'Fell through the cracks': Could Longview soldier's death have been avoided?

2012-10-13T22:00:00Z 2012-10-18T17:03:57Z 'Fell through the cracks': Could Longview soldier's death have been avoided?By Erik Olson / The Daily News Longview Daily News
October 13, 2012 10:00 pm  • 

U.S. Army investigators have ruled that Spc. Mikayla Bragg of Longview died by her own hand in the line of duty in a guard tower last December in Afghanistan, where she was stationed despite a lengthy history of mental-health problems never communicated to her supervisors.

Bragg's commanding officers in Afghanistan were never told she had made an apparent previous suicide attempt while serving stateside in Fort Knox, even though officials at the Kentucky base knew of it, according to an Army investigation into her death.

Her supervisors in Afghanistan also never knew that she had spent 45 days in an Army hospital at Fort Knox for mental-health treatment just months before she deployed. She had been hospitalized after telling doctors she wanted to crash a car and injure herself, according to the report.

And they didn't know she had weaned herself off her prescribed anti-anxiety medication in the summer of 2011 to satisfy requirements to deploy. That was six months before she shot and killed herself while stationed alone in a guard tower on Dec. 21 at Forward Operating Base Salerno, according to the Army investigation. She was Cowlitz County's first casualty of war since Vietnam.

"It is my opinion that (Bragg) 'fell through the cracks' created by the lack of information sharing that had been repeatedly requested and denied," a brigade behavioral health officer stationed at Camp Salerno wrote to investigators in a report obtained by The Daily News through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

The report on Bragg's death offers insights into a difficult problem for the military: Suicides are rising to alarming levels even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Veterans' groups say the military needs to do more to help soldiers who are struggling with long deployments, the stress of being away from home and pre-existing psychological trauma.

And while the report is critical of the military's handling of Bragg's case, it also portrays a young soldier determined to serve. Bragg, 20, volunteered at battalion fundraising events, referred herself to Fort Knox counselors when necessary, and, once she deployed, contributed and fit in immediately with a new group of soldiers, according to various accounts cited in the Army report.

Bragg's father, Steve Bragg of Longview, has served as a spokesman for the family. He has seen the report and has chosen not to comment.

"The Army's mismanagement of Mikayla was so egregious this story needed to be told," said Rick Parrish, publisher of The Daily News. "I promised Steve Bragg we would deal with this story in a very forthright and sensitive manner, and I think we've done so. Mikayla is a hero to all of us."

Was death avoidable?

The 135-page report, known as a 15-6 investigation to determine the facts of the case, included written statements from Bragg's fellow soldiers and commanders in Afghanistan, mental-health counselors and Army officials at Fort Knox. All names except for Bragg's were blacked out in the report. Capt. Brett C. Shepard, an attorney with of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps, signed the report.

The report does not say if anyone would face discipline in relation to Bragg's death. The investigators made three recommendations to the Army:

• Mental-health providers stateside should share more information about high-risk soldiers with mental-health providers in war zones. Camp Salerno's behavioral health officer said she had been unable to get mental-health records for Bragg and other formerly nondeployable soldiers because of privacy laws.

• Commanders should develop better procedures to ensure personnel data is not lost while transferring soldiers between units.

• No soldier, regardless of gender, should be stationed in a guard tower alone.

In the report, Army investigators said commanders at Fort Knox failed to properly track Bragg as a "high-risk" soldier (one who could potentially hurt herself or others) before she was cleared to deploy to Afghanistan. Her death may not have been prevented, but she may have been better able to cope if she continued counseling and other services while stationed overseas, according to the report.

"I found out after her death she had been seen (at Fort Knox) for issues like this. Of course the information was never provided to her commander (in Afghanistan). ... Real effective policy they have in place," a frustrated Army captain wrote in the report.

By all accounts, Bragg never indicated in Afghanistan that she was considering suicide, according to interviews with fellow soldiers. About a month before she died, she told a fellow soldier in an Internet chat that she had been sexually assaulted by an Afghan civilian contractor while on base, according to the report. Bragg did not report this incident to her superiors, according to the investigator.

