For American Military Veterans, Transition Has Been Hell

On average, 22 vets kill themselves every day in the U.S. On Jan. 18, one of them was my friend Chris

For American Military Veterans, Transition Has Been Hell
Illustration: Mina Price | Design: Dustin Ames

Andy Greene was in Mammoth when the phone rang. It was 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, Jan. 18, and the Long Beach resident was sleeping, so the call went to voice mail. After the sun rose, Greene checked his phone. The message was from Chris Atencio.

"Chris bounced around the world," said Katie Marsh. "But [in 2000], he felt his life was going nowhere. After 9/11, he found direction. He didn't have to identify the direction because someone else would."

Greene met Atencio more than a decade earlier when they were sales clerks at the North Face in Costa Mesa. In 2002, Atencio joined the U.S. Army, but the two had remained in contact. When the Army discharged Atencio in July 2013, he moved back to Orange County. Atencio and Greene had seen each other a few times since then and had traded emails just 10 days earlier.

"Andy? This is Chris Atencio," the voice mail began. "I'm happy as fuck that you got married, but I'm bummed as fuck that you've called me one and a half times since I've been home in six months. Ummm, I'm struggling, so if I die in the next God knows what, then we've got an issue up in heaven. I'll talk to you soon."

Anthony Pignataro (left) with Chris Atencio on Maui, 2013
Angie Thompson
Anthony Pignataro (left) with Chris Atencio on Maui, 2013
Atencio in Iraq, date unknown
Atencio in Iraq, date unknown

Details

Chris Atencio's family has asked friends and well-wishers to donate to the Jimmy Miller Foundation, which uses surfing to help people cope with physical and mental illness. For more information, go to Jimmymillerfoundation.org.

If you're a veteran who's contemplating suicide, or you know one who is, call the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255.

For more information on the Orange County Veterans Service Office, call (714) 480-6555, or go to Veterans.ocgov.com.

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The message disturbed Greene immediately. Atencio had often drunk-dialed Greene, but this was different. Greene played the message for Vu Pham, a friend staying with him who'd also worked with Atencio at North Face.

"Whoa," Pham told Greene. "That's not good."

"What should I do?" Greene asked.

"Call him," Pham said. "Tell him you love him, you're there for him."

Greene made the call. Atencio didn't pick up, but Greene left a long message, saying all the things Pham suggested. Greene didn't hear back from Atencio that day. On Sunday night, Atencio's mother, Jane, called Greene; he wasn't able to pick up. It wasn't until Monday afternoon that Greene talked to her and learned that Atencio killed himself Saturday afternoon—just a few hours after Greene called him back.

"She was obviously in shock," Greene recalled. He told Jane that Atencio phoned him just a few hours before he died.

"I'm so sorry," she told Greene. "He did that with a number of his friends."

Chris Atencio was a good friend of mine. He and I met about 14 years ago, not long after he moved next door to me. We were living in tiny, drafty studio apartments built on the Balboa Peninsula in the 1920s, but they were also just a few yards from the beach. We ate pizza while watching surf videos, flirted with girls and traded books. When he got his private pilot's license, we rented a Cessna and flew to Catalina and back.

Right from the beginning, Atencio seemed different from your typical Newport Beach resident. He was part of the Wedge Crew of surfers who found a home in those nasty waves at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, but he was more than that. He was a world traveler, endlessly curious about how people everywhere lived. He and I talked for hours about all manner of subjects. I often asked him about his experiences overseas, and he in turn asked me questions about writing.

He'd traveled to and lived in dozens of countries, including South Africa, Israel, the Dominican Republic, Australia, Mauritius, Germany, Japan and Russia. He spoke Japanese, French, German, Spanish and even American Sign Language. A year or two ago, when he was applying for a security clearance, an investigator with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management dropped by my office in Maui, Hawaii, and asked me, among other questions, how many people Atencio knew overseas. I could only shrug my shoulders. "Who knows?" I told him. "Dozens? Hundreds?"

"He had a key to my apartment, and I had a key to his condo," said Craig Plitt, a Newport Beach boat captain who knew Atencio for more than 20 years. "He was a great, true friend. He had honesty, reliability, sincerity."

Atencio was also deeply troubled, though I knew nothing of it until Greene called me shortly after he got off the phone with Atencio's mother. I knew nothing of the medications he was taking for depression, or that he was suffering from crippling nightmares. I didn't know he had spent months at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical clinics talking with doctors, nurses and specialists. I had no idea that just a few days before he died, he had started the process of getting the VA to acknowledge he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doing so could have resulted in the government paying for his medical care for the rest of his life, but the process required filling out lengthy forms, describing in detail all the "stressful incidents" that plagued him during his time in the service.

