Investigating a military suicide when it’s your son

A young Marine with two tours of duty commits suicide, and his father, a former detective, takes the case

A picture of Thomas Bagosy the night before he killed himself in the middle of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
courtesy of Robert Bagosy

On a spring day last year, Robert L. Bagosy stepped outside his two-story home in an Atlanta suburb and found the box.

Bagosy, a 65-year-old former police detective and Marine reservist, isn’t one to surprise easily. But the box — which suddenly appeared after a year-long wait — was a shock. Its contents, each clue, detail and revelation, might explain why his son died.

Bagosy knew his son, a firecracker of a kid, would lead an unpredictable life, but never imagined it would end as it did. Marine Corps Sgt. Thomas Bagosy, a 25-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran, returned home to his wife and two children with signature battle wounds: post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury. In May 2010, as military police surrounded him in the middle of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Tommy put a gun to his chin and pulled the trigger.

A white-haired, barrel-chested man, Robert Bagosy remained stoic as he affixed combat ribbons to his son’s dress blues at a funeral home and also while burying Tommy at Arlington National Cemetery.  A few months later, he began weeping one day and cried for weeks. Then Bagosy knew what he needed to do next.

“When you become a suicide dad, a survivor, you go into detective mode,” he said. “I kept pushing the envelope to find out what happened.”

It’s not an uncommon experience for military suicide survivors to look to records of a loved one’s work performance, medical history, and combat experience for answers about how and why the death occurred. As the Department of Defense tries to understand and prevent suicide through policies, programs and its own investigations, these survivors reconstruct every moment at which a service member’s life could have been saved – including by the institution he or she served.

For Bagosy, these records captured a version of Tommy’s soul, and they are how he began to understand the suicide and what kind of a man his son had become.

A father as investigator

Bagosy at his son's grave in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2011.
Courtesy of Robert Bagosy

When Bagosy opened the box in April 2012, he found a thick file. The 1915 Beretta Tommy used to kill himself had already been returned. The gun was a trophy from World War II. Tommy’s great uncle brought it home from Italy, but the weapon never worked. Tommy was the one to fix it, and Bagosy kept it once it became his again. “I don’t know why I want it,” he said. “Maybe because that was the last thing he touched.”

This is Bagosy as investigator: He needed to see the world as his son had, especially in those final moments. Bagosy’s wife, Iris, is different. She hasn’t reviewed the paperwork and has no desire to – the grief would be too much.

Bagosy received Tommy’s records and the report compiled by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service – standard for a death on base – through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents revealed the portrait of a healthy young man who slowly unraveled.

When Tommy shot himself in the spring of 2010, the military was just beginning to grapple with the increasing number of active-duty suicides. It issued comprehensive recommendations on preventing suicide in August 2010, but they came too late to change Tommy’s fate.

Now, the Department of Defense has an office dedicated to suicide prevention. The agency also recently issued the first-ever policy directive on suicide prevention, which is the equivalent of ordering every commander to protect his or her charges from the risk of suicide. Since Bagosy began his detective work, he has identified pivotal moments in his son’s life. He is not angry with the Marine Corps, but when asked whether the military’s new approach might have prevented Tommy’s death had it been in place years ago, Bagosy said yes.  

Complex problem of suicide

Tommy with fellow Marines in Afghanistan in 2009. He is center.
courtesy of Robert Bagosy

Tommy was one of 295 service members who died by suicide in 2010. Most of them, including Tommy, were young, white, male, enlisted, and did not have a college degree. Nearly two-thirds used a firearm. Unlike Tommy, though, the majority had not deployed to a combat zone, had no known mental health disorders and had never expressed suicidal intent.

The surprising nature of these deaths makes them difficult to understand. Since the early 2000s, the suicide rate rose sharply in the military to 18.3 per 100,000 by 2009. Civilian suicides also increased at the same time; in a comparable non-military population the rate is 24 per 100,000. Active-duty suicides peaked last year at approximately 350 deaths across all branches. As of September 2013, according to a Defense Department official, there were 224 suspected and confirmed active-duty suicides in the military this year.

