Flags on Washington State buildings were lowered to half-staff last January 5th for Spc. Mikayla Bragg of Longview, the first Cowlitz County resident to die in a battle zone since the waning days of Vietnam. Bragg, 20, was alone in a guard tower at Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Base Salerno when she was shot in the head four days before Christmas. The 2008 Mark Morris High School grad died less than two weeks before she was scheduled to come home on leave.
And an Army report now says Bragg died by her own hand.
Soldier suicides have doubled since 2001, hitting an all-time high this year. According to recently released figures, 38 soldiers are believed to have died by their own hand in July, the most recent month for which figures are available. That’s more than died on the battlefield. Or in motor vehicle accidents, the leading peacetime killer of soldiers in days gone by.
Much has been written on the problem of soldier suicides–some of it by me. But it’s easy to talk only about statistics and averages and trends. For five minutes, let’s talk about Spc. Bragg–Kayla, her friends called her. She had blue eyes, and loved animals and jokes. She once sported a mohawk. A corporal who served with Bragg writes:
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. It doesn’t make any sense.
No, and there’s a lot that doesn’t make much sense here.
The (Longview) Daily News reported Saturday that the 135-page Army report on Bragg’s death says she tried to kill herself in October, 2010, while stationed at Fort Knox. She then spent almost a month undergoing mental-health treatment. A week after returning to duty she was readmitted to the post’s behavioral health center after beginning a hunger strike.
But Fort Knox never passed any of that information to her unit in Afghanistan.
Bragg later told doctors at Fort Knox she was thinking of crashing a car to hurt herself. She spent another 45 days in the post hospital for mental-health treatment. And then she weaned herself off Valium–prescribed for anxiety–shortly before deploying.
But her commanders in Afghanistan didn’t know any of that.
Bragg was never tagged by Fort Knox as “high-risk soldier”: one at elevated risk to hurt herself or others. In fact, both the behavioral health officer at Bragg’s Fort Knox unit and the behavioral health officer at Camp Salerno report that they had requested mental-health records on Bragg and other formerly “non-deployable” soldiers in their units, so that they could give follow-up care. But doctors at Fort Knox repeatedly refused their requests, citing privacy laws.
The night she died, Bragg took two rounds of ammunition with her to the guard tower, instead of the required 210–something that her NCO should have checked before she went on duty. But nobody noticed.
Camp Salerno’s brigade behavioral health officer told investigators:
It is my opinion that [Bragg] “fell through the cracks” created by the lack of information sharing that had been repeatedly requested and denied.
The Army report makes the predictable recommendations:
- Mental-health providers stateside should share more information about high-risk soldiers with mental-health providers in war zones.
- Commanders should develop better procedures to ensure personnel data is not lost while transferring soldiers between units.
- No soldier should be stationed in a guard tower alone.
But the most important thing about Bragg’s death is not the statistical analysis. Not the conclusions to be drawn or the recommendations to be made. The most important thing about her death is this: The world will never see another Kayla Bragg–a one-of-a-kind human being who loved wild hair and wild make-up and once got in trouble in order to rescue a turtle.
And this: Kayla Bragg will never see her 21st birthday.
Behind all the statistics and reports and grave experts pontificating on the epidemic of soldier suicide is this one irreplaceable person. Lest we forget.
If you are thinking of taking your life, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Press 1 if you are in the military or in a military family.