Citizen or Soldier? A Blurry Balancing Act Has National Guard Reeling for Resilience.

As of Jan. 17, veterans thinking about hurting themselves can get free crisis care, including inpatient, for up to 90 days at Veterans Affairs. They do not need to be enrolled in VA care. For immediate help, dial 988, then press 1.

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a multipart series. Read the first and second stories. 

A few weeks after Staff Sgt. Chris DeLano met Col. Tom Stewart in a brewery to tell him he had throat cancer, DeLano reached back out with what seemed to be good news: His cancer treatment appeared to be working.

DeLano—the quiet soldier who had worked to help his guys when they were in danger in Afghanistan, as well as when the suicide deaths began after they returned home to Massachusetts after their deployment—seemed to have hope.

“[Doctors have] started me on [an estrogen blocker] to couple with radiation treatments,” DeLano texted Stewart. “The original mass has been shrinking but found another one on my vocal cords. Go back in two weeks to see if that one is shrinking also.”

Members of Delta Company, 2nd Platoon, in Kunar province. Photo courtesy of Hercules Lobo.

Members of Delta Company, 2nd Platoon, in Kunar province. Photo courtesy of Hercules Lobo.

Stewart shot back with a Bee Gees joke.

“They’ve [doctors] been optimistic the whole time,” DeLano wrote.

“That’s good to hear,” Stewart replied.

“Yes, sir,” DeLano wrote, “it is.”

It was December 2020—just a few months after DeLano told his superiors at his National Guard unit about his diagnosis.

DeLano closed out the text conversation by saying he was headed to the airport to drop off his stepdaughter.

Stewart left it at that. It seemed like a bit of good news for soldiers once in a unit, the 182nd Infantry Regiment, that had seen too much in the decade that followed their return from a 2011 deployment to Afghanistan.

Except, DeLano didn’t have cancer.

Stewart could not have known that, and friends DeLano told didn’t question it either. DeLano told his friends he was going through a difficult time—they chalked it up to cancer and a difficult divorce.

DeLano’s platoon had lost four soldiers to suicide in the first year back from Afghanistan, including a charismatic squad leader and DeLano’s hero, Staff Sgt. Kevin O’Boyle. Understanding the need for connection, DeLano started a nonprofit after O’Boyle died. He called it The Battle Starts at Home, and it was meant to help veterans who struggled with the transition from deployment to home. DeLano married, and he offered help during the Covid crisis. When he struggled, he sought mental health care. 

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But old negative coping skills took hold, tightening their grip and spiraling him into extreme stories he couldn’t quite work his way out of. The stories helped him detach from reality. Mental health is complex like that: Invisible wounds manifest in ways many don’t understand.

Resilience—or the ability to make positive adjustments in the face of difficult situations—relies on the connections service members make both on and off the battlefield. It requires trust as they encourage each other through hard times. But as the 182nd returned from Afghanistan, they went back to their civilian jobs and their civilian homes, far from each other and from people who understood the experience. Even those who worked to build strength in others struggled to adapt.

As the active-duty military, with its daily interactions and monstrous budget, fought to find a path for service members as they returned home, National Guard and reserve service members faced an entirely different, unblazed trail. They didn’t see each other in barracks and formations and on the way to the dining facility each workday. The National Guard didn’t have the money to throw at programs, people, and research. And the guardsmen already had limited time, with the soldiers coming in for only two days a month to train and to prepare for the next potential deployment.

Building and maintaining resilience has proven to be just as complex as the multitude of stressors service members have lived through. Some bring childhood trauma or an internalized negative mindset with them into service. Others may be working through a moral injury—either participating in or witnessing an atrocity that defies personal values. Some endure an identity crisis as they transition out of the military and struggle to define who they are without it. Some experience a combination of some or all.

Even as the guardsmen came up with their own solutions, they couldn’t figure out how to help those who didn’t show any obvious signs of problems—or who refused treatment.

Stewart and DeLano closed out 2020 on a positive note, but they would enter a year where 101 soldiers in the U.S. Army National Guard would die by suicide. Seeing his soldiers attend one funeral after another in their first year home confirmed to Stewart what he had sensed when he visited platoon members in Afghanistan’s Paktika province following their only combat casualty:

“They’re stronger when they’re together, mutually supportive of one another,” he says. “They’re weak when they’re apart.”