“Suicide is a complex problem,” said Jackie Garrick, director of the Defense Department’s suicide prevention office. “It’s not like there’s a single exposure that X equals Y outcome.” Still there are common factors that reflect a larger societal trend. Just like civilians, service members have money woes, marital problems, and abuse drugs and alcohol – all of which can heighten the risk of suicide. A recent study even suggested deployment is not associated with suicide risk.

And yet, when a soldier dies by suicide, it raises questions about his military service, leaving behind a perplexing mystery for loved ones. Survivors like Bagosy are driven to solve as much of it as possible.

“More often than not, people want to delve into the why and it’s part of the grieving process,” said Kim Ruocco, a military suicide survivor and manager for suicide outreach and education programs for the nonprofit organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which is based in Arlington, Va.

The armed forces don’t keep detailed, readily available records on how many survivors ask to see the death report or submit FOIA requests for military records of their deceased loved ones. Each year, TAPS receives a steady number of inquiries about how to locate such information. This year, about a third of the overall requests have been related to suicide cases.

Reconstructing the scene

Thomas Bagosy at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball in 2007.
courtesy of Robert Bagosy

Sitting on a patio chair in the backyard of his Cumming, Ga., home, Bagosy flips through the NCIS report documenting his son’s death. He wears a red T-shirt with the words Team Tommy, and beneath that, the phrase Semper Fi Moments. Bagosy puts on the shirt when representing his son at an event like the Marine Corps Marathon. The Semper Fi Moment is a saying he uses to describe opportunities to help service members and veterans heal. Bagosy has a list of missed Semper Fi moments for Tommy.

The NCIS report allowed Bob to reconstruct the suicide in the way only a detective could. On the day before Tommy died, his wife, Katie, spoke to Bagosy and his wife, and everyone was panicked. He threatened suicide; they urged her to call his commander or the base psychologist who treated Tommy for post-traumatic stress and depression. Tommy’s firearms had been confiscated after he threatened a co-worker, but he surreptitiously held onto the Beretta. Katie knew this, and believed he was capable of using it.

The next day, Tommy went to a mental health clinic for a previously scheduled appointment. During that meeting, Katie called his psychologist about the gun. It’s in his truck, she said, don’t let him go to the car. Tommy would have to be hospitalized now, but he refused to go. He was ordered to wait in the psychologist’s office until his commander arrived. But then he was gone, walking to the black pickup.

Several Marines tried to stop him. Tommy grabbed the gun and pointed it at himself and at the Marines, who immediately backed away. He began driving with the military police in pursuit. He stopped near a base firehouse, sat for a few minutes and then got out. The standoff was brief. Tommy pivoted, put the gun to his chin and then fell to the ground.

His high-profile death received media coverage at the time, but there were still unanswered questions. For Bagosy, the NCIS report held vital clues about Tommy’s last minutes. Naval investigators interviewed the group of Marines. They struggled to restrain Tommy in his truck. By looking into his brown eyes, a witness later told Tommy’s wife, it was clear he wasn’t going to hurt them. Another witness told investigators that Tommy looked as though he wanted “suicide by cop.”

“So it’s like he made up his mind,” Bagosy explained. “I can get this picture of him in the [clinic]. I can see him walking out and being chased. I can understand the moment he pulled the gun on those Marines … he realized he just stepped out of bounds.”

"I love you and I'm sorry.''

Thomas Bagosy the day he graduated from boot camp in 2004.
courtesy of Robert Bagosy

Bagosy learned more from the NCIS report. He read the frantic text messages between his son and Katie from the night before. “I love you and I’m sorry,” he wrote. The investigators photographed his cell phone, which had a screensaver image of a dead Iraqi. Bagosy has yet to learn how that man’s fate intertwined with his son’s and why he lingered over it. He also still doesn’t understand why Tommy refused to be hospitalized.

Now, after a year and a half of poring over these files, he’s more comfortable with the unknown. “I’ve accepted the fact that in his last moments in life, he just lost all faith,” Bagosy said. “He just said, ‘I have nowhere to turn.’”

