From time to time, Allan, Debbie, and Abi Ward take a step back in time and reminisce about the precious jewel they lost.
They never thought their son and brother - Corporal Anthony Clay Ward - would join the service. Bothered by the events of 9/11/2001, he felt a tug to join the service.
He joined the Marines in 2004 and completed three deployments, the last to Iraq. In 2008, he returned to the states and seemed to jump right back into civilian life.
“He met a young lady and they were engaged to be married the following year and he was buying a house and doing very well,” recalls his father, Allan.
But there was one situation Clay just couldn't forget.
A few months after he left Iraq, four Marines were killed in the vehicle he had previously driven.
“He just firmly believed he was responsible and there was nothing we could do to convince him,” says his mother, Debbie.
For over a year, the situation plagued his mind. But there were other, more subtle changes as well.
“Like, he didn't like fireworks. He didn't like crowds,” recalls Debbie. “He would dodge things in the road like a paper bag. It was like he couldn't comprehend it was just a paper bag. It was like a danger so he'd dodge that.”
But of most concern was a topic many veterans talk about: Hearing demons over and over in his head.
In early June 2009, there were a couple of days in a row where Clay had mentioned hearing them.
“Later that Friday night, around midnight he called and I get the phone and he asked me some questions,” Allan recounts. “He said, 'Dad, can Christians be possessed by demons?' I said, 'Clay, you know we've been in church all our lives and that's a hard question to answer. We do believe while Christians may not be able to be possessed by demons, they can be influenced deeply by them.' And he said, 'Will you pray with me?'"
Remembering that moment, Allan breaks down in tears. He says he prayed and called his son the next morning. When he didn't get an answer, Allan went to Clay’s home.
That's when he learned Clay had killed himself. The coroner said he had died about eight hours before. His phone was next to his body. He'd taken his life just moments after that last conversation with his dad.
A recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs says 20 veterans a day commit suicide. And some studies say Alabama has one of the highest rates.
“We want to make sure they know there is another way,” says Melissa Evans, a Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Birmingham VA.
She says when doctors find a veteran who's determined to be high risk for suicide, they flag that patient's chart, alerting everyone to the situation.
They encourage those patients to meet with their therapist or psychiatrist once a week for the first 30 days, then once a month for the next 60 days.
“If they choose not to do that, then we'll make call contact with them, call them and try to get in touch with them,” Evans says.
If that doesn't work, they'll send certified letters, whatever it takes to let them know someone cares.
“I think the VA is doing a lot of new things, same day mental health access, increasing the number of responders at the Veterans Crisis Line,” says Evans.
She says their numbers show for those who take advantage of their services, the incident of suicide is about 12 percent less than the national average.
The Wards believe they are making a difference. And they, too, are trying to make a difference. It started with a call Debbie Ward got - a phone call received in 2014.
“One of the Marines thought that they should come to Alabama and visit our family and run six miles because it had been six years,” Debbie says.
But Debbie decided to make it bigger and created "Take The Reins Corporal Anthony Clay Ward Memorial Run."
The money raised goes to an equine therapy program offered at the Red Barn in Leeds that is specifically geared towards veterans.
In just two years, they've raised over $35,000.
“This has given them a place to have a reunion, given them a place to heal, we take a trip to the cemetery to visit,” says Debbie.
The Wards say they've gained a family larger than they could have ever imagined and helped others along the way.
But the void of Clay's life is still felt every day.
"When this happens, it's not just a news story, it's someone's child, brother, and fiancée. This is real," Debbie says.
According to the Veterans Crisis Line, veterans who are considering suicide often show signs of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and/or hopelessness, such as:
• Appearing sad or depressed most of the time
• Clinical depression: deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating—that doesn’t go away or continues to get worse
• Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep
• Neglecting personal welfare, deteriorating physical appearance
• Withdrawing from friends, family, and society, or sleeping all the time
• Losing interest in hobbies, work, school, or other things one used to care about
• Frequent and dramatic mood changes
• Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame
• Feelings of failure or decreased performance
• Feeling that life is not worth living, having no sense of purpose in life
• Talk about feeling trapped—like there is no way out of a situation
• Having feelings of desperation, and saying that there’s no solution to their problems
Their behavior may be dramatically different from their normal behavior, or they may appear to be actively contemplating or preparing for a suicidal act through behaviors such as:
• Performing poorly at work or school
• Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities—seemingly without thinking
• Showing violent behavior such as punching holes in walls, getting into fights or self-destructive violence; feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge
• Looking as though one has a “death wish,” tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving fast or running red lights
• Giving away prized possessions
• Putting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, and/or making out a will
• Seeking access to firearms, pills, or other means of harming oneself
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