Video: Suicide prevention advocate takes own life

  1. Closed captioning of: Suicide prevention advocate takes own life

    >>> one of the most vocally celebrated advocate for suicide prevention is a victim against it. clay hunt narrowly escaped death after a sniper's bullet missed his head by inches during a tour in iraq four years ago. since then hunt has been volunteered with vets helping them cope with the horrors of war while wrestling with post- traumatic stress and survivors guilt after several were killed in combat. this video is for a rehab program called ride to recovery. last week hunt locked himself in his houston apartment and fatally shot himself . i'm joined by his parents. i want to say to both of you our headlig heartfelt condolences. he gave so much to others. he was a vibrant supporter for veterans . so why did you want to, i guess, carry on with his mission and speak out to help save others from what ultimately took clay's life?

    >> well, we certainly feel that clay led an exemplary life, and this post- traumatic stress disorder just caught up with him. even though he seemed to be moving in the right direction, and we want to make certain that other veterans and their families and their extended families know that there are places to turn to to seek help, even though their loved one may feel like he's -- may seem like they're doing well. it's an insidious disease that destructs so many of our service members people.

    >> i was able to --

    >> i was going to say on the days leading up to the tragic moment, did you have any indication that clay was suffering and may actually hurt himself?

    >> not that he would hurt himself. he had been suicidal twice in the fall, once in september and once around the holidays. he was open about that. he reached out to us. he was going to the va at that time he was in l.a. seeking counseling on his medication. he moved to houston in december/january. immediately contacted the va and was, you know, set up there and was receiving his medication. i was able to talk to the psychiatrist who had met with him on weeks before he took his life, and he said that clay was not suicidal. he had talked about previously being, but that his -- at that point his depression and anxiety was more under control. he did not exhibit suicidal symptoms at that point. we were able to be with him on the saturday before he took his life that next week, and he was sad a little bit. you know, he would kind of go up and down. he'd be in a relatively good mood, but then something would trigger the memories and, you know -- you definitely could tell he was a little down. no, he went to work monday and tuesday. he went out with friends monday and tuesday evening, and then took his life the next day. so it just -- the psychiatrist said that is the way it happens a lot of times with these veterans , especially the ones that are -- you know, that are able to fight it so hard and put up such a good face and good front that all of a sudden it will just take them down.

    >> tell us about the transition from the military back to civilian life, because people often spoke of him as such a model example of how to deal with post- traumatic stress .

    >> well, he fell strongly that he needed to give back to not only the service men and women but to humanity in general. he had a big old heart, even though some of things he saw in war would have scarred most hearts. he got very much involved in the ride to recovery, which was a terrific group that raises funds for the disabled veterans . he got very involved in a group called team rubicon and started the group in california. they were an early responder group that responded to the haitian earthquake and the chilean earthquake and the victims. he felt strongly that he needed to give something back.

    >> the ieva.

    >> worked very strongly with the iraq and afghanistan organization to let our folks in congress where he felt the shortcomings were in the va's treatment of veterans and the timing of the delivery of benefits to the veterans . he felt strongly about all those things. he was going to college, got married. seemed to be very much on the right track, but this disease is very insidious.

    >> are you going to pick up the mantle where your son has left off to talk about this and to be public and open and honest about the things that people do deal with when they come back from war?

    >> definitely. that's what clay would have wanted of me. i said all through the last two weeks he would not want to see me just crumbled in a corner somewhere. he would just say, mom, you can do it. several of his friends, you know, that's interesting you would ask that, because they said the same thing. just basically expecting us to carry on, and i feel, you know, i owe that to clay. he was doing everything he could to help other veterans not have to go through what he was going through, and he was strong-willed enough. he was very strong-willed young man, and he was strong-willed enough to battle through the system. the va does what they do well, but they're overwhelmed. the number of injured soldiers coming back, it's a really cruel twist of irony. the medics on the field save their lives, and so they come home. but they are coming home in huge numbers injured physically and mentally, and we're just not prepared. we have to be better prepared to take care of them.

    >> from the nbc family here, all of us, we want to pass again our heartfelt condolences to you and yours but we celebrate your son's life and dedicate to this country and we wish you the best as you continue to talk about this to bring awareness and talk about your son's memory. thank you.

    >> thank you very much. i appreciate it.

    >> thank you.

msnbc.com news services
updated 4/15/2011 3:52:01 PM ET 2011-04-15T19:52:01

Handsome and friendly, Clay Hunt so epitomized a vibrant Iraq veteran that he was chosen for a public service announcement that told veterans that they aren't alone.

The 28-year-old former Marine corporal earned a Purple Heart after taking a sniper's bullet in his left wrist. He returned to combat in Afghanistan. Upon his return home, he lobbied for veterans on Capitol Hill, road-biked with wounded veterans and performed humanitarian work in Haiti and Chile.

Then, on March 31, Hunt bolted himself in his Houston apartment and shot himself.

Friends and family say he was wracked with survivor's guilt, depression and other emotional struggles after combat.

