said. He fit a pattern. And the military later admitted, in a scathing report released just this month, that it had let down sailors like Decker serving in Virginia.
Decker was one of a string of sailors stationed to maintenance or shore duty in Norfolk who died by suicide last year. In the much-anticipated report into these deaths, investigators condemned awful living and working conditions in these shipyards.
“The focus on the maintenance mission has degraded our ability to take care of our most junior and at-risk sailors,” said the investigating officer, Rear Adm. Bradley Dunham, in his report. “This was not one seminal event, decision or individual’s action, this was a series of actions and decisions shared by many that resulted in the wholly unnecessary conditions and challenges our sailors face.”
Sure, Memorial Day - for the folks who aren’t among the civilians seeing it as merely a long weekend of cookouts and cocktails - usually focuses on battlefield heroes and lives lost in combat.
The solemn wreath layings and somber color guard ceremonies have a familiar narrative about combat and battlefield honor.
But the sprawling military machine that makes the United States a global force yields sacrifices that are less cinematic.
Take for example accidental training deaths - like that of 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, a D.C.-raised Marine I have often written about - which also have outpaced combat deaths in recent years.
They, too, aren’t as quickly honored on this day of remembering. We don’t like pointing out how the military messed up on this national holiday.
With suicide, there remains a stigma. We all know that.
“Families of veterans who died by suicide likely may wonder if we’re guilty of ‘stolen valor’ when openly honoring them on Memorial Day,” Dean Lambert wrote last year in a Military Times opinion piece, as he honored his son, Adam Lambert, who took his own life in 2015, a year after returning home from serving in Afghanistan.
“It is a day set aside for Americans to honor military personnel who perish in our nation’s wars,” said Lambert, who found his son’s body dressed in desert combat fatigues, holding his dog tags in his left hand. “Our son didn’t die while he was serving in war, but a lot of the evidence shows he died because of what he experienced in war.”
America was spectacularly awakened to the military suicide crisis in 1937, when World War I veteran Harold B. Wobber jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco months after the world celebrated the opening of the longest suspension bridge.
Wobber was suffering from what was then called shell shock, and his treatments probably included electric shocks to the neck, cigarettes on the tongue and hot plates placed on the back. Back then, struggling veterans got shock therapy - and certainly no thought of honor on Memorial Day if they didn’t survive that cruelty.
We’re not much better today, offering combat veterans a complicated and inadequate network of mental health care that’s heavy on the “go ask for help” rhetoric and light on the ease of getting that help.
Will is always going to wonder how these failures influenced her loving, open son to abruptly take his own life, after showing no signs of escalating despair.
He even texted his mother before he died, telling her he was going to bring his latest creation - pumpkin snickerdoodles. Instead, he sent her a video suicide note.
Troops, veterans and family members experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.