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


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

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

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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