DeLano’s last lonely act would serve as bitter proof.

‘Those Traumatic Events Could Lead to Suicidal Ideation’

O’Boyle’s death became the gut punch that convinced Sgt. 1st Class Hercules Lobo to seek care, he says. Lobo, a hardened infantryman, first served in the Cape Verdean Armed Forces before joining the U.S. Army. He was no stranger to the crucibles of combat and the devastations of war. He was born to be a soldier, he says. Yet he grappled with moral injury following Afghanistan and briefly sought cognitive behavioral therapy.

“I had my wife and my kids, and I started doing long-distance walking and running,” he says. “I created my own mechanisms to fight the phantoms, to fight the feelings of guilt.”

But within the unit, as soldiers continued to die by suicide, wakes and funeral services became points of intervention for the service members who attended, says Ret. Col. John Rodolico, a psychologist who served as deputy commander for the Massachusetts National Guard Medical Command.

He and behavioral health officers provided “critical incident stress management,” a short-term response tactic to the immediate event, he says. They went to every funeral because they knew other struggling soldiers would attend.

Members of 182nd’s Delta company pay their respects to Sgt. Kevin O’Boyle, who died by suicide on Aug. 22, 2013. Photo courtesy of Darlene Croston.

Members of 182nd’s Delta Company pay their respects to Sgt. Kevin O’Boyle, who died by suicide on Aug. 22, 2013. Photo courtesy of Darlene Croston.

“We would wait for them to come to us, or, if no one’s coming to us, we would start at the top,” Rodolico says. “Maybe a commander or first sergeant would say, ‘I’m worried about so and so, that’s that guy over there.’ And we would go over and talk to him a little bit, and then keep our eye on them.”

Rodolico likened the experience to critical event debriefings that happen in theater, where medical teams go to units after a traumatic event to help them process their experience.

“The intervention needs to occur once that traumatic event occurs,” Rodolico says. “The whole idea of that is to have someone process the traumatic event as much as possible days after the event, and then give education around what’s normal, what’s not normal.”

They needed to catch it early.

“If that kind of cognitive processing doesn’t happen, those traumatic events could lead to suicidal ideations, in some way,” he says.

As with the Massachusetts National Guard, suicide has plagued nearly every state’s reserve component. The rate of suicide deaths in the Army National Guard in 2021 was 30 per every 100,000 soldiers, according to a report from the Department of Defense.

In March 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced a newly formed Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee, to look at the military’s efforts to address and prevent suicide. While the committee planned to look at nine installations, only one of those, North Carolina, included National Guard soldiers.

And a coalition of regional nonprofit organizations meets quarterly to discuss readiness among Massachusetts National Guard members, including suicide risk and prevention. But because of the pandemic, the coalition didn’t meet between 2019 and May 2022.

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“[The Guard] only has them one weekend a month—the community has them the rest of the 28 days, so that’s where they need to get help and resources,” says Command Sgt. Maj. William Davidson, who now serves as director of veteran outreach and peer support at Home Base.

After Davidson returned from Afghanistan in 2012, the Guard hired him to lead the agency’s Resilience, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention Task Force. As much as 5% of the force has identifiable behavioral health issues, including PTSD and TBI, Davidson says.

“After all the suicides, I think that’s when the Guard started utilizing outside resources to say that, ‘Hey, we can’t handle this on our own,’” he says.

‘We’re Blurring Out a Lot of Detail’

After three of his platoonmates killed themselves, DeLano worked to build a stronger network. In 2015, he received the Guard’s Seven Seals volunteer service award for his nonprofit organization, The Battle Starts at Home. He got married and inherited a stepdaughter he considered his own.

He seemed to be building the connections required for resiliency: He had engaged in altruistic work. He had strong social relationships. He was surrounded by people who cared about his well-being. He had access to care.

But it’s not that simple.

The concept of resilience has perplexed the public, puzzled military leadership, and inspired scientific research for more than a century: Why is it that people with similar painful experiences have different outcomes? How early in someone’s life can we accurately identify their risk for suicide and successfully intervene? And how can we replicate resiliency so it extends to all?

