Of all the questions raised by Clay Hunt's suicide, perhaps the most perplexing is this: why did a 28-year-old former Marine who was receiving VA health care, taking medications for post-traumatic stress and publicly pushing fellow veterans to get help, give up?
"I think if Clay can lose his battle with PTSD, anyone can," says Jake Wood, Hunt's best friend from the Marines. "He was taking all of the right steps to get help, and he fell through the cracks. The VA system failed him in a very dramatic way."
John Wordin, executive director of Ride 2 Recovery and another of Hunt's friends, says Clay's death "tells us we're not doing enough. It will haunt myself and Clay's mother for a long time."
Hunt grew up riding his bicycle and collecting turtles on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in west Houston. He attended Memorial Drive Methodist Church, where the youth pastor inspired him to volunteer by repairing homes in poor neighborhoods across the South. Hunt played sports and scored well on college-entrance exams, but didn't have the class rank to gain entrance into first choice Texas A&M. After four on-and-off years of community college, he finally earned admission to Texas A&M, but instead decided to join the Marines.
"He said, ‘I want to do something bigger than myself, something that is not just about me,'" says Hunt's mother, Susan Selke. Her son explained it all in a telephone call in the spring of 2005. "It was hard to get that phone call, but it was a good decision for Clay to make at that point in his life. He definitely excelled in the Marines."
Hunt and Wood became friends after being assigned to the same infantry platoon a year later. They were about the same age, had both attended college and had similar interests. "He was a loyal, caring person," Wood says.
The pair deployed to Iraq in January 2007. By early March, they had lost two good friends. Hunt's bunkmate, Blake Howey, was killed by a roadside bomb. Nathan Windsor was mortally wounded when their convoy was attacked. Hunt, pinned down by enemy fire, couldn't help Windsor and couldn't return fire. Windsor died while being airlifted to a hospital.
Those deaths changed Hunt, says his father, Stacy, who received a call from his son soon after Windsor was killed. "For the first time, I could sense a real fear in his voice."
Then a sniper's bullet ripped through Hunt's wrist in March. He was sent back to the United States to recover. "He hated leaving his buddies there," Stacy Hunt says. "He knew what those guys were going through outside of Fallujah."
Selke says that's when the PTS started – "the trauma of being shot and being separated from his group."
A Purple Heart and PTS did not end Hunt's combat days, as the family expected. Instead, he rejoined Wood and became one of the Marine Corps' elite scout-snipers. He got married just before his platoon was sent to Afghanistan in March 2008. Soon after his arrival, two close friends from his former platoon were killed.
"He was starting to get disillusioned with the mission and the war, and it made it really tough for him," Wood says. "We felt pretty impotent sitting back there in Kandahar twiddling our thumbs while our guys are out there getting killed." Hunt's platoon returned to the United States in October 2008, and he left the Marines the following spring.
Re-entering the civilian world was rough. Delays in getting GI Bill benefits forced him to live off his credit cards when he enrolled at Loyola Marymount University.
"It puts stress on every aspect of your life when you have $15,000 in credit-card debt, you aren't making any money, your wife isn't making much money, you're standing in line four hours to get a counseling appointment, struggling with your transition, and you have to beat your head against the wall to get your benefits," Wood says.
Hunt's frustrations mounted. VA lost his disability-claim paperwork, forcing him to revisit doctors and reconstruct his 200-page file. That exacerbated his PTS, anxiety and exhaustion. "Clay told me, ‘I have to grovel for my benefits,'" Selke says.
Hunt also struggled to understand why he had been spared. The vivid memory of being unable to help his mortally wounded friend, lying on the road in front of him in Iraq, tortured him.
"He told me, ‘It's like a bad movie on rewind. It plays, it rewinds, plays, rewinds,'" Selke says. "The medications he took didn't help."
Still, Hunt openly embraced his PTS and survivor's guilt. "He said, ‘I've got a wicked case of PTSD, and I'm going to work on it,'" Selke says. Hunt appeared in public-service announcements for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) encouraging other veterans to get help. He went to Haiti and Chile with Team Rubicon – a volunteer group Wood co-founded – to aid earthquake victims. He volunteered with Ride 2 Recovery, a Los Angeles-based group that builds bicycles and organizes rides for wounded veterans. He appealed for a higher disability rating from VA.
"He was two different guys," Wordin says. "He was Clay Hunt, happy-go-lucky guy, who loved to ride bicycles. And he was Clay Hunt, haunted man, dealing with issues of watching his buddies die in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was quite straightforward about it: ‘John, there are some days I just want to kill myself.'"
Hunt filed for divorce in late spring 2010. Two weeks after returning to college, depression overtook him. He called his mother and told her he was almost unable to function. She talked him into going to VA for help. He briefly lived in Wordin's guest room before deciding to move back to Houston.
Hunt landed a job with a construction company, found an apartment and bought a new truck soon after returning to his hometown. He started dating again. He registered at the Houston VA, and in mid-March, a psychiatrist agreed to switch him back to an antidepressant with fewer side effects. But after a two-hour wait in the pharmacy, Hunt was told that VA didn't stock Lexapro because it was a name-brand drug. The pharmacy told him it would mail the prescription, and sent him on his way without the antidepressant/antianxiety medication he desperately needed, his mother says.
Hunt left the VA more dispirited than ever.
"Antidepressants take time to start to work," Selke says. "He didn't have time to wait for a mailout to reach him.
I don't know why his medication was not considered an urgent need. I guarantee you our members of Congress have better medical care, with a less cumbersome system. It is not fair for our veterans to have anything less than the best medical care our country has to offer."
VA says it cannot comment on Hunt's case. A spokeswoman at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston says its pharmacy began carrying Lexapro within the past year, at the request of psychiatrists. It's not clear if the pharmacy had the medication on hand the day Hunt tried to fill his prescription.
Hunt shot himself in his Houston-area apartment on March 31. Five weeks later, his mother received a letter from VA saying he had won his appeal for a higher disability rating.
"It was like a kick in the gut," Selke says. "He was gone."
Family and friends are left with questions and doubts. Even if there are no clear answers, the suicide leaves them convinced that the nation must do whatever it takes to ensure that the tens of thousands of troops coming home with PTS, depression and other invisible wounds get the help they need, without delay.
"We are trying to have Clay's story punctuate a problem," his father says. "His death tells me there are many more like him who are very frustrated and may do what he did. We've got to find a way to save more lives."