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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.”
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.
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.”