One section of the report raises the possibility that Bragg may have informed Army doctors of sexual assaults she experienced prior to her enlistment. An unnamed investigating officer comments that "Given Spc. Bragg's past history of sexual assaults before joining the Army, this event may have been the trigger which ultimately led to her suicide," but he provided no additional elaboration.

Investigators ruled Bragg died "in the line of duty," which means the military is treating her death the same way as those killed by enemy fire. Her family is eligible for the same survivor benefits and she is afforded the same honors in death as other soldiers, military officials said.

Once news of Bragg's death broke in December, the community threw its support behind her family. Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered flags statewide to be flown at half-mast in January, and a private group raised money this summer to build a statue in Bragg's honor at her alma mater, Mark Morris High School.

A public memorial was held in Kelso, and she was buried at Tahoma National Ceremony in Kent.

'Eager to deploy'

Bragg joined the Army in 2008 after graduating from Mark Morris High School. She completed basic training at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., and arrived at Fort Knox as a member of Echo Company in May 2010. Over the next year, she was moved back and forth to the rear detachment, which is reserved for nondeployable soldiers, a half-dozen times because of medical and mental health problems, according to the report.

Army investigators said Bragg apparently attempted suicide while at Fort Knox by drinking a caustic substance in her barracks in October 2010. She spent nearly a month in the Lincoln Trail Behavioral Health Center at Fort Knox undergoing treatment. A week after she returned to duty in December, she was readmitted to the center because she had passed out eight times after refusing to eat for four days, according to the report.

At this point, Bragg's commanders began to pursue a Chapter 5-17 to remove her from the Army because of her struggles. In response, Bragg weaned herself off her prescribed Valium for anti-anxiety, continued to meet with counselors and obtained a waiver to deploy in the fall of 2011 — about a year after the suicide attempt, according to the report. Fort Knox behavioral officers and commanders said she was not a complicated problem who drained the unit's resources and that she was no longer considered a high-risk soldier.

"Spc. Bragg appeared eager and genuinely motivated to deploy," an Army captain wrote.

After receiving a U.S. Central Command waiver, she deployed to Afghanistan in September 2011 with a different company. A company typically has between 80 and 200 soldiers.

While in Afghanistan, Bragg showed no indications she was having problems, according to Army interviews with nearly two dozen of her fellow soldiers. All said she was a good soldier and exhibited no suicidal tendencies, and she had been promoted twice to specialist while in Afghanistan. She completed the Army's suicide prevention training in November 2011 — mandatory for all soldiers — and attended additional classes designed to help intervene in other soldiers' suicide attempts, according to the report.

According to the report, she even bought a plane ticket and planned to come home during her first leave of absence, scheduled for early 2012.

Bragg was a qualified sharpshooter and a motor transportation operator. Before she died, she was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the War on Terrorism Service Medal.

"The unit seemed to have no problems with Spc. Bragg. Everyone seemed to enjoy being around Bragg. ... She fit right in quickly and became part of the family," a private first-class in Afghanistan wrote.

"She was funny, hyper, caring, thoughtful. She remembered that I liked Mountain Dew, so she brought some to (the) tower," another fellow soldier wrote.

A couple of her closer friends said she had mentioned in passing her stay in the treatment center at Fort Knox. Others questioned why military brass stateside allowed her to deploy, given her history, according to the report.

"I am now aware that Spc. Bragg may have tried to commit suicide ... while with Echo Company. If this is the case, I really don't understand why she was simply moved to another battalion," a first lieutenant in Afghanistan wrote.

A public affairs officer at Fort Knox referred a Daily News reporter to Fort Riley, the division headquarters, for comment. Maj. Deborah Crowley, Fort Riley's assistant chief of behavioral health, said soldiers usually sit out an entire 18-month deployment rotation if they are deemed unfit to go to war. Rarely are soldiers like Bragg allowed to join their company late once it already has been deployed, and their commanders in Afghanistan should be alerted if they need additional treatment and counseling, Crowley said in a written statement.