Building resilience means more than interacting with a battle buddy. Soldiers were told resilience meant “bouncing back”—but some of them enlisted to avoid going back to wherever they had been in their lives before basic training, they told The War Horse.

Behavioral health experts have pushed the Guard to incorporate clinical care with the same level of rigor as they do equipment accountability: A weapon lost puts the whole armory on lockdown. They know clinical care must be included to build resilient troops.

But soldiers experience things differently, and one soldier’s resilience level can’t be compared to another’s, says Kenneth Pitts, the 182nd’s deployment’s operations sergeant major, who is now a research psychologist at the Army Research Institute for Behavioral Scientists at Fort Benning in Georgia. He studies biological responses to war-induced traumatic stress.

When people think about trauma, they “tend to oversimplify the problem and its explanation: ‘Someone is just “tough enough,” or is able, and others are not,’” Pitts says. “In order to think like that, we’re blurring out a lot of detail.”

Resilience is not numbness to an experience, or the ability to ignore feelings related to an event; it’s being proficient in deeply feeling and processing that experience. Resilience is not the ability to hack it when others can’t—it’s not a comparative state, where one has more of it because someone else has less. Resilience is not even about the ability to bounce back. It’s better measured by the ability to adapt in any given environment—a concept psychologists know as “contextual sensitivity.”

While prolonged, high-intensity situations—like combat—change everyone to some degree, what happens within a deployment is not a self-contained measure of a person’s resilience.

“A lot of what’s happening at home, the environment around that individual, a lot of their history, things they’ve been exposed to leading up to that [traumatic event], have parts to play,” Pitts says.

‘I Don’t Have My Guys Every Day of the Year’

After O’Boyle’s death, Stewart worked with the nonprofit group Project New Hope to organize a weekend-long deployment reunion at a Massachusetts retreat center. The reunion, first held in October 2013, was a novel concept. The deployment mission had ended, the unit leadership had changed, and there was no formal assistance from the Guard.

“Just because we have a change of command and I passed the flag to [a] new guy doesn’t mean that I’m just going to let go of all my cares of all the 684 guys that deployed with me,” Stewart says.

Far fewer than 684 service members have appeared at any of the reunions, but those who do have come from as far as Florida for the opportunity to reconnect.

“We’re going to keep doing it for as long as they come,” Stewart says.

Back in the armory, Lobo leads mandatory resilience briefings for the soldiers in his unit. He’s part of the Guard’s initiative for soldiers to learn from leaders about suicide awareness and prevention. But it’s difficult for service members to connect during their formal training in a way that they can recognize if someone may be in need of help, Lobo says.

“I don’t have my guys every day throughout the year,” Lobo says. In the National Guard, service members spend two weeks during the summer in training, and then drill just one weekend a month for the rest of the year. A few have full-time jobs with the National Guard, but the majority also work civilian jobs. During drill weekends, the soldiers perform skills training, maintain their equipment, handle any administrative tasks, and then work to fit in briefings about how to get mental health care, recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and rebuild relationships with friends and family.

“The time [together] is so minimum,” Lobo says. “The drill weekends become a nightmarish situation because there is so much tasks we have to fulfill that is unrealistic.”

Service members drive home from drill on Sunday, and many check back into their civilian job first thing Monday morning—or even that evening for an overnight shift, Lobo says.

‘Nowadays, There’s More and More Hope’

DeLano would deploy once more, this time to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip of Palestine. At his send-off party at the Weymouth-Braintree Lodge of Elks in Massachusetts in February 2017, it seemed he would deploy from a different place in his life. The typically introverted DeLano seemed to have found a new purpose: He was married. He owned a home. Dozens attended the get-together—the air at the send-off party felt more like a homecoming.

But while the Sinai was not a combat mission like Afghanistan, DeLano’s return home proved more tumultuous. The Battle Starts at Home—the organization he had founded—had already fallen apart before he deployed, and, after the deployment, so did his marriage. He grew estranged from his immediate family.

Stewart remained a steadfast link. He invited DeLano to football watch parties and bonfires with friends. In 2019, when Stewart learned that DeLano did not have a place to go for Christmas, he brought him to his family’s Christmas gathering at his mother’s house.

