Veterans, advocates discuss military suicides with state Senate panel

Bruce Bartz of York holds up an art project that his late son, Trent, created while in the seconnd grade. Bartz spoke during a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing on military suicides. Trent Bartz, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, died by suicide in 2015 at the age of 20.

CHAMBERSBURG — With each day lived without his son, Bruce Bartz cries.

That’s been the routine since Trent Bartz, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, died by suicide in 2015. He was 20.

“I cry every day in the shower. Every morning I get up, I cry. The shower allows me to wash away my pain and continue on about my day,” Bartz said Thursday during a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing focused on military veteran and service member suicide.

The hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee was held at the Chambersburg VFW.

Bartz said that he can’t say if his son’s brief time with the reserves influenced his decision or how it may have interplayed with existing issues with depression. He did advocate for greater state support of nonprofits seeking to aid veterans.

Bartz operates a York-based nonprofit, Bartz Brigade, in memory of his late son. It works to support suicide awareness, education and prevention among the military community.

Veterans in crisis are encouraged to call the Veterans Crisis Line — dial 988, then press 1 — or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net. Veterans and their loved ones can receive immediate support, emergency intervention and referrals for treatment. Enrollment in Veterans Affairs benefits isn’t necessary to get help.

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After Army Reserve Cpl. Trent Bartz ended his live in 2015 at age 20, his family founded The Bartz Brigade, a nonprofit that works to support suicide awareness, education and prevention among the military community.

The suicide rate among veterans in Pennsylvania nearly equaled the rate for veterans nationwide in 2020, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. However, both rates nearly doubled that of the country’s general population.

The study found suicide was the second leading cause of death among veterans in two age groups, 18 to 34 and 35 to 44, trailing only accidents in each.

On the whole, more than 480,000 people died by suicide from 2010 to 2020 with the rate rising 12% over that period, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Cindy McGrew, founder of Operation Second Chance, spoke during Thursday’s hearing about her Maryland-based nonprofit that supports wounded service members, veterans and their families.

The foundation’s roots are in McGrew’s charitable act of driving daily to the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center starting in 2004 to comfort military members injured in combat. Operation Second Chance raised more than $12 million since its inception for financial aid and events to boost morale.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a number of improvements in access to mental health care to try to reduce suicides in the military. But he is holding off on endorsing more controversial recommendations to restrict gun and ammunition purchases by young troops, sending them to another panel for study. The orders issued Thursday reflect increasing concerns about suicides in the military, despite more than a decade of programs and other efforts to prevent them and spur greater intervention by commanders, friends and family members. But Austin's omission of any gun safety and control measures underscore the likelihood that they would face staunch resistance, particularly in Congress, where such legislation has struggled in recent years.

McGrew spoke of the trauma suffered by the men and women at the hospital and how it manifested in suicide.

“I cry every day also,” McGrew said, a comment meant to support Bartz’s own words at the hearing. “I cry for the ones we can’t reach, those we can’t get to.”

McGrew spoke of her four brothers who all served in the military. Three served in Vietnam. She told of how one recounted having to kill a child boobytrapped with explosives in order to save the lives of others in his unit, stressing the mental trauma combat veterans suffer.

Michael and Sally Wargo of Lehighton are familiar. They’re recognized as Gold Star parents in honor of the service and death of their son, U.S. Army Spc. Michael Wargo, a combat veteran who died by suicide in 2013 at age 36 — eight years after his active duty ended.

Sally Wargo spoke of the mental toll a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan had on their son. She said 10 soldiers with whom he served were killed. The late Michael Wargo returned home, began a career and was married, but survivor’s guilt weighed heavily, Sally Wargo said.

“You could not see his wounds because they were invisible wounds of war,” Sally Wargo said.

But, she said he refused help even as his marriage dissolved. He left behind a 4½-hour video explaining his decision. He pleaded with them not to disclose that he suffered post-traumatic stress, fearing he and other veterans would be stigmatized. The Wargos said they used the video as evidence to obtain lifelong benefits for his daughter.

The Wargos are working to raise money to create the Memorial Mile, what they hope will become a national monument in Carbon County dedicated to veterans who die by suicide.

The monument would feature granite memorial stones spread along a mile-long forested path with the names of those lost etched on the stones.

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