On guard alone

According to the report, the behavioral health officer for the Third Brigade First Infantry unit at Fort Knox, which included Bragg, failed in multiple attempts to obtain mental-health records from doctors at Fort Knox. The officer first requested records of all soldiers who had undergone mental-health counseling in November 2009, saying she wanted to ensure soldiers at risk continued to receive counseling and other care while on deployment, according to the report.

The officer said her requests were repeatedly denied, and doctors cited federal health privacy laws, according to the report.

The officer said she only learned of Bragg's mental-health history after her death, and she believes that additional treatment could have helped her cope better in Afghanistan, according to the report.

"It is always difficult to say if an event such as this could have been prevented, as hindsight is always 20/20. ... However, the information should have been provided regarding this soldier and coordination of care should have transpired between Fort Knox Behavioral Health and myself in order to insure continuity of care, and to insure that the soldier was well informed with how to access care in theater," the officer wrote.

The investigating officer also criticized Army commanders for allowing Bragg to occupy the guard tower alone. Normally, base commanders require two soldiers be assigned to tower duty and they don't allow females to be stationed alone in towers with males to avoid sexual assaults, according to the report. The report also states that Bragg only took two rounds of ammunition with her instead of 210 rounds, as required — something that should have been checked by commanders before she assumed duty.

A suicide every other day

As American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wrapping up, suicides among active-duty soldiers are accelerating, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Defense.

Through August, the Army reported 131 active-duty soldiers committed suicide this year or are suspected to have committed suicide. Of those, 13 soldiers were deployed at the time they died, Army officials said. The Army has the largest presence in Afghanistan and is the only branch to regularly report suicide statistics.

At the current pace, 196 soldiers will have taken their own lives by the end of this year — about one every two days. That's an 18 percent increase from 2011, Army officials said. Army soldier suicides have risen every year since 2009.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army's vice chief of staff, told The Associated Press in August.

"That being said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills," added Austin, who is spearheading Army efforts to halt the surge in suicides.

On Sept. 27, the Army held a servicewide "stand down," where soldiers put aside regular duties to undergo suicide prevention training.

Nevertheless, veterans groups say the military needs to better encourage soldiers to seek help if they're suffering from depression or considering suicide. Too often, soldiers worry that seeking assistance is a sign of weakness that will hurt their careers, veterans' groups say.

"There's still a really strong stigma in the military not to ask people for help. Some people are really open to it, but overall, it's not promoted," said Belle Landau, executive director of the Portland-based Returning Veterans Project, a nonprofit that provides counseling and other services for returning veterans.

For this current generation of soldiers, the rates of post traumatic stress disorder are rising to 20 percent or 30 percent, Landau said. For women, traumatic incidents such as sexual assault are far too common and can trigger PTSD, she said.

"Trauma upon trauma doesn't make you more resilient. It can make you less resilient," she said.

For the veteran population, suicides are under-reported, but counselors are seeing preliminary evidence that rates are lowered for people who seek help and don't try to hide their suicidal thoughts, said Aimee Johnson, suicide prevention coordinator of mental health division of the Portland Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

"We're hoping that our work and outreach is minimizing that stigma," she said.

For Bragg's fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, her death was difficult to understand because she was performing so well, according to the report.

"She was amazingly hilarious. She was always positive and happy. She was the best wingman, always adding onto jokes and laughing with everyone. Very dependable and a great soldier," a corporal who served with Bragg wrote after her death.

"It doesn't make any sense."