The two hardly knew each other in the leadup to their unit’s deployment to Afghanistan, and they didn’t speak once to each other in theater. But after they returned home, nearly a decade of difficulty within their battalion kept them, and many others, together.

“When you go to war with people, it doesn’t go away just because you come home and you’re not their commander anymore,” Stewart says. “They need you and you need to be that one.

“That’s the way I felt and I would always feel that way still about any of these guys that we were deployed with,” Stewart says. “So, I don’t know, he kept reaching out to me and I was all right with that.”

‘I Can’t Believe This Person’s Falling Apart’

When he was young, DeLano and his father liked to swim together on family trips to see DeLano’s grandparents, and his father taught DeLano how to renovate houses. On vacations when he was growing up, the family visited New Hampshire, where DeLano’s love of the outdoors, as well as motorsports, grew under his dad’s influence. DeLano’s world changed at age 15 when his father died of colon cancer. 

“He was still young,” says his sister, Tauna Holland. She was seven years older than him. “He was the youngest of us four.”

DeLano carried the loss with him. He kept a few of his father’s possessions, including a vintage yellow metal chest his father built. He moved it in with him to our place. He took pride in how well it was built. It weighed more than 45 pounds when empty and collected dust in the garage, but it served its purpose. Put a cold can of anything in it with some ice and it would stay that way.

Once, a major flood swept through the town after torrential rain. The water carried away a refrigerator and left other appliances in our home unusable, and our damaged belongings filled more than two dumpster bags. But the chest in the garage remained where he left it, undamaged. Despite being submerged for hours, it was dry inside. It withstood time.

Trauma, too, can withstand time.

Adverse childhood experiences is one of the clearest indicators of risk, says Rodolico, who is now the director of military and veteran consultation services at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.

Hercules Lobo, right, with two friends, celebrates Chris DeLano’s birthday in January 2022. DeLano would have turned 37. Photo courtesy of Hercules Lobo.

Hercules Lobo, right, with two friends, celebrates Chris DeLano’s birthday in January 2022. DeLano would have turned 37. Photo courtesy of Hercules Lobo.

“When you get people who are more developmentally vulnerable to suicide, then you put them into a traumatic environment like a combat zone, they are more likely to be less resilient, but also more likely to have some behavioral health issues,” Rodolico says. Not all people who have experienced childhood trauma are destined for a negative outcome, he added.

But even though some service members bring some risk factors with them, suicide prevention efforts focus on the immediate risk factors a Guard member encounters while in service.

“The reasons [for suicide] are as varied as the soldiers that make up our force,” says Maj. Katherine Murphy, director of warrior resilience and fitness with the Massachusetts National Guard. “Everyone comes in with their own lived life experiences and their own struggles and personal resilience.”

Divorced service members, or those separated from their partners, are at higher risk for suicide compared to those who are married, studies suggest. Alcoholism, heavy or binge drinking— identified as a growing public health concern among Guard members—is also associated with suicide risk. Storing firearms unsafely while experiencing a heightened sense of feeling “on guard” may also contribute to risk, some studies suggest. Signs of risk can seep into professional life with frequent absences from work and financial difficulties.

Watching a friend who remained resilient while deployed die by suicide later can be confusing to other soldiers, Rodolico says.

“If someone has always been squared away the whole time, and then they come home, and all of a sudden, they’re not able to cope with transition. …” Rodolico says. “You’re scratching your head, saying this person—I can’t believe this person’s falling apart.

“I think transitions are difficult for people,” he says. “You really don’t know.”

‘It’s About Us’

Months after DeLano’s 2017 deployment to the Sinai, his sister drove him to the front door of a therapy program at a VA clinic and watched to make sure he went inside, she says. Holland and other family members had struggled to convince him to get help—telling him he needed consistent care.

She learned later that he didn’t go to his appointments.

As DeLano and others in the military returned from their deployments, they ticked off boxes on a checklist. This happened as all they thought about were hugs from family members, that first steak dinner, or showers with consistently hot water. If they answered yes to a mental health question, all of that would be delayed.

