On a cold, sunny day in January, Roy Velez pulls his white Ford pickup up to the Lubbock Area Veterans Memorial, a semi-circular black granite wall that recognizes those killed in action from World War I to the present. To earn a spot on the wall, officials say, soldiers “must give the supreme sacrifice by dying at the hands of the enemy.” Over a roaring wind, Roy recounts, not for the first time, the story of his elder son: In a bloody battle in Fallujah, Iraq, the enemy shot Freddy from behind, earning him a spot on the memorial that Roy now contemplates. One year and eight months later, in Afghanistan, Andrew Velez surrendered to some uncontrollable enemy, put an M-249 in his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.
Andrew’s name hasn’t been etched in black granite, but it has gained a spot on a list that’s growing at an alarming rate. A recent Defense Department study revealed that the suicide rate in the Army is the highest it’s been in 26 years. In 2001, Army suicides totaled about 50; in 2006, 102 soldiers killed themselves. Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, reported yearly suicide attempts by soldiers have jumped approximately sixfoldin 2007 there were 2,100. “The Army takes these numbers very seriously,” Army Surgeon General spokesperson Ritchie says. “And we’re trying to tackle the problem head-on.” Ritchie explains that the Army offers a variety of psychiatric help, from grief counselors to Combat Stress Control Teams, which visit soldiers in the field. But those efforts are useful only if soldiers wholike Andrewmay be suffering from PTSD or other problems are willing to ask for assistance, and risk appearing weak or unworthy of advancement.
Over the course of 20 months, Andrew Velez lost the brother he worshipped. He went to war in Afghanistan, and from halfway across the world he saw his wife slipping away and his family disintegrating. Could his death have been prevented if he’d swallowed his pride and asked for counseling? Would he have been less likely to pull the trigger if the Army hadn’t sent him to a war zone? Could mandatory therapy have saved him? The answer to all these questions is, of course, a resounding maybe.
Andrew and Freddy are buried side by side at Resthaven Memorial Park, a windswept spread of yellow grass set back from a mundane boulevard in Lubbock. There on a Tuesday at noon, Roy Velez stands next to Freddy’s headstone, a shiny granite square with gray engravinga testament to the brave soldier and warm young man that Freddy was. WARRIOR OF GOD. HUSBAND, SON AND BROTHER, it reads. It also quotes a passage from Romans 8:31 that Freddy was known to invoke: IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US? Veronica is Andrew’s next of kin and likely retains exclusive authority to choose a marker for his grave, which the Velez family says they’ve offered to purchase. Representatives of the cemetery have declined the family’s offer, saying that only the possessor of the certificate of interment rights can do this. They will not confirm or deny whether Veronica is that possessor. Whatever the truth, for unknown reasons a U.S. serviceman and father of three has no public memorial. There is no fancy chunk of granite for Andrew Velezjust a patch of dry dirt where his headstone should be.