Copyright 2015 Longview Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(32) Comments

  1. Retired Navy
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    Retired Navy - October 14, 2012 11:59 am
    What "doesn't make any sense" is that you ran this story at all. Wasn't Mr. Bragg's comment, "No comment until ALL investigations are complete" in order to gather ALL information? Yet the publisher decided that "this story needed to be told". You failed to mention that ALL investigations are NOT complete as of this date. I hope this article does not shed a negative light on Mikayla's short life or make the community upset. She was a wonderful person who is missed Daily by Family and Friends!
  2. askwhy
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    askwhy - October 14, 2012 1:59 pm
    Her manner of death in NO way brings dishonor to her. TDN is doing the right thing here by shining the light on the real failure here: That of the Army. Mental health should be taken as seriously as any other form of illness. Specialist Bragg was a victim of negligence on the part of the Army Medical Corps. We are sending our troops into impossible situations and failing to appropriately protect them from the inevitable emotional fallout. Her death is a tragedy.
  3. DawgMan
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    DawgMan - October 14, 2012 4:11 pm
    The family asked for this story not to be published, at least until all investigations were complete. There are parts of this story that close friends and family of Kayla have been shielded from due to the graphic nature. However, TDN would much rather sell a couple papers than respect the wishes of a victims family. This is not journalism, this by definition is sensationalism.
  4. gillnetter mole
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    gillnetter mole - October 14, 2012 5:06 pm
    this just another reason the daily news sucks ! this need never have been put in the paper ..get some real juornalistic morals for once. Ever since you bought this paper from the mclelands you have ruined it !
  5. cowlitz88
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    cowlitz88 - October 14, 2012 6:25 pm
    Perhaps the military could have done more to prevent this tragedy. However, when her parents have chosen not to comment, The Daily News should not turn this tragedy into something that borders on tabloid journalism.
  6. gillnetter mole
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    gillnetter mole - October 14, 2012 6:36 pm
    absolutely correct..Retired Navy it is to bad the tdn has to stoop so low.. .this is none of the publics bussiness
  7. Pain in the Neck
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    Pain in the Neck - October 14, 2012 7:56 pm
    Once again. Shame on you Daily News. I am the Vet that raised over $6,000 To place the Memorial at Mark Morris High School. Don't you think Mikayla's family has been through enough? I don't care how she was taken from us. She was over there putting her life on the line daily. She is and always will be a HERO. My Hero. RIP Mikayla. You Are Loved. ALLONS
  8. loretta
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    loretta - October 15, 2012 8:39 am
    This is a sad story that needed to be told. TDN did a good job in the way they handled it.
  9. Kbragg
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    Kbragg - October 15, 2012 2:31 pm
    No, this story did not need to be told and they did not do a great job in the way they handled it. We as a family asked for people to keep their mouths shut until the investigation's were complete, in which they are not. This information could all change when maybe another item in the investigation pops up, what then? Are they going to write another article on how they screwed up and should have waited? The investigation itself has already changed from we first found out. As her sister, this is
  10. Kbragg
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    Kbragg - October 15, 2012 2:32 pm
    another hurtful thing that media can do. Think about the family. Us. Everyday. Living through this, everyday. For everyone who even reads this, think about that.
  11. JPJP
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    JPJP - October 15, 2012 4:09 pm
    As I read the article all I could think is how hurtful this must be for your family. Given the circumstances of this tragedy I can only wonder how this doesn't fall under the umbrella of patient confidentiality. The one thing I learned during my time in the service is that the service truly does not care about you as an individual. Saw it around me every day, experienced it firsthand.
  12. JPJP
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    JPJP - October 15, 2012 4:09 pm
    What I have learned over the years reading The Daily News is that they as an organization are numb to the human condition and deaf to their audience.

