Widow continues Marine veteran's fight

The widow of a U.S. Marine who took his own life after a battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, will travel to Washington, D.C., as Sen. Richard Blumenthal's guest at Tuesday's State of the Union address.

Joanna Eldridge had four young children and was caring for her 31-year-old husband, Justin Eldridge, at the time of his death in Waterford. He also had a traumatic brain injury that initially went undiagnosed.

"Justin Eldridge is one of thousands of veterans who have lost their battle to invisible wounds of war," Blumenthal said in a news release issued last week. "Even as we lose another 22 veterans each day to suicide, we must not forget the spouses, children and community they leave behind."

Blumenthal is pushing for passage of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a bill aimed at improving mental health care and suicide prevention programs for servicemen and women.

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives last week, would evaluate suicide prevention programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, improve coordination among veterans organizations and the VA and provide loan repayments for psychiatrists and mental health workers at the VA. The legislation would also boost community outreach and support services.

Eldridge joined the Marines in 2001 and served until taking a medical retirement as a sergeant in 2008. In an interview after his death in October 2013, Joanna Eldridge said her husband tried to overcome the trauma he experienced during an eight-month tour in Afghanistan, but could not.

He tried drug combinations, underwent counseling and therapy and spent time in VA hospitals, she said.

"He lost his battle, but I will fight the war," she said at the time. "My children will not be defined by this. I'm not going to let their father's death be in vain."

She could not be reached for comment.

A group from the unit visited Eldridge's grave on the one-year anniversary of his death, Michael Macek, former senior vice commandant of the unit, said Friday.

"If there was any clue or indication that it was going to turn into what it turned into, I would have tried to help him or intervene," said Macek, now a resident of Old Saybrook and sergeant for the East Lyme Police Department.

Macek said he saw Eldridge the August before he died, and they talked for about two hours. Eldridge would talk about what he experienced but not too much, Macek said.

"I think it's more like those skeletons in the closet that you don't want to open and see anymore," Macek said. "These dreams, they don't go away."

Macek, who also served eight years but was not in combat, said Eldridge related to him as a fellow Marine.

"I think they're trying to keep these skeletons in the closet because they don't want to relive it. And there's no outlet for them to go to," he said.

Every time he's read about a veteran committing suicide, the person sought help, Macek said.

"Every article seems to be consistent in that these guys tried to seek help from the VA but were put on a back burner and by the time anything could be done they had already killed themselves.

"They took their lives because they couldn't live with the demons that they had seen," he said.

Veterans who grow up in different environments still suffer the psychological shock, he said.

"You have these kids, they're playing these video games and they think they know, but when they get put in the actual reality and real bullets are flying, that's a whole different scenario. Some people can handle it and some people can't," Macek said.

The proposed law is named for another veteran who also committed suicide.

Earlier last week, Blumenthal joined U.S. Sen. John McCain in re-introducing the bill, which goes next to the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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