“If you ask somebody if they have any mental health challenges on the way out—when everybody goes on block leave, they go on medical hold and they don’t get to go with their families,” says Retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond, who oversaw the 181st and 182nd’s Afghanistan deployment as brigade commander of the 26th Yankee Division. “Systematically, we’re not doing it right.”

Ret. Col. John Rodolico, a psychologist at McLean Hospital who also serves as an assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discusses military and first responder care in relation to substance use disorders at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Sept. 21. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Ret. Col. John Rodolico, a psychologist at McLean Hospital who also serves as an assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discusses military and first responder care in relation to substance use disorders at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Sept. 21. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

But many former and current Massachusetts Guard members working in suicide prevention say much has changed since the 182nd’s return from Afghanistan in 2012. The Guard has adopted a more holistic view of suicide prevention, Murphy says.

The Guard has trained more suicide prevention officers in each unit to help service members build resilience and detect those at risk, Murphy says. The Guard also trains their executive leaders—“everyone from a two-star teaching to a corporal team leader”—to talk to soldiers directly under their command about suicide, Murphy says.

As early as 2013, the Guard implemented Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training workshops, which include mandatory briefings for all Guard members during every drill.

The Army also requires National Guard soldiers to undergo Master Resilience Training at least once every other month to develop psychological and behavioral skills to cope with stress. Some noncommissioned officers, like Lobo, complete a two-week certification course and then lead briefings for their unit.

One study analyzed the survey responses of 87 Florida Army National Guard members on the first and last day of the two-week training and found service members believed they were more resilient and had better tools to handle reintegration after taking the course. It’s unclear how long the perception lasts.

But some of the training material and lessons are obviously geared for civilians, rather than soldiers, and don’t always resonate, Lobo says. They’re unrealistic—and sometimes, they’re a little too touchy-feely. One lesson teaches soldiers to focus on the positive, or to “hunt the good stuff.”

“Sometimes we have to be adamant and tell soldiers, ‘You have a problem, and you need to seek help,” Lobo says. “You can’t focus on the positive if you’re not stable.”

But the resiliency programs have empowered soldiers to talk about how they’re doing with others, says Massachusetts resilience coordinator Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Levesque.

The Guard also asks team leaders to check on their soldiers to identify issues before they come up on the formal surveys. Team leaders are expected to show that “not only do you care about your soldiers, but you take an interest in their lives,” Levesque says.

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“The reality of caring for somebody is calling them and talking to them to see what’s going on,” Levesque says. “They learn about their families, they learn about their job situations.”

If they’re already tapped into each other’s lives, it’s easier to have tough conversations because the trust and courage to speak up are already in place, he says. “It’s asking the tough questions of, ‘Hey, are you thinking about suicide?’” Levesque says. “That’s one of the toughest things you could ever ask another soldier.”

And they’ve been trained to know what to do if the answer is yes, Murphy says.

“I think that that’s a big paradigm shift from 15 to 20 years ago, where people just wouldn’t ask the question, because they were afraid of what the answer might be,” Murphy says.

Murphy says she has seen the number of suicide deaths in the Massachusetts National Guard “trend down” since she was hired into her full-time position in 2014, and cited the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for the number of suicides in the state’s Guard. But the yearly reports do not parse the numbers of suicide deaths by state, and the Massachusetts National Guard did not respond to multiple requests for data on the annual number of suicide deaths among its airmen and soldiers to confirm her statement. Across the nation, Army National Guard suicide numbers went down by three from 2020 to 2021—from 105 to 102. From 2019 to 2020, they went up by 29.

Stewart says the solutions are about community and reaching out to each other—and not ticking all the training boxes during drill weekends.

“This isn’t something you can buy your way out of, or fund your way out of,” Stewart says. “Not the Army, not DOD, not the government, not the president.”

“This has to do with people connecting,” he says. “It’s about us.”

‘I Don’t Know What the Hell Is That’

In the fall of 2020—less than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic—Lobo met DeLano at the Boston armory where DeLano worked: He was now a part of the 181st Infantry Regiment. DeLano gave him boxes of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), hand sanitizer, and medical gloves. That was DeLano’s way of helping out a friend during uncertain times.