    Do your best to make peace with your loss and know that the thoughts of the good people of Cowlitz County are with you and your family.
  13. Kbragg
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    Kbragg - October 15, 2012 5:03 pm
    Coming into the Army as an officer, I hope to at least contribute to enforcing and making changes so this doesn't have to happen. Hopefully in her name. Thanks, it means more than people know that people support us.
  14. Eric Cliffton
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    Eric Cliffton - October 15, 2012 5:20 pm
    This article is junk and means nothing but more hurt to the ones that are already hurting. All I can say to TDN is you're an inhumane heartless organization with no regard to the Bragg family. Mikayla is and will be a hero forever, I think the snide ways of TDN and any other news source should be illegal. As a friend of the Bragg family for 40 years we should start a privacy act on behalf of our fallen soldiers, this way the families don't have to keep reliving the hurt while the paper profits.
  15. Cheney119er
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    Cheney119er - October 15, 2012 6:08 pm
    On a submarine there are two kinds of sailors; Submarine Qualified sailors and unqualified sailors who better spend every available waking hour working on their qualifications. And if not why not. That's what the peer pressure is like. I imagine that's how PTSD and combat service is viewed in the Army. Bet it's worse for women. Given that premise what Spc. Mikayla Bragg wanted should have been viewed as irrelevent. Too bad her superiors didn't step in and do what's best for her.
  16. surgnurse
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    surgnurse - October 15, 2012 6:49 pm
    they didn't do a good job, they printed an incomplete story based on an initial investigation, which many people who knew Mikayla well overseas DO NOT BELIEVE, even some active duty folks who served in the area. TDN tried to keep it classy by bringing personal touches in, but the truth is they ignored her parents wishes and jumped on the fastest money train with no regard for the person people are mourning.
  17. surgnurse
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    surgnurse - October 15, 2012 6:50 pm
    Nice words for K, thank you.
  18. Kelso2011
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    Kelso2011 - October 15, 2012 8:31 pm
    I am ashamed to have been known as a TDN reader after reading this article. You have taken the tragedy that was a story of a young woman and made it into a sensationalized piece. I do believe that the communication issues and incomplete support provided to our soldiers is an important issue. However, this article does not belong in a grieving community. Your intentions are clear and morals unsound. I hope your local retailers puts your paper next to "US Weekly" and "The National Enquirer".
  19. Andru
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    Andru - October 16, 2012 7:39 am
    As painful as it may have been for some, this story needed to be told. Whatever additional investigations may or may not be going on now very well could be the result of tdn forcing this issue into the public eye with its records request. It is a tragic and potentially preventable story. If you trust the Army to be forthcoming with truth I suggest you google the words "Pat Tillman."
  20. gillnetter mole
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    gillnetter mole - October 16, 2012 11:49 am
    @andru apples and oranges !This one story, that only the tdn printed... it was not in Hawaiian news papers! just Longview ..so you tell me how black hearted can a community newspaper be when they, prints such B.S. and you say it is the same as Tillman ! let me ask this you ever been in a fire fight ???
  21. Andru
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    Andru - October 16, 2012 1:12 pm
    No Mr. Mole, I have not been in a firefight. Unless you count the time I was sword fighting with my brother using our flaming campfire marshmallows. The point was how much effort went into covering up the truth in the Tillman case. Perhaps that also didn't make the Hawaiian papers but it too was important.
  22. DawgMan
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    DawgMan - October 17, 2012 7:44 am
    This story has been picked up by news agencies from San Francisco to New Jersey. Unfortunately, this was TDN primary reasoning of running this story. Forget about facts, just take a report and print it as gospel without taking the time and courtesy of validating what was said. Instead, they were more concerned with pushing their story on the wire in hopes other papers would pick up on it and give them credit. Kayla's legacy was just collateral damage in their quest for recognition.
  23. crowsfoot
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    crowsfoot - October 17, 2012 11:11 am
    The military try's to make all combat deaths appear honorable, I think it is better for the family's benefit to not always know the truth. Being a Vietnam veteran the truth of military deaths are pursued at reunions by old relatives or younger family members looking for details from other soldiers that were there. We will not defame a death by telling stuff that will only open new wounds for the family or friends. TDN used bad judgment in my opinion
