A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma: Why Would a Mental Health Professional with PTSD and a Bronze Star End His Own Life?

I usually track major media articles on PTSD but I was surprised this past week when two concerned members of my weekly Viet Nam Veterans PTSD group brought the Time Magazine article: http://nation.time.com/2013/01/11/dr-peter-j-n-linnerooth-1970-2013. I was flattered by their concern for me and others doing the sort of work I refer to as the “Special Forces” of mental health. The late Dr. Linnerooth was not only a member of this club but a front line leader directly deployed (for five years) and in harm’s way. He may have not had the proper state license, but he had a Bronze Star. I suspect the number of mental health professionals with that credential is less than .0001%.
Dr. Linnerooth followed a path that hundreds of soldiers each year seem to track. He returned from deployment, lost his marriage, lost his job and then with a bit of Jack Daniels on January 2nd, lost his life. One article depicted his death as “losing the battle”. I take offense to this depiction in the same way I look at obituaries characterizing death from cancer as “losing the war against cancer”. I am a cancer survivor and I can tell you survival is a function of luck in concert with great medicine and support, not willful determination, tenacity or attitude. Sure, attitude and support matters, but when the odds are overwhelming sometimes acceptance is the only productive path. The warrior metaphor is part of the problem. It is war that creates a contradiction between helplessness and illusions of complete control and expectations of responsibility.
Those who have active PTSD are what I often refer to as “control and responsibility junkies”. We do not need win-lose metaphors in describing such titanic struggles. Dr. Linnerooth did not ‘lose’; he succumbed to a process he worked so hard to treat. He became “infected” with the direct pain of others. More poignantly, he also apparently was recruited as a makeshift medic. According to several news stories he was tortured by images and recollections of children dying slowly. Those sights, smells and sounds do not simply go into ordinary memory. They change your world view and make you less tolerant of institutions and processes that work in a more ordinary fashion. Those who develop PTSD become more adept at handling life and death crisis, but far less skilled in handling ordinary challenges, like requests or demands from employers, wives, friends or even your own children. Dr. Linnerooth apparently lost his footing, his job, his mission and his family. Whether he was genetically vulnerable to alcoholism is something we may never know, but alcohol, along with a pill bottle, a gun and PTSD make an all too lethal combination. Dr. Linnerooth did more than was expected of him; he was part of a team attempting to help far too many soldiers in combat. He did not fail in his mission. The Army, VA, the mental health community and all of us failed him- not purposely, but due to our limited vision. Our institutions are working very hard to prevent deaths like those of Dr. Linnerooth. However, we are trying to do so with bureaucratic solutions, some of which are helpful but we may be missing the mark. Soldiers and professionals carrying ‘invisible wounds of war’ need to be understood, heard and validated. Dr. Linnerooth was trying to get us to listen. Somehow we did not hear him.

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