DeLano told Lobo he was going through a hard time but was spending time outdoors to work through it, Lobo recalls.

“He told me he was diagnosed with some kind of terminal illness,” Lobo says. “But he was fighting it. He was fighting it.”

DeLano left Lobo with the impression that he would come out the other side of it. He still cracked jokes—like calling the hardened infantryman “cupcake.” And he still had the “million-dollar smile,” Lobo says.

But Lobo did not know that it wasn’t cancer he was fighting.

“At no point did I realize he was in a state of mind with depression,” Lobo says.

He also did not know DeLano’s story was unraveling in other ways.

DeLano had told his unit he needed to be closer to home, as well as that he needed time off to go to medical appointments. The Guard required documentation to accommodate DeLano’s altered work schedule. But for three months, he didn’t supply it.

DeLano’s superiors suspected he was lying and dialed up the pressure for him to produce documents that could confirm his diagnosis and stated medical appointments, sources close to the incident told The War Horse.

Lobo knew each soldier dealt differently with the stress he faced. They might respond with excessive anger to seemingly minor mistakes. They might avoid the crowds at football games. They might spend massive amounts of time online, avoiding real human contact.

Or an old habit, an old way of dealing with life’s major changes, might resurface.

He also knew that he couldn’t always know what else was going on in a soldier’s life.

RAND Corporation recently looked at the service members most at-risk for suicide and found the suicide rates in Veterans Health Administration patients were highest in veterans who have opioid use disorder or bipolar disorder—and are also higher for veterans with schizophrenia and other substance abuse disorders. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and head injuries are also at higher risk.

The same report states that evidence appears to show that screening all VA patients for suicide risk could save lives. In 2017, the VA created a tool, REACH VET, that uses algorithms to look for people at the highest risk of dying by suicide.

For the same reason—service members have different levels of risk—blanket suicide prevention training may simply drain time and resources for an already time- and resource-strapped component, says Hammond, who became the executive director of the Massachusetts-based veterans’ clinical program, Home Base, which provides care for veterans and their families, after he returned home.. Researchers at Home Base and Harvard University are working with the founders of RallyPoint, a social network for service members, to apply machine learning to more accurately predict suicide risk among service members.

“So rather than spending billions of dollars trying to train people that are fully resilient and have absolutely no problem at all,” Hammond says, “if they improved on the existing data collection tools, and use everything that’s out there already, they could develop the best predictive model for the Army for suicide.”

Other researchers also use machine learning to predict everything from suicide risk to whether certain treatments will work for a specific service member.

Clinicians, especially those who are not experienced with caring for service members, may benefit from the group’s research, Hammond says.

“They could then develop a clinical decision support tool for the providers,” Hammond says, “so that they don’t have to use inference and Kentucky windage to figure out what to do when they see somebody.”

But there also needs to be a culture shift, the soldiers say. If service members would treat their bodies and minds the way they treat training and equipment, those who need help will feel more comfortable getting it.

“Getting people to get help is really the key mission,” Rodolico says. “That’s not to say that just because they get help that you’re going to prevent a suicide, but the probability is lower.”

For now, seeking help is hard, Lobo says. The culture of silence among service members is so strong, it yields “victims, not victors,” Lobo says.

“I don’t believe in this notion of the alpha type that has to be this stone wall,” he says. “I don’t know what the hell is that.”

‘The Most Honest Thing’

On Jan. 29, 2021, DeLano published a note on Facebook. It was the “most honest thing” he could say, he wrote.

“Don’t give so much of yourself to others that you have nothing left to hold onto for yourself.”

His fellow soldiers recognized the language. There was often a call out, a last-minute plea for help. They went to his house, hoping to find him still thinking about it or sleeping it off. They would—will—always check on a battle buddy.

This time, they arrived too late.

DeLano had hung himself in his garage.

Those soldiers, who still had no reason not to believe DeLano’s stories, told responding police officers he had been taking medications for cancer.

But police could not find any such medications in his home.

Darlene Croston pictured with part of Delta Company, 2nd Platoon, at Chris DeLano’s funeral Feb. 5, 2021. Photo courtesy of Darlene Croston.