Bagosy keeps revisiting the Semper Fi moments. A psychologist on base had recommended safeguards to detain suicidal Marines, but nothing had been done. In order to join an elite Marine special operations team, Tommy told Katie he had been instructed – perhaps wrongly – to stop taking his medication, which included antidepressants. A gunnery sergeant overseeing Tommy accused him of faking PTSD, according to Katie. When Tommy threatened to kill himself during an argument with Katie a month before his death, a friend told her that filing a police report might ruin his career.

Tommy’s autopsy blood work also detected an anti-malarial medication he took in Afghanistan, which according to the military’s regulations should not have been prescribed to someone with a history of TBI, PTSD and depression. The drug, known as mefloquine, can have psychiatric side effects, including irritability, impulsivity and self-destructive behavior.

The Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune declined to comment on Tommy’s case, but spokeswoman Anna Hancock said that at the time of his death, the facility was in the process of increasing its mental health staff and improving security. Citing safety reasons, she declined to provide specific information on new security measures.

Capt. Adrian Ambe, a spokesman for the Marines Corps Forces Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, also declined to comment on the details of Tommy’s case, but said that the organization works hard to detect and treat mental health conditions. He said that a fit-for-duty Marine could deploy while on an antidepressant. It is unclear why Tommy was told otherwise.

Investigating a loved one’s suicide, said Kim Ruocco of TAPS, can complicate the grief process. Sometimes dark secrets are discovered, including debt, affairs and substance abuse. It can intensify feelings of alienation and guilt.

Semper Fi

A photo from a family trip to Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s with Robert, his son Thomas on the right and Michael on the left.
courtesy of Robert Bagosy

When Bagosy brought his son to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island in South Carolina in 2003, the 19-year-old was just a “knucklehead” who loved to tinker with cars, didn’t enjoy school because it required sitting still, and had a history of experimenting with drugs. When he graduated boot camp in 2004, Tommy looked sharp, trim and muscular. He was now a motor transport mechanic who could fix trucks and combat vehicles.

Bagosy struggled to understand his son’s trajectory from that moment to the suicide. “Knowing my son as an adult kind of drove my investigation,” he said. The detective work yielded answers.

A medical evaluation found that Tommy’s neurologic and psychiatric conditions did not exist prior to joining the Marines. Records described the TBI and at least five other explosions that rattled his brain during the Iraq deployment. He sought treatment for PTSD and TBI shortly after returning from Iraq in 2007. The notes of his psychiatric records show Tommy, once loving and self-possessed, struggling with anger and impulse control. In the months before his death he mentions suicidal thoughts, but denies wanting to act on them. Tommy, the doctors said, was not a threat to himself or others.

The documents also contained snapshots of Tommy’s experience at war. He was awarded the first of two combat action ribbons in October 2006. The second was awarded in Afghanistan when he towed out a vehicle under enemy fire. One day, Tommy was removed from a convoy and his best friend took his place and was killed in an IED attack. Tommy would never shake the guilt of how their fortunes changed, according to his psychiatric records.

Bagosy knew few of these details before he read his son’s file and talked to his battle buddies, who described Tommy as stalwart and skilled. The picture of Tommy that emerged was of an unafraid but increasingly troubled young man. The violence that darkened his life at the end, Bagosy said, was the grip of war holding his son tight.

Bagosy has his share of personal regret. After returning from Iraq, Tommy confessed over dinner: “You know, dad, I killed people.” Bagosy encouraged him to seek psychological help, but now wishes he’d handled it differently. “I should have probably said, ‘Hey, let’s go out back and get a case of beer and sit and talk.’” Tommy may not have opened up over a six-pack, but Bagosy wishes he at least had the chance.

The investigation has led Bagosy to unexpected places. He’s spoken to young Marines about Tommy and the importance of recognizing Semper Fi moments. He’s shared the lessons of Tommy’s story briefly with Marine Corps Commandant and President Barack Obama. He submitted a request for a Purple Heart in honor of Tommy’s service in Iraq and is awaiting its approval. Through TAPS, he regularly mentors other fathers who have lost children to suicide. None of this will revive Tommy, but it is a memorial.

The veteran detective knew he might never solve the elusive why of his son’s case, but he thinks his investigation had a positive conclusion.

“I think I found out who my son was,'' he said. "And I liked what I saw.”

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