Police incident with AWOL Pennsylvania soldier highlights military suicides
LOWER POTTSGROVE — More than five hours after officers took up defensive positions when they heard a gunshot while doing a wellness check, the ChesMont Emergency Response Team concluded Wednesday’s standoff situation at a home near Pottsgrove High School.
“Suspect is down in the second-floor bedroom,” one SWAT officer radioed.
Thomas Andrew Hripto, 37, reported AWOL from the Pennsylvania National Guard, was dead on his bedroom floor with an apparent gunshot wound.
There were no reports of police returning gunfire after the initial reported gunshot.
The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office has not released Hripto’s cause or manner of death but it appears that Hripto’s gunshot wound was self-inflicted.
Although the circumstances of what may have transpired to lead to Hripto’s death may never be fully known, he stands as the latest reminder that suicide in the military remains an issue the U.S. is struggling to resolve.
“It’s been growing and rising over the past decade or so, increasing since 2004,” said Craig J. Bryan, the associate director of the National Center for Veteran Studies. “Traditionally, the military suicide rate has been lower than the civilian rate. If you were in the military, you were protected, so to speak. We saw the trend start to change.”
In a statement before the House of Representatives’ military personnel subcommittee, Jacqueline Garrick, the director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, said the suicide rate in the military increased from 10.3 per 100,000 service members in 2000 to 18.3 in 2009. While the rate essentially remained level in 2010 and 2011, she said they believed it would jump for 2012 once the numbers were in.
According to a story from the Associated Press , 349 service members killed themselves in 2012, exceeding combat deaths in Afghanistan by more than 50.
Numbers seem to vary, as the Los Angeles Times cited more than 500 military suicides in 2012.
The AP also said the number of deaths increased from 301 in 2011, though it remains to be seen how that affects the rates Garrick cited.
There is no word yet on 2013’s numbers, but the problem is becoming more and more recognized.
The Department of Defense even has a special webpage dealing with the subject.
Hripto served as a specialist in the 28th Infantry Division and had a deployment to Kosovo from 2003 to 2004 as a part of his unit’s NATO peacekeeping mission, according to Staff Sgt. Matt Jones, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Additionally, Hripto was deployed in relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, Jones said.
It was unclear exactly what Hripto’s duties were in either deployment but neither area was considered a combat assignment.
However, it appears that whether a service member is deployed into combat doesn’t matter, according to suicide figures.
According to a Los Angeles Times story by Alan Zarembo , roughly half of suicides in the military actually involve troops not assigned to combat. It’s even possible the slight majority, 52 percent, of military suicides are from those not involved in combat roles.
“The reality and some of the research we’re doing now is finding that a lot of the experiences that military personnel have in these non-combat roles are still extremely emotionally devastating,” Bryan said.
Even in humanitarian missions, Bryan said service members deployed are handling death or “intense human suffering” most would never encounter.
“It’s not what we tend to think of with combat,” Bryan said. “Research shows it causes significant psychological distress…I think that’s probably why we fail to see a relationship between combat exposure and suicide predicated on this false sense that no stress, no trauma, no atrocity, et cetera” is experienced by those in non-combat roles.
Bryan said it’s similar to what police, fire and other emergency personnel experience.
Pottstown resident Todd Boothe was a specialist in the Army who returned from combat in Afghanistan in December 2011.
He said he had a “tough time” when he first got home dealing with the stress from his deployment during which he was involved in a roadside explosion and lost three sergeants in his unit.
With the military putting extra emphasis on “resiliency” training to help troops manage stress, Boothe said he was in classes before and after his deployment.
“We went through more stress classes going to Afghanistan than coming back,” Boothe said.
He said he thought the classes helped a little but the high stress he experienced while being deployed still left its mark.
Bryan said it might be too early to judge exactly how well the resiliency classes are working to curtail military suicide, using the analogy of exercise and heart disease.
“Exercising is very good, but there’s no magic amount that’ll keep you from having heart disease,” he said. “That’s the best way to think about it. Probably yes, they do help, but we can’t know for sure.”
“I can’t help but wonder if we were not doing them would it be worse,” Bryan added.
The biggest thing to consider in sucide prevention is trying to “think like service members,” Bryan said.
“They spend their lives or their careers within the military culture and then they transition back,” Bryan said. “They don’t feel like they fit in and others don’t understand them and understand their experience.”Montgomery County Prothonotary records show that Hripto had two active Municipal Liens on his house on Lynn Drive. The Lower Pottsgrove Township Authority filed the most recent lien on June 25, one day after his alleged drunk-driving charges from Washington County became active.
Neighbors interviewed by The Mercury during the incident on July 10 said Hripto was the only person they saw coming and going from the two-story home, and that he kept to himself.
“Once you live the lifestyle, if you like the military, you really like the lifestyle,” Boothe said. “But you have to come back to reality. Some people can’t do that.”
Upon returning, Boothe admitted having a little trouble adjusting to civilians, including his family.
One of the biggest things that helped him was attending weekly sessions in at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center with other veterans to talk through their experiences.
“We sit around and talk about what happened,” Boothe said. “It took me a while to open up.”
Once he did, he said things got a lot better and he’s attended the sessions regularly.
“Collectiveness and belongingness is a major factor in emotional distress and suicide risk,” Bryan said.
As a culture, Bryan said the U.S. needs to take more responsibility in its military and the issues its service members have, whether they’ve fired machine guns in Fallujah or helped disperse food in Haiti following its devastating earthquake.
According to a 2003 article in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes , Hripto’s divison was, “The most-deployed National Guard division,” at the time.
“It’s very easy and common to say what the military should do,” Bryan said. “It’s better to ask, ‘What are we going to do with this societal mental health problem?’”
Although the numbers look bleak, Bryan said he does see things getting better in the future.
“I do feel confident it will eventually get better,” Bryan said, citing the near completion of the first treatment study involving military service members.
With the completion of that, some treatment options will become available to better treat those who may be having difficulties in the military.
Once the investigation into his death is concluded, Hripto’s name may be added to the list of military suicides.
As awareness grows and better treatments are developed, there is a hope that that trend may reverse.
For help, contact:
– The national Military Crisis Line, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 838255 to get help now.
– The Montgomery County Vet Center, 215-823-5245.
Caroline Sweeney contributed to this article.