War's hidden wounds
The first time Brian Frost picked up a gun to end his life, his fiancée was close enough to intervene.
"I grabbed the gun so hard, my hand was cut by the barrel," Diana Lee recalled. She put her other arm around Frost, a Denair native who was living in Connecticut.
"I kept telling him over and over again, 'I love you, Brian. I love you.'" Frost finally let go of the gun and broke down crying, she said.
Less than a month later, on Jan. 23, the Iraq war veteran and 22-year-old college student killed himself in Lee's presence at his Torrington, Ct., apartment. "I didn't know what he was going to do. I didn't have a chance to stop him," said Lee. "Nobody knew until it was too late."
His family is haunted by what-ifs.
What if they had known he was troubled?
What if someone had reached him in time?
What if he had gotten help?
They had no idea Frost was so despondent. But what they are certain about is that he was a casualty of the war in Iraq, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A lot of veterans are in the same boat. A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in July found that up to 17 percent of recent Iraq veterans suffered from PTSD, generalized anxiety or major depression.
An Army-financed study indicates that combat-related mental problems have been higher among those who have served in the current Iraq war than in any military action since Vietnam.
In the Frost home outside Denair, PTSD has a face and a name and 22 years of love and history.
"You totally invest your whole self in the raising of your children," said Marie Frost, Brian's mother.
"It doesn't make sense that he's gone," she said. "It's like you still expect him to call."
Remembering better times
The living room is a tribute to Frost. His Army specialist's uniform, with medals and ribbons decorating it, stands watch by the front door. There is a collage of pictures next to the uniform and the flag that draped his coffin. There are three spent cartridges from the 21-gun salute he received.
There are memory boxes on the coffee table containing mementoes of a brief life. There are pictures of Frost by Saddam Hussein's palace swimming pool and souvenirs of the conflict, including an owner's manual reportedly from one of Saddam's Porsches.
More personal memories are kept on a DVD one of his sisters prepared for the funeral.
The video starts with his first cry in the hospital when he was born. Then he is Superman, complete with cape at age 2. There's his iceberg-melting smile at age 4 and an energetic dance at age 6.
Marie Frost pointed out something about a snow scene that might escape viewers. "He showed his stamina at age 4," she recalled. "He spent eight hours on the slopes. He was all boy."
The years roll by, and Frost is clowning with friends at his 13th birthday party. There is the priceless imitation of actor Jim Carrey and the time he battled a Teddy bear with a teenager's feigned martial arts skill. Several times he lets the bear get the upper hand.
Then there's his high school graduation, May 25, 2000. An exultant Frost proclaims: "I got off the merry-go-round. I'm free."
And there is footage of one his jumps with the 82nd Airborne. The last pictures are of his brother's wedding and when Frost came home from Iraq.
When he got home in 2003, Marie Frost received her only clues about what her son had been through.
"He had that scary 200-yard stare," she said, showing photographs of her son wearing a haunted look.
"You looked at him," she said, "and he could be polite or nice, but you also knew he could kill someone."
That was really her only hint. "When he left, he was this (exuberant) youth. When he came home, he was a compassionate man. He was deeper."
And she had trouble drawing anything out of her son. "He answered only if I asked him a question. He wouldn't volunteer information. The one exception was his girlfriend. He was enthusiastic about her and planned to bring her out to meet us during a break from school. … He had plans."
The family has not received an autopsy report.
Marie Frost can only shake her head at what she believes happened. "He felt overwhelmed with things he couldn't keep up with — his school load, no money to come home. Those are problems, but not enough to check out over," she said.
Her last contact with him was an answering machine message. "He left me a message Jan. 4. He needed his birth certificate to apply for college."
Family not anti-war
Marie Frost recalled the moment when the family found out her son had died.
"Two policemen came to our door and said our son had an accident and he didn't survive," she said. "Later, they took my husband aside and told him the true nature of his death and asked if (Brian) had any emotional disorders."
It's a question Marie Frost has asked herself many times since. "In my estimation, Brian was predisposed to depression. But he didn't have to (kill himself). It took a one-two punch to get him there."
When Frost told her son that he looked scary, "he laughed. He did say once, 'Mom, I just hope my time in Iraq didn't ruin me for civilian life.'"
While Frost is sure her son's death is linked to his service, she does not want him used as an anti-war symbol or a club against the Bush administration.
"I thank God for the time we had with Brian, and I pray for our military men. We needed this (war) to get where we are. I'm grateful to those who paid the price for our freedom," she said.
Faith is unshaken
Her faith, she said, remains steadfast. "I know that God brings everything together for our good. Anything could have happened to stop Brian. I know God knew that Brian would end up in heaven or he would have stopped him. If Brian hadn't been allowed to make that choice (suicide), things would have gotten worse."
In the aftermath of his death, Frost and her family find different ways of coping.
Sharon Frost, Brian's sister-in-law, said her husband cannot bring himself to talk about his brother. But he wears his clothes all the time and plays the video games his brother loved.
Diana Lee has changed her major from politics to psychology. She said she has been diagnosed with PTSD. Lee said she wants to join the 82nd Airborne after graduation so she can "help the guys like Brian."
Mandatory counseling sought
Marie Frost is living day to day. "I go for walks in the morning and cry," she said.
She doesn't dread her own death. "I'm looking forward to my time now. I have a son there (in heaven). And a daughter," from a miscarriage.
If she has her way, the Army will someday insist on mandatory treatment and counseling, more extensive than the current five-day regimen. And it will be something that doesn't carry a stigma.
"I want some good to come out of this," she said. "Our boys need someone to get in their face and make them talk about what they did and saw. I think anyone would be dealing with depression if they saw what Brian saw and dealt with.
"I don't know how much (treatment) or how often, but let's let the professional decide. Brian went a year and never talked about it."
Brian Frost's family and friends will celebrate his 23rd birthday Friday. They will light candles that day and for the rest of the week.
If Marie Frost could have had one more day with her son, she knows what she would have done.
"I would ask him, 'Brian, what did you see?' I would make him talk about it," she said. "I don't care about his feelings. If he had talked, he would still be alive."
By ROGER W. HOSKINS BEE STAFF WRITER
Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins
can be reached at 578-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those who want to know more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or need help:
Veterans or their families can call Vet Center, 1899 Clayton Road, Suite 140, Concord; 925-680-4526.
American GI Forum, Modesto Chapter, 1220 I St. Modesto 95354; 526-6811
Modesto-Central Valley Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers and Families, Web site: www.mcvbluestarmothers.org; Debbie Katsounakis, 410-2467.