Two days after he finished filling out those forms—finished reliving all the pain and frustration he'd dealt with—Atencio hanged himself in his garage. It was his mother's birthday.

"I don't know," Jane Atencio said when I asked why her son would kill himself on that day. It was an impossible question, but I had to ask it. "He was very good with my birthday. He knows I can't remember dates. I actually chuckle every time I have to give the day he died. This way, I have to remember."

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11 comments
Brainwashed_in_church
Brainwashed_in_church topcommenter

"Although getting into combat is the ultimate goal of pretty much everyone who volunteers for military service" Really? I would think getting into combat and increasing the probability of dying is the last thing any rational, life loving, mentally healthy person would want.

How does the suicide rate for veterans compare to that of the general population?

And, if veterans' rates are higher, Is there something about a person who would "want to get into combat" that would make him more likely to commit suicide?

Is there a segment of volunteers for whom joining the service is a last ditch attempt to get their lives together? Is it possible a percentage of those who join the service might not be that stable in the first place and the service itself (violence, reduction of individuality) simply incubates and enables the conditions for someone to take his own life?


olek
olek

editor 114 - I have seen that just as many vets that died in Vietnam have committed suicide. I really really really doubt it was because of rape. Maybe we should divide the wars into their perspective generations. And, when looking for truth, I am quite positive you will not find it in most of these online web sites.

nebeltex
nebeltex

My family's history of naval service extends all the way back to the spanish armada (on the Welsh side). One of my relatives was an elizabethan "sea knight" and an explorer. That is a tradition that was passed on to my relatives before me, when the RN types embraced the american navy. I tried to join the US navy, for the betterment of myself and to continue a tradition ('85). I scored 96 of 98 out of my ASVAB. My recruiter wanted me to sign up for six years (instead of four), and go to "nuke" school. All I had to do was pass the physical. I failed. I surf too, and flat feet can be an advantage for that. Military "intelligence" is an asset in combat, but not during the choice process for recruits. I can only think that you and your friend had a laugh or two watching "Big Wednesday" and the draft physical scene. It really was like that, even in the '80's. Three books to read? "Kiss the boys goodbye", "The thin gray line", and "A Bright shining lie".

olek
olek

'If you've seen one VA, you've seen one VA' is a true statement. I am a 100% disabled, housebound vet with the loss of use of both hands plus other injuries - Marine Corps Rifleman, Vietnam War, 1968 and had a booby-trap almost blow both my arms off plus fill my body with shards of metal where a helmet and flak-jacket didn't cover. Three traps hit seven and killed three. I walk into any VA hospital in the United States and elsewhere in the world, they do not have a clue who I am. I am not in their specific VA hospital's system. Just because you have gone to one VA and got seen by anyone does not mean you are known by any other VA.


Now, wouldn't one think that if you have a VA Card, that 'the card' would work in any Federal building at any time and they would within seconds know who the F I am !?! Nope.


I travel a lot by automobile for fun. I have been ill in Texas and Idaho during two of my trips. You need to call the VA number 800-827-1000 in any state and ask the VA where they want you to go if you are sick or injured. You have 72 hours to tell the VA you are hospitalized or whatever. You need to get permission to be seen if you are going to have the VA fee services pay your bill. If Fee Service deems your problem is not related to your service injury, or deem your injury not a medical emergency, you get nothing from the VA... that includes me.


You will probably be sent to a VA facility, but it may be 400 miles out of your way.


I was 18 years old when wounded; I have no other medical insurance. I also have to jump through the hoops with a lot of folks that work for the VA that seem to have the job of passing the buck to somebody else, whom many times are not informed and give you incorrect information... and usually from there you get lost in the system of hold.


I believe we are working with people at the VA who do care, but are so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of veterans showing up daily at their front door. Nevertheless, that is not a good enough reason for dropping the ball on veterans, particularly the wounded veterans.


In 1969 the VA was a hospital working with around 2.5 million wounded veterans; many were WWII vets and at times I would meet a WWI vet, Korea, etc. etc. Then, sometime around 20 years or so ago, the VA was opened up to anyone that had served in the military and/or other Fed services and the numbers jumped to around 28 million vets. I was lost in the stacked paperwork from pretty much there and on. I call in needing to see a doctor and the appointment can be two months or longer. If whatever your problem is worsens in the meantime, you go to the emergency room and try you get 'fit in' for the day.


The Feds created a F story. So, fix the F story !!


How many vets commit suicide while on hold with the VA?

thwedge
thwedge

Thank you for this article.

slimpants
slimpants

@olek Thanks for your comments. Very enlightening. I presume you'll be eligible for Medicare this year or next. Will that cover the majority of your future health care costs? i.e.  Will Medicare be a huge "stress-reliever" for you are you expecting more of the same bs?  Thnx for your time. 

 
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