Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 29, 2011

Newsmakers: Vet's death still painful

Iraq veteran suffered from PTSD and took his own life


BELLAIRE — Joe Baker wishes his son asked for help when he returned from his second tour of war duty in Iraq.

Instead, U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph H. Baker II bottled up his emotions and ultimately took his own life.

"I did not know he was having night terrors, having stuff like that until after he was gone. We could have gotten help for him faster," said his father, Bellaire Fire Chief Joe Baker. "In the military, they're taught to go through things like this, that it doesn't matter what you see, you're supposed to soldier on, and not supposed to let this bother you. But if you bottle it up and do your job, eventually it's going to come back."

The younger Baker, 32, displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In addition to terrifying nightmares, the alarms and loud noises he encountered as a volunteer with the Bellaire and South Torch Lake fire departments sometimes made him cringe and duck for cover.

On Jan. 21, he committed suicide. The military held a memorial service for Baker in February, but his father said officials rejected claims that war-related PTSD contributed to his death.

"In a way, I wanted them to admit that it was their problem too, but they said it wasn't," Baker said. "I know what he was like before, and how he came home with these problems. Basically, they walked away from it."

Suicides among service members and veterans increased in recent years as soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army reported a record-high number of suicides in July 2011, with the deaths of 33 active and reserve service members reported as suicides.

Veterans in northern Michigan who struggle upon their return have a new place to turn. The Traverse City Vet Center opened in 2011 to help treat symptoms of PTSD.

"If I had one piece of advice for young veterans, it's to get in as soon as possible," said Mike Hayes, a Traverse City psychologist who has counseled veterans with PTSD. "The sooner the treatment starts, the better off they'll be."

Vietnam veteran Jack Pickard agreed.

"As the years go on, the ones that don't believe they have a problem will be going there. It doesn't take much to trigger it," Pickard said.

The military tries to evaluate returning soldiers to determine those at risk of PTSD. Pickard said there is a greater understanding of how dangerous it can be.

"What the government is doing now is so fantastic; they do enough questioning and counseling before they're back home so that if they actually see signs or red flags, they recommend this person for treatment," Pickard said.

Baker said that wasn't enough for his son; more needs to be done to help returning soldiers.

"It boiled down to them asking him if he was suicidal at the time of his evaluations, and of course he said no. Because he said that, they wouldn't finalize that it was PTSD," Baker said. "You've got to speak up if you're having issues ... . Soldiers, they've got to be tough. But there's a time when you have to back off on that, because they are human, just like us."

His son's death made him more aware of the impact of trauma in his own line of work as the Bellaire Fire Chief. He said firefighters suffer minor forms of PTSD, and now he's more apt to get them help.

It's those same firefighters and friends who helped Baker get through a difficult year.

"It's with the support of my firefighters that I'm doing pretty good," he said. "We're moving on, but it's still painful."