For Waterford veteran, battling PTSD was too tough a fight

This photo of Joanna and Justin Eldridge was taken in 2010 during a Marine Corp ball held in Connecticut. Justin Eldridge killed himself Oct. 29 in the couple's Waterford home after suffering from PTSD for several years.
This photo of Joanna and Justin Eldridge was taken in 2010 during a Marine Corp ball held in Connecticut. Justin Eldridge killed himself Oct. 29 in the couple's Waterford home after suffering from PTSD for several years. Courtesy Joanna Eldridge

Justin Eldridge tried to overcome his post traumatic stress disorder, his wife said. He spent time in VA hospitals. He tried various drug combinations and underwent counseling and therapy. None of it worked, she said.

On Oct. 29, he took his own life in his Waterford home.

The former 31-year-old Marine, who served his country for 8½ years before taking a medical retirement as a sergeant in 2008, could not seem to overcome what he had experienced while serving an eight-month tour in Afghanistan.

"He lost his battle, but I will fight the war," Joanna Eldridge, his wife, said in a recent interview. "My children will not be defined by this. I'm not going to let their father's death be in vain."

Joanna Eldridge, 31, became a certified caregiver through the VA in 2011 so she could care for her husband full time.

"We need to talk about PTSD," she said. "We need to take better care of our veterans. I'm here to tell Justin's story. If it can help a fellow veteran, then his life and death wouldn't be in vain. We are losing too many veterans because of suicide."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a report on the most comprehensive data collected on suicide from 1999 through 2010. The study found that the number of suicides among veterans reached 22 a day - a suicide every 65 minutes.

Last week, the department announced the hiring of more than 800 peer specialists and peer apprentices aimed at improving access to mental health services for veterans, service members and military families.

The state has mandated that cities and towns designate a veterans' service contact person to attend an annual training course and help veterans get the services and benefits they have earned. Each municipality had to choose someone by Oct. 1. This is one of several new state initiatives designed to improve the lives of the state's veterans and service members.

Bothered by nightmares

When Joanna Gallup met Justin in 2006, the year after he had returned from Afghanistan, she had no intention of marrying again. She was divorced and had a 6-month-old son. He was divorced, too, and also had a son.

"We decided that since we weren't going to get married again that we should just marry each other," Eldridge said with a smile. "So we got married after just three months of dating."

Eldridge said Justin was kind and fun, and was loving to her son, Vincent, whom he adopted. The pair had three more children together.

But their whirlwind romance soon faced challenges. About a year and half into their marriage, Justin began to grow angry and hostile. He started to drink heavily and have nightmares.

"What bothered me was the nightmares," Eldridge said. "He would say, 'They're coming. Watch out!'"

At the time, she attributed his change in behavior to his taxing schedule. He was working 80 hours a week at a local shipyard.

Justin's problems came to a head with a suicide attempt in 2008, an overdose of Xanax. Doctors at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital said he needed specialized treatment for his PTSD and diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. It was the first time he had had such a diagnosis.

Eldridge said she was told that it would take three to four weeks for him to get into the VA hospital in West Haven. She contacted then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, for help. Justin got into the VA hospital within three days.

"I believe that first year, he was still in shell shock," she said. "He hadn't dealt with what happened over there. He wouldn't talk about it. He said he would take what he saw to his grave, and he did."

Eldridge said he spent three weeks in West Haven, came home for a week, then went back for another two weeks. He stopped taking the prescribed medication because it made him feel like a "zombie."

The PTSD symptoms continued.

The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Eldridge said that she could tell when Justin was having a flashback of his tour in Afghanistan because his foot would start shaking back and forth.

She said he also suffered from night terrors.

"He would be sitting on the bed with his eyes wide open and say, 'I smell them coming.' He would look out the window and say he could see them. He thought he was still in Afghanistan. I had to snap him out of it. He was confused. It was very scary."

She stuck by him

In Afghanistan Justin Eldridge drove wreckers and was a radioman. His wife said he had to dodge mortar attacks and often would lose consciousness during the bombings. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury in 2010.

"His memory was just awful," she said.

The couple endured more suicide attempts, mood swings and alcohol abuse. Despite the strain in their marriage, she said, she could never leave him.

"He was the love of my life," Eldridge said. "We took our marriage vows seriously."

In May 2012, Justin went to an intensive, six-week, residential treatment program at the VA in Leeds, Mass. He became sober and for months took Antabuse, which makes a person violently ill if he or she drinks, because he wanted to get his alcoholism under control, and he went back on his medications. At the time of his death, he had been sober for a year and a half and was still taking his medications, his wife said.

After the hospital stay in Massachusetts, Justin became involved with the Wounded Warrior Project and, in August, became a peer mentor with the group.

Even though Justin seemed to be doing all the right things, Eldridge said, he still struggled.

"He was on his medications for a year," she said. "It wasn't getting better. I think part of the problem is that they don't know enough about PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I also think you cannot make someone unsee what they have already seen."

On Oct. 29, the day he committed suicide, Justin was in the basement, listening to loud music, Eldridge said. She said he was more agitated than normal and began yelling at her. Fearing for her safety, she left the house and called police.

"His brain separated from reality, but I knew there was enough of him still there that he wouldn't harm the children," she said. "He locked himself in the basement and killed himself. The children were asleep and didn't hear anything. I think it could have been more terrible if I stayed."

'He loved us'

Ami Neiberger-Miller, a public affairs officer at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which provides resources for anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one in the military, said military members have a difficult time seeking help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

"There is that culture sometimes that when things are hard you have to suck it up instead of reaching out for help," she said. "You wouldn't expect somebody with a broken leg to suck it up and keep going on. No, the expectation is to get help to treat that injury. The same should be expected with a mental health injury."

Neiberger-Miller said her group encourages people to get help because lives are saved through proper interventions.

"It's not something you can always soldier through," she said, adding that it typically takes a family five to seven years to heal and get to a new normal after a suicide.

"We often see these families on a quest to put back the puzzle pieces, trying to answer the question of why, why did our loved one reach that point," she said.

Eldridge said their children range in age from 3 to 8 years old. His son from his previous relationship is 10. She said the children are in various stages of grief and were told that their daddy's brain wasn't working properly and that's why he died.

Eldridge said she plans to continue with her online studies at the American Public University so she can become a lawyer and advocate for veterans.

"Someone needs to stand up for our veterans," she said. "I want families of returning veterans to get help for them as soon as they come home, even if they are not showing any signs. You can never be too vigilant. It could save a life."

Eldridge said she struggles with her feelings for Justin now that he's gone.

"It's hard not be angry with him, but I know he loved us," she said. "I saw how hard it was for him. I think he stayed alive as long as he could for us. He was strong, but his brain had enough."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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