Hunt's death has shaken many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who knew him wonder why someone who seemed to be doing all the right things to deal with combat-related issues is now dead.

"We know we have a problem with vets' suicides, but this was really a slap in the face," said Matthew Pelak, 32, an Iraq veteran who worked with Hunt in Haiti as part of the nonprofit group Team Rubicon.

After news of Hunt's death spread, workers from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors met with veterans visiting Washington for the annual lobbying effort by the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, or IAVA. A year earlier, Hunt had been with other veterans in dark suits calling on Congress to improve the disability claims process.

Life after combat
He had appeared in the group's ads encouraging veterans to seek support from an online network of fellow veterans.

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Snapshots posted on Facebook reflect a mostly grinning Hunt. In one, he has a beard and is surrounded by Haitian kids. A second shows him on the Capitol steps with fellow veterans. There's a shot of him from the back on a bike using his right arm to help push another bicyclist who is helping to guide an amputee in a specially modified bike.

Friends and family say Hunt suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But with his boundless energy and countless friends, he came across as an example of how to live life after combat.

"I think everybody saw him as the guy that was battling it, but winning the battle every day," said Jacob Wood, 27, a friend who served with Hunt in the Marines and in Haiti with Team Rubicon.

'He's seen some traumatic stuff'
But some knew he was grieving over several close friends in the Marines who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He was very despondent about why he was alive and so many people he served with directly were not alive," said John Wordin, 48, the founder of Ride 2 Recovery, a program that uses bicycling to help veterans heal physically and mentally.

“We certainly feel that Clay led an exemplary life, and that this post-traumatic stress disorder just caught up with him,” said his parents, Susan Selke and Stacy Hunt, in an interview Friday with msnbc's Thomas Roberts.

In 2007, while in Iraq with the Marine's 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, Hunt heard over the radio that his 20-year-old bunkmate had died in a roadside bombing. Hunt later wrote online about sleeping in his bunkmate's bed. "I just wanted to be closer to him, I guess. But I couldn't — he was gone."

A month later, Hunt was pinned by enemy fire in his truck as a fellow Marine, shot in the throat by a sniper, lay nearby. Hunt wrote that seeing his friend placed in a helicopter, where he died, is "a scene that plays on repeat in my head nearly every day, and most nights as well."

Clay Hunt, Nate Hunt
AP
This handout photo, taken in October 2010, provided by Ride 2 Recovery, shows Clay Hunt, right, with Nate Hunt in the 2010 California Ride.

Three days later, a sniper's bullet missed Hunt's head by inches and hit his wrist. He didn't immediately leave Iraq. His parents say Hunt asked to fly to a military hospital in Germany a day later so he could accompany a fellow Marine who was shot in both legs.

"I know he's seen some traumatic stuff in his time and I guess he holds that to himself," said Marine Sgt. Oscar Garza, 26, who served with Hunt in Iraq. "He was a very compassionate Marine, a very passionate person, one of the few people that I know that has a big heart and feels a lot of people's pain and makes it his own."

Sought a second tour
Hunt's mother Susan said after he was wounded, she'd hoped her son would get out of the military. Instead, he went to school to be a scout-sniper and went to Afghanistan. He seemed to do well. He was honorably discharged in 2009, married and enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

He was frustrated by the Veterans Affairs Department's handling of his disability claim. He also piled up thousands of dollars in credit card debt as he waited for his GI Bill payments. Hunt found an outlet to help improve the system by doing work with IAVA. He helped build bikes for Ride 2 Recovery and participated in long rides.

Using his military training, he went to Haiti several times and Chile once to help with the countries' earthquake relief efforts. He proudly told his parents of splinting an infant's leg, and after meeting a young orphaned boy in Haiti named D'James, tried to persuade his family to adopt him.

"If I had one thing to say to my fellow veterans, it would be this: Continue to serve, even though we have taken off our uniforms," Hunt wrote in an online testimonial for Team Rubicon. "No matter how great or small your service is, it is desired and needed by the world we live in today."

Hunt's friends say he was an idealist and voiced frustration that he couldn't make changes overnight. He also questioned why troops were still dying.

"He really was looking for someone to tell him what it was he went over to do and why those sacrifices were made," Wood said.

'Clay was always a fighter'
Last year, Hunt's life took a downward spiral. His marriage ended, he dropped out of school and he began to have suicidal thoughts, his mother said. She said Hunt sought counseling from the VA and moved in temporarily with Wordin in California.

Things seemed to improve for Hunt in recent months after he returned to his hometown of Houston to be near family.

He got a construction job, leased an apartment, bought a truck and began dating. He called friends to discuss the possibility of re-enlisting. In the days before he died, he hung out with friends, and he had plans the following weekend to do a Ride 2 Recovery bike ride. He even told Garza he couldn't wait to see him at a Fourth of July reunion with other Marines.

Then he was dead.

"Clay was always a fighter," Wordin said. "He was always a guy to stick things out and he basically quit life, and I was mad that he felt he had to do that at that particular time."

Hunt's friends and family count him a casualty of war — just like his buddies who died in the battlefield.

Msnbc and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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