  24. grandma777
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    grandma777 - October 17, 2012 10:54 pm
    Spc.Bragg will forever be a hero! The way she died fighting for our country should not be the issue.It has become the issue for whatever reason.TDN held the up most respect for this soldier fighting for our country and (her own life). Unsettleing #1 The family being upset at an artical written with respect and truth when it could open alot of doors to changes that could save many of our hero's #2 "Givin Past History of Sexual Assult(s) before joining the Army may have been trigger" Start there!
  25. gillnetter mole
    Report Abuse
    gillnetter mole - October 18, 2012 11:37 am
    yeah Andru the Tillman case was printed over here ...BECAUSE THAT WAS NEWSWORTHY !and you go ahead and roast your marshmellows and sword fight with your little flaming sticks..while people die to give you that right ..join the service and be all you can be or have you allready reached that platue !
  26. CAB_1989
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    CAB_1989 - October 19, 2012 10:37 am
    I believe everyone is right...and wrong in their comments. While this story should have been told, it could have been more discreet by removing SPC Bragg's identity and the fact she was a local Soldier. Some of this I can speak to because I have been, in the past, given the unfortunate yet honorable task to serve as a Casualty Assistance Officer (CAO) for the US Army. The guidance given to those who serve in that capacity is that it makes no difference what the circumstances of the death are...
  27. CAB_1989
    Report Abuse
    CAB_1989 - October 19, 2012 11:24 am
    I can also say that TDN got their hands on any portion of the documents of the 15-6 investigation, it WAS complete. The Army does not release any portion of that until then. @Retired Navy: Where does it say that the father wouldn't comment until "all investigations are complete"? Upon the death of ANY US Soldier, two investigations are initiated: the 15-6 metioned, and well as the Line of Duty (LOD) investigation to determine if it happened "In the line of duty".
  28. CAB_1989
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    CAB_1989 - October 19, 2012 11:42 am
    Both of these investigations are complete. The findings DO NOT have bearing on whether or not SPC Bragg served honorably. I don't believe TDN is saying otherwise. We need to be focused on the point of the story, which is that Army officials at several levels often mishandle suicidal ideation within our ranks. But understand that HIPAA prevents providers from sharing medical info. My hope is this article prevents someone else from repeating through awareness. And yes, I have been in a firefight.
  29. CAB_1989
    Report Abuse
    CAB_1989 - October 19, 2012 12:03 pm
    Kbragg: I am sorry you were not given the information at the time the CNO delivered it. Unfortunately the Report of Casualty (DD Form 1300) is extremely vague, but is submitted quickly so it can be released to the Next of Kin as soon as possible. The investigations aren't initiated before then. I am sure you have been given this by your family's CAO, but there are several sources for help, such as the VA, Survivor Outreach Services, and Bereavement Counselors at MAMC. My deepest condolences.
  30. truth72
    Report Abuse
    truth72 - October 20, 2012 10:38 am
    I don't think this was tabloid journalism, I think TDN is choosing to show a real problem that needs to be addressed. We should not stigmatize this person because she has mental health problems. Neurological problems are the same as any other class of illness in the body, but unfortunately it can hide itself or at times make you feel better before shoving you off the abyss of a deep depression. It can cause severe mental pain that you just can't "snap out of".
  31. truth72
    Report Abuse
    truth72 - October 20, 2012 10:51 am
    Are we angry because of the stigma of suicide? Maybe Spc Bragg was in such pain and anguish (and that's what it feels like) that she could see this as her release from such pain. I am sorry for the family, it is a tradgedy. But this story needs to be told because Spc Bragg could have gotten some help before deployment and she didn't. So things need to change. ANd I hope that Spc Bragg's voice will be the one push for this change. Do not stigmatize her -honor her, a fallen soldier. God bless.
  32. SFCJB
    Report Abuse
    SFCJB - October 21, 2012 7:17 am
    I really haven't heard much about the fact that only a month before she committed suicide she was raped. What about that??? Right now reporting such an crime still is kept in the Chain of Command (O-6 and above to deal with it). What if there were a confidential reporting system out of the chain of command so this tragic crime could be dealt with? Given that she had been raped before and how horribly the COC deals with crimes of rape, I'm sure this triggered her more than anything else.
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