Darlene Croston pictured with part of Delta Company, 2nd Platoon, at Chris DeLano’s funeral Feb. 5, 2021. Photo courtesy of Darlene Croston.

In fact, the medication DeLano told Stewart he had been prescribed—anastrozole—isn’t used to treat throat cancer. There is no circumstance where a doctor would prescribe it for that diagnosis, multiple oncologists confirmed to The War Horse. Doctors use the medication to treat breast cancer, primarily in postmenopausal women.

As the Guard investigated his death, soldiers found no record of visits to a specialist, before or after he had told coworkers he had been diagnosed. Investigators could find no documents or doctors that could verify DeLano was undergoing treatment, the Guard’s report states.

“He told his superiors my dad died of throat cancer, so he was afraid he’d go the same,” Holland, his sister, says. “Our dad died of colon cancer.”

Holland believes her brother may have killed himself because he anticipated potential disciplinary action, she says, but other factors contributed to his death: the inability to seek help for himself, the devastation of losing his father when he was young, the destruction he saw in Afghanistan, and the inability to connect with others—or himself—in an honest way.

After DeLano died, Maureen O’Boyle learned that a set of her son’s dog tags—the one she had loaned DeLano on the hope-filled day of his wedding—had been found hanging on a lamp next to his bed. She didn’t press to have it returned.

Now acutely aware of the signs of suicide, Maureen O’Boyle sees patterns similar to those she saw at the end of her son’s life playing out among soldiers she knows. She continues to lean into the lives of soldiers who served with her son, speaking with and seeing some of them regularly.

“I worry about them,” she says. “I know some of them are still struggling.”

‘This Is Not The Way’

On Memorial Day, Lobo ruck-marches 70 miles with others from Boston to Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

“It’s a way to cope,” Lobo says. “We spend long moments talking about a lot of different things, just walking.”

He holds a plaque with O’Boyle’s name. He visits DeLano and others he knows who lie there.

The battalion has endured at least one more suicide since DeLano’s death—a soldier who had deployed in the battalion’s Charlie Company.

The soldiers DeLano left behind keep reaching out, keep connecting, keep working—as DeLano did—to save the lives of those who need some extra help. It could be just a moment. A painful anniversary and too many beers. Or it could be months of moments. A depression that doesn’t lift, as they walk the blurred line of citizen and soldier—of being too much of one thing and not enough of another. It could be a lifetime, interlaced with treatment, friends, and an acceptance of a normal that’s different from a prewar life.

The first week we spoke, Lobo was headed to a fundraiser for the family of another Massachusetts service member who survived a suicide attempt.

Lobo, who is preparing for his fifth deployment, still doesn’t see himself as stronger or sounder than forces he feels but can’t see, he says.

“There’s nothing in the world bigger than you,” Lobo says, “but in order to help others, you have to be stable psychologically and physically.”

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Resilience often parades as physical strength and emotional toughness. But so many like Lobo have contended with their own vulnerability and have accepted they can’t go through it alone, and they know: Hardiness takes humility.

“We’re not special,” he says. “Not a single one of us is special.”

Earlier this year, Lobo got a call about a fellow Guard member in distress.

Lobo has been trained to intervene, but he didn’t pull from it to figure out what to say and how to say it, he says.

“Most of those bonds, those connections, you only have with the guys you deployed together with,” he says.

The distressed infantry soldier had also deployed with the 182nd’s Delta Company during the 2011 deployment, and he specifically asked that Lobo come find him.

“I took my time off, and I went to go look for him, and I found him,” Lobo says. “We had a frank and direct conversation.”

“I said, ‘This is not the way.’”

Three service members in the Massachusetts Army National Guard died by suicide while this story was written.

This War Horse investigation was reported by Lara Salahi, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett. Maria Wilson contributed to this report.

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Lara Salahi

Lara Salahi is an award-winning health journalist, author, and associate professor of journalism at Endicott College in Massachusetts. Through the lens of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, her book, Outbreak Culture, critically examines the toxic culture that emerges during outbreaks that can complicate the response to public health crises. Salahi was selected as a 2021-2022 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism fellow to report on suicide and the science of resilience in the National Guard. She is the spouse of a soldier who serves in